Tell me, who are you?

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There’s a television program on SBS called Who Do You Think You Are?

The episodes currently being shown date back to 2004, but the show is obviously popular because an Australian version will appear on our screens early next year.

The premise of Who Do You Think You Are? is that if you find out something about your ancestry you’ll learn something about yourself.

Last Sunday’s episode featured comedian Bill Oddie and his attempts to obtain such family facts as why his mother was put in a mental asylum.

While the show was sad and interesting, in the end we really just discovered what Oddie wanted to believe about his mum, his seemingly domineering grandmother and his sister and grandfather’s deaths.

Whether Oddie’s own bout of depression was linked to his mum’s mental health issues was never established because nobody could say for sure why she was institutionalised.

Alas, many women languished in asylums in days gone by for a whole range of reasons, including not conforming to dominant ideas of femininity.

A lot of folks find constructing a family tree a worthwhile pastime, but I wonder whether people think the basis of the show is valid.

In the advertisement for next week’s instalment, flirty cook Nigella Lawson says something to the effect that she believes we make her own lives, which conflicts with the Oddie effort in which issues of class and paternal encouragement in the face of expectations due to class were raised.

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Posted in television
32 comments on “Tell me, who are you?
  1. David Rubie says:

    A lot of folks find constructing a family tree a worthwhile pastime, but I wonder whether people think the basis of the show is valid.

    People construct family trees for all sorts of reasons: curiosity and vanity being common ones. There’d be little point in doing it for my family as I suspect most of them were illegitimate and ill-recorded judging by family photos of scruffy looking buggers collected around bark huts. It’d neatly fit on an A4 page.

    I watched the episode with Stephen Fry in which he gets very upset about the ultimate fate of Jewish relatives during the 2nd world war and found it interesting when the abstract concept of their fate become more concrete as he found echos of their presence still extant in the world.

    As long as they don’t use Nigella’s usual camera man (can he not keep the camera still for more than 3 seconds at a time? Why does it bob/weave/zoom about all the damn time?) and they keep away from filming her eat in that cod-pr0n fantasy way, it might also be interesting.

  2. DrJon says:

    I want to know who the Art Designer thinks they are, blatantly swiping their logo from 6 Feet Under

  3. David says:

    It’s all very well for Ms Lawson to believe we make our own lives. It’s probably true when you’ve grown up in a high tory (and doubtless extremely wealthy) environment. Oh, and I know this is a bit catty, but I’ve believed for years that the camera bobs around so much to obscure her expanding hips …

  4. Paul Burns says:

    Tracing family history can be quite interesting. I haven’t done it because I’m too slack. Almost every family, apparently, if you get back far enough drags up some family secret people have wantes ro keep hidden. But I don’t think too many of the secrets are too bad. I already know what two of my family secrets are, I think, but I haven’t gone nosing about the relevant archives to prove it.
    Think I’d rather rememberr my family as they were,

  5. Pavlov's Cat says:

    I’ve not had a chance to watch this program yet, but a friend who has seen every episode says its most interesting feature is the way it shows how people are at the mercy (or more usually the lack of mercy) of the forces of history. Certainly this has been my own motivation in researching my family tree — in which I’ve found two First Fleeters, one a convict whose Old Bailey trial transcript is online, and I’m much more interested in how a working-class woman in 18thC London might get arrested, tried and transported for theft than in whether or not I’m anything like her.

  6. Paul Burns says:

    Pc,
    Probably not working class, though if I knew who she was I could tell you more. More likely one of the London poor. Though probably only a minor criminal – with very few exceptions the really bad convicts didn’t start coming till the Second and Third Fleets.
    She may have been selected for the First Fleet because she was relatively healthy and because of her potential breeding capacity. It would appear the authorities may have been more choosy about First Fleet convicts, than they were about later convicts.
    If you want to get a good idea about attiudes to women First Fleeters, read Ralph Clark’s Journals, if you haven’t already done so. Best to read them from a class rather than a gender perspective, because Clark is not really that much of a mysogynist as he first appears, but, is rather expressing the feelings of his middling ranks to the lower orders.
    Re criminal background, you could try The London Hanged, by Linebaugh, J.J. Beattie’s Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800 (out of print but in uni libraries)as both deal in some detail with women and London crime, from memory. Re the convict women themselves, though its more from experiences here,probably Kay Daniels Convict Women is the best, also Dixon’s Real Matilda (which I’m sure you’ve read) and possibly Joy Damousi’s Depraved and Disorderly (though, from memory its mostly to do with VDL so may not be what you’re looking for.
    Hope you don’t mind all this.

  7. Darlene says:

    Interesting about Stephen Fry. To make something concrete is important. Reminds us that the people involved were real and not just statistics.

    “People construct family trees for all sorts of reasons: curiosity and vanity being common ones. There’d be little point in doing it for my family as I suspect most of them were illegitimate and ill-recorded judging by family photos of scruffy looking buggers collected around bark huts. It’d neatly fit on an A4 page.”

    Scruffy looking buggers, hey? I can’t do my fammily tree beyond my grandparents on one side and great grandparents on the other. No paperwork. My great grandma died in a mental asylum in regional Victoria and I’d have no way I was proving I was her ancestor due to some informal changing of names for whatever reason.

    Dr Jon, you’re right. It does look like that. No sure Six Feet Under started, however.

    Ouch, David. Exactly what I was thinking when I saw the advertisement. Try growing up on a council estate being told you’re good for nothing and see how far you get (of course, we all can get somewhere but circumstances can make things much harder).

    Good point, Paul. Yes, all families have secrets. It’s strange to think of the ones that seemed so important sometimes. I know of someone who blacked out “illegitimate” on her birth certificate. Of course, nobody is illegitimate, but it still mattered to her.

  8. Darlene says:

    “…and I’m much more interested in how a working-class woman in 18thC London might get arrested, tried and transported for theft than in whether or not I’m anything like her.”

    Oh yes, absolutely. And interested in how they coped with their lot. It seems a tad narcissistic or lunatic (depending on your family) to want to see yourself reflected in your ancestors.

  9. Bismarck says:

    My mother used to make light-hearted jibes at my father for having a Second Fleeter in his family tree, until a relative discovered that one of her forebears did not qualify for transportation (parricide with an axe, having become impatient for his inheritance) and went, so the Times reported, unrepentantly to the gallows. She still points out that at least he was a doctor …

  10. Russell says:

    “The premise of Who Do You Think You Are? is that if you find out something about your ancestry you’ll learn something about yourself”

    I don’t think you learn much about your individual psychological self (physical things might be useful though – I’m on the lookout for glaucoma and diabetes), but you do learn that you are part of history, which is not so easy to appreciate in the abstract, if you’re not academic and your family is dispersed. People in my family love looking at my patiently constructed family tree, to see where they fit in.

    They also learn some history – young people have no idea that you could be completely “cut off” from your family because you married a Catholic and converted for example. Or about soldier-settlement schemes, the Depression, wars – it’s much more interesting when you show them photos, letters and pass on the stories – it connects them to the past.

  11. mbahnisch says:

    They also learn some history – young people have no idea that you could be completely “cut off” from your family because you married a Catholic and converted for example

    Not that long ago, either. I know people who have parents who had that happen to them in the 60s.

  12. Darlene says:

    Yes, Bismarck, at least he was a doctor….

    Good point, Russell. First-hand accounts of depression and war and isolation from families due to marital choices etc are often more interesting than dry histories. My maternal grandpop was part of the 1956 (?) shearers’ strike. It would have been great to find out more about it from his experience, but he wasn’t one for that.

    It’s a good thing about the show is that it places peoples’ lives in an historic context. Whether they choose to learn from that is another question.

  13. philiptravers says:

    My mothers Father and I watched Brian Henderson as muso and the Twilight Zone,beat that ,as trivia.He also lived on the same road as the Woodend statue of Christ,was a carpenter and had ten kids.And somewhere along the road of history we watched and collected tolls and had horse in hand, further back somewhere my genes found me at Stonehenge out of deep Europe.Not always on the same side of my parents parents.I am also a bloody lizard and I am on Ickes side.So dont poke out your tongue at me.

  14. Darlene says:

    Thanks Phillip. Interesting stuff. No tongue poking on LP. We are way to, errr, civilised.

  15. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    I remember Brian doing a Brylcreem ad.

  16. Nabakov says:

    What about if you were raised by wolves? Will Animal Planet be releasing a similar product?

  17. Graham Bell says:

    Darlene:
    Why the interest?

    Curiosity? Yes, of course. Vanity? Definitely not; no way. Inspiration from the successes and failures of one’s ancestors? For sure. A sense of one’s own personal identity, whatever that may be? Probably. Hope of getting a huge inheritance? You bet!! [but bought a $2 lotto ticket just in case that one doesn’t pay off 😀 ].

    Pavlov’s Cat [5]:
    Definitely worth watching.

    Mark [11]:
    Too right! Funny thing though, among my maternal ancestors, Catholics and Lutherans freely intermarried …. though I recently found out that the “haven of peace” in their province during the Thirty Years War didn’t come from the religious tolerance among local people there – as mentioned in family oral tradition – but from the presence of a bloody great foreign army of occupation thoroughout much of the period – no wonder it was so peaceful! History and heritage really did part company on that particular point. 🙂

  18. Darlene says:

    That’s not a nice way to talk about your parents, Nabakov. Boom tish. I suspect a few bloggers were raised by wolves, but no naming names. ; )

    A huge inheritance would be good, Graham…alas, it’s usually unlikely (bloody poor relatives). Curiosity is a good enough reason. I guess sometimes it’s also good to make peace with the past and everything.

  19. John Greenfield says:

    I think our public schools should make all “indigenous” children draw a family tree, so they can be spared the absolute hooey thrown at them by Luvvies about how special they are because “they are our first people.” Nothing like finding out 85% of your DNA originated in Birmingham or County Cork to bring you down to earth. 😉

  20. Paul Burns says:

    JG,
    Your point re Aborigines is very debatable. Some Aboriginal writers like Bruce Pascoe would agree with the proposition of the influence of racial intermarriage that they ascribe European Australian height and thinness to intermarriage.
    Other Aboriginal spokespeople I’ve heard would place emphasis on the greater importance of Abotiginality. Most Kooris are not unaware of the European/Chinese/Indian etc contribution to their genetic make-up.
    Or are you just trying to be provocative?

  21. Darlene says:

    John, that’s 50 million times now that you’ve said luvvie. The romanticisation, like the demonisation of any group, is never a good thing.

    I hope you read my response to your comments on the “Nancy” post.

  22. John Greenfield says:

    Darlene

    Yes I did. Thanx for reminding me. Lots and lots to discuss. I’ll get right on it! 🙂

  23. Darlene says:

    “John, that’s 50 million times now that you’ve said luvvie. The romanticisation, like the demonisation of any group, is never a good thing.”

    That should have read:

    The romanticisation, like the demonisation, of any group is never a good thing.

    And Paul, JG is trying to be provocative. He always is.

  24. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Paul Burns at #6: ‘She may have been selected for the First Fleet because she was relatively healthy and because of her potential breeding capacity.’ Damn straight — she had a baby with a sailor on the voyage out, and another eight or so in wedded bliss with my seven-greats granpa. Thanks, Paul — I’ve read most but not all of those. Used to work with Joy D, but haven’t read that book.

    Graham Bell at #17: ‘Inspiration from the successes and failures of one’s ancestors? For sure.’ Yep, absolutely. Now that I know about about my lot on both sides (humble but tough as old boots, it seems), I remind myself whenever there’s a crisis that I have their blood in my veins, and it really does help.

    There’s a lovely episode in Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy where a successful Canadian businessman and politician decides he wants his ancestry investigated with a view to a family crest, and gets very annoyed and affronted when all that can be discovered, ancestor-wise, is an English village girl with an illegitimate baby who migrates to Canada with the bub tucked under her arm and makes a life for herself there. ‘He wanted blood,’ says the amateur genealogist who’s done the research, ruefully, ‘and all I could find was guts.’

  25. Paul Burns says:

    Coal miners, priests, brothers, nuns, railway workerts, nightwatchmen, soldiers, politicians,
    including (I think) one who helped bring down Jack Lang from the Upper House,opera singers, classical musicians, circus people, (apparently), maybe explorers, but I doubt it, and Victorian prison reformers, but I doubt that, too, as one of my family informants, who shall remain nameless, was an unbridled fantasist.

  26. Paul Burns says:

    25. Victorian era.

  27. Bismarck says:

    Can I just say, PC, how delightful it is to find other fans of Robertson Davies?

  28. Graham Bell says:

    Pavlov’s Cat [24]:
    Had to chuckle over that reference to a family crest. They were the olden-days equivalent of a car number-plate or a cattle-brand or a firm’s letterhead logo, that’s all – at least in much of continental Europe. Of course, some families churned out heaps of kings and dukes and cardinals so their arms became pretty well known but all the rest were simply for identification and distinction. For example, you don’t want to find out after a battle that half the “enemy” you donged on the head were your mates from down the river Oops. Or, another example: you don’t want that thieving mongrel in the next parish to go knocking off your gear so you have your family arms carved into it. Heraldry can be fun but some people are amused and mystified at the way it is worshipped in the English-speaking world.

    Definitely liked your comment about a bloke looking for “blood” among his ancestors [always a bit dodgy in the days before DNA testing anyway] and finding only guts. 🙂

  29. Nabakov says:

    “Can I just say, PC, how delightful it is to find other fans of Robertson Davies?”

    Hear! hear!

    In the Salterton, Deptford and Cornish Trilogies, Davies has some very interesting things to say about Anglo-Centric provincial societies struggling to find a sense of identity that should certainly ring bells in Australia too. Also he’s more in touch with the animus of his creations, far more worldly and much funnier than Patrick White ever was.

  30. Russell says:

    The mention of family crests reminds me of my favourite “Enquiries” page on a website – the College of Arms:

    “Those who believe that the services of the College of Arms may be of use to them …… It is recommended that you read this website thoroughly before making any enquiry, as we receive many enquiries that could have been answered by reference to information available here. Enquiries that display a complete failure to have read the website may not receive a reply. In particular, please note that coats of arms do not belong to surnames (see the relevant FAQ on this website). There is therefore little point in submitting an enquiry that consists of no more than your name and a request to be told your coat of arms.

    There is also no point in asking us about clan membership, clan badges and the like….

  31. Graham Bell says:

    Russell [30]:
    L-O-L. Can’t help but wonder at how many truck-loads of inane questions caused exasperated staff at the College Of Arms to post that notice. 🙂 .

    Darlene:
    Like thousands of other families, both sides of mine had stories passed down from one generation to another.

    However, a fortnight ago, by coincidence, a friend [of many years] and I were chatting about inconsequential matters in our upbringing and our family backgrounds.

    To my surprise, she said that her mother had not wanted to be bothered talking about the family background – there was absolutely nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of in her family background, that much has been found out since – but in refusing to talk about it, she had broken a link with the past and in so doing, deprived her children, her grand-children and her great-grand-children of a part of their own personal heritage. Sad, isn’t it?

  32. Darlene says:

    I guess that is her mother’s choice, Graham. Reticence is a common trait in some older folk.

    I have half brothers and sisters I don’t even know the name of and to be honest I don’t really care one way or the other so I am probably not the person to ask.

    Different people respond in different ways to family history. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Perhaps some people just want to disconnect from their families and other people want to learn more.

    Yes, depends on the people.

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