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YOUR ROOTS ARE SHOWING

26-09-2006

It's been one of the biggest and most unlikely TV hits of recent years - the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?- where celebs get to the roots of their family tree. For Lynn Hawthorne its success is about more than justwatching famous folk break down in tears.

Like millions of other people, I've been absorbed by the BBC series' Who Do You Think You Are? in which celebrities trace their family trees. Genealogy has achieved almost cult status in recent years, with even heavies such as The Independent getting in on the act by giving away CD ROMs and books on the subject.Almost every regional college hosts short courses to teach you how to conduct research into your ancestors. So what exactly is the driving force behind all this frantic academic activity?

For most people, it appears to be a desire to establish a sense of identity in a world that is becoming ever-more anonymous as we all become reduced to numbers and statistics and the concept of the homogenous ‘global village' spreads. The growing secularisation and multi-faith nature of society means that we can no longer rely on religion as a way of categorising the population: one nation, one faithdoesn't hold anymore. And with the increasing numbers of people living and working in a country where they weren't born, either by choice or by economic necessity, and the rise in mixed race partnerships, nationality as a term is harder to apply by the day.

At one time, the town, city or region in which you lived was distinct from another, either by accent or dialect, by building style or by economic activity. Today, immigrants have changed the linguistic landscape - one secondary schoolrecently reported that it is home to 72 different languages.Meanwhile, the short-sightedness of town planners and the lack of imagination of architects has turned every high street into a clone of another and every out-of-town development has turned a green field into a Lego-style sprawl. Throw inthe social mobility of the workforce due to the decline in agriculture and industry, where there is no such thing as a ‘job for life' anymore to help define who you are, along with oureagerness to ‘move up' the property ladder and we have lostthe once easily apparent stamp of identity.

Yet the human race is inherently tribal, so we seek our collective sense of belonging in other avenues: by the cars we drive (see the rise in owners' clubs), the labels we wear or the TV programmes we watch, which are discussed avidly in Internet chat rooms across the globe. Even the most tribal of activities, the football match, is no longer rooted in the home locale - witness the kids wearing Manchester United or Brazil tops in Birmingham or Wolverhampton - and, through the wonders of modern technology, we can now watch games in any part of the world.

So the keenness to discover our own individual past should come as no surprise, really, in the face of rapid change. I once had an American penfriend who was typical in her desire to have a history which stretched back further than 200 years. According to her, included in her family tree were such illustrious figures as Captain John Smith, the husband of Pocahontas, and Robert the Bruce of Scotland, no less. And I've always been suspicious of hypnotic regression, where everyone seems to end up as Elizabeth I or an Egyptian pharaoh. However, for me, the charm of Who Do You Think You Are? has been the discovery of people we've never heard of or are likely to study in history lessons. In short, ‘ordinary' people.

I admit there is a certain voyeuristic streak in such programmes, because the discoveries of the celebrities can have no possible connection with you, but it has been hard not to be moved by the experiences of, say, Bill Oddie, Moira Stewart and Jeremy Paxman. To see a hard-nosed journalist so proud of his Yorkshire birth dissolve into tears at the realisation of the grinding poverty of his ancestors compared with the relative affluence and security of his own children had a tangible emotional impact on the viewing public because of, firstly, the previous reputation of Paxman, but mainly, I suspect, because it could be the story of any one of us who cannot lay claim to illustrious ancestors.

The people who worked on the land, in the cotton mills, in the factories, down the mines, on the docks or in transport are the people who created the wealth and prosperity of this country, even if they never experienced it themselves. They are the people whose skills and ingenuity gave Britain the nickname ‘the workshop of the world.' They are the people whose work ethic led to the pay and conditions we have enjoyed in this country until very recently, who gave us unions and trade associations and a desire for democracy for the working classes. They are the nameless and faceless of the past now slowly coming to light and claiming our attention and respect, which is richly deserved and long overdue.

The past is rarely comfortable, as the aforementioned celebrities found out, and sometimes there are elements of our family's past that are difficult to reconcile, such as the ‘spectre of sectarianism' in Northern Ireland (Radio Times) discovered by Dr. Who actor David Tennant in this week's programme. But such stories are worth the journey because they helped to shape us into the people and society we are now and an understanding of the past helps to contextualise and us to comprehend the present.

Recent subject Robert Lindsay intrigued me. On his inception into RADA, he was ‘encouraged' to lose his Ilkeston accent and now finds it difficult to drop back into, although he claimed he ‘shouldn't have been so quick' to dismiss his origins, as he acknowledged his ancestors. Also, on discovering the truth of the participation of both of his grandfather's in World War One, he was impressed by the courage and the resolve shown by everyday working-class men in exceptional circumstances beyond their previous experience and led him to conclude that “there is no such thing as an ordinary family.”

Perhaps this is what drives people in their thousands to swamp the libraries, archives and registry offices in search of their forebears: the past isn't a foreign country after all, but the story of our country and we want to know how it goes.

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