Tuesday 18 June 2019

David Robbins: What have Harold Robbins, Queen Elizabeth and my wife got in common?

My family tree is more like a shrub. Or perhaps like one of those heavily pollarded specimens you see around French town squares, with foreshortened branches and knobbly trunks.

There may well be exotic and colourful branches to the Robbins family tree. For all I know, we could have come over with the Normans, or taken part in the cattle raid of Cooley.

I've just never looked into it. Well, apart from once, when I thought Harold Robbins, king of the 1970s airport novel, might be a cousin or something, but it turned out he was no relation.

I am pretty sure I could pick my wife and daughter out of a police line-up, but I am content to let the preceding generations remain a mystery. I've deliberately kept the family tree small and manageable, like a Bonsai.

Tracing the family history is what men do when they retire, surely? It gets them out from under their wives' feet and gives them something to talk about at bridge.

This reluctance to delve too deeply into the past doesn't stop me having a prurient interest in other people's origins. There was no more avid viewer of Who Do You Think You Are? (Irish, UK and US versions) than myself.

I teared up with Eddie Hobbs at a famine grave in Cork, gasped with Gwyneth Paltrow as she discovered her Rabbinical origins, and grieved with JK Rowling over a family headstone in Alsace.

Then I began to notice something. Each participant latched on to the part of their family history that somehow validated them.

Gwynnie's family had endured prolonged hardship, but it was the fact that one of her forebears was a Rabbi that enthused her. "I've always had a searching soul," she said.

Likewise, JK Rowling took great heart from the fact that her grandmother was a single mother like herself. Perhaps there is comfort in knowing you're not the first, that others in your family have trod the same path before you.

My wife's family are keen genealogists. Connections and history and one's place in the long march of time are important to them.

One of her relatives has just completed a very thorough and impressive family history. Apparently, they go all the way back to the Norse sagas, and are only six degrees of separation from Queen Elizabeth, never mind Kevin Bacon.

Such stories are fascinating, yet I can't help seeing this emphasis on family history as somehow limiting. Everyone is seen as part of a great genetic continuum, somehow robbed of the freedom of individual action.

In such families, if a member is good at something, or embarks on something daring and unusual, this is ascribed not to individual initiative or ability, but is seen merely as the expression of family genes.

"Is he going to be this generation's Uncle David/Arthur/Robert?" is a question one hears at family occasions at the in-laws. Why can't he just be himself, I want to ask.

Likewise, if a family member does something no relative has done before (they're not great at sports, for instance), this is seen as a doomed enterprise because there's no family history of it.

Sometimes, I think of my wife's lot as being like a family in a Jane Austen novel, caught in a web of connections and associations which spread not just outwards, but also backwards in time.

Perhaps one day soon, I will be bitten by the family-history bug. When you're young, you are naturally inclined to move forward through life, eyes ahead.

But once past the midway point, perhaps you tend to look over your shoulder a bit, to wonder where you fit in, to want to stake your place in the family history.

Perhaps I will investigate those tantalising family legends of a family seat in Co Louth with its own ballroom.

Or find out more about my paternal grandfather, who was apparently the agent for Libbys fruit in the 1930s. Was he really a nut case?

Yet the odds are against my writing the Robbins family history, simply because we have no family history of it.

drobbins@independent.ie

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