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French connection

"What I'm very struck by is how many single mothers I'm descended from," said Harry Potter author JK Rowling, probably the world's most famous single mother, in Who Do You Think You Are?

Rowling felt a link with her French great-great-grandmother Salome, whose first child, a boy called Louis, was born out of wedlock to a German father.

After the Franco-Prussian War, when Salome's hometown, Alsace, became a part of Germany, Salome opted not to hold onto her French identity, which would have meant becoming a second-class citizen in her own land. This fact seemed to mildly trouble Rowling, who's proud of her French connection and a fluent French-speaker, although Salome redeemed herself in her eyes by later slipping away to Paris, where she met and married a Frenchman called Volant and had several more children.

It was Salome's first-born (Rowling's great-grandfather) who provided this excellent episode with its intriguing main story. Family legend has it that Louis Volant, a wine waiter, was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest accolade and one Rowling herself has received.

Nobody knew what Louis won the award for, or what had become of it. A visit to the archives revealed the crushing truth: it was a different Louis Volant who'd been given the Legion d'Honneur.

But there was a pleasant surprise in store. Rowling's Louis had won something even better: the Croix de Guerre, awarded for bravery during the First World War. Louis was 37 and too old for the regular army, so he instead signed up to the 16th Regiment of the Territorial Army, which was never intended to fight.

However, the 16th found itself defending a village against the Germans. When the officers were killed, Louis assumed command, saving the lives of his comrades and killing several German soldiers into the bargain. The normally tightly-wrapped Rowling surrendered to tears when the archivist presented her with a replacement Croix de Guerre, Louis' having been lost at some point.

Sadly, Louis was also lost. Twenty years after his burial in 1949, with no relatives around to maintain his grave, French law dictated that his body be exhumed and re-interred in a communal plot marked with a flat and anonymous grey stone.

Pendle Hill in Lancashire is a kind of Lourdes of witchcraft, with local shops selling tacky souvenirs linked to the area's turbulent past. The documentary The Pendle Witch Child resisted hokeyness to tell the story of nine-year-old Jennet Device, who, in the 17th century, denounced 10 people, including her mother, as witches.

Device was herself later denounced by another kid, Edmund Robinson. Her life was spared when magistrates, who'd grown more enlightened about such matters, were sceptical about the claims. Robinson later admitted making the whole thing up.

There was a timely chime about Simon Armitage's film, which arrived just as Britain emerges from a very modern bout of mass hysteria. The demons might have been banished but mob madness prevails.

I owe an apology to The Tenements. I wrote last week that it was a three-part series. I was wrong; there's one more to come next week, which is stretching an already over-extended idea. Last night's instalment was better than last week's, touching nimbly on the history of "Monto", Europe's most notorious red light district, and how the rest of the world came to associate Dublin with public drunkenness.

But, once again, the Winston family's weekend stay in a Northside tenement kept getting in the way of the history. The scene where the Winston men went foraging for wooden pallets for the fire didn't succeed, as presenter Bryan Murray stated, in giving "a keen sense of how tough life was". It merely looked crass.



WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? HHHHI THE PENDLE WITCH CHILD HHHII THE TENEMENTS HHIII


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