Category: culture

Granny’s story

Family tree research – doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? In fact it sounds depressingly like something old people with time on their hands do. Which is true of me, perhaps, though I like to think of myself as older …

Anyway, I embarked on some of this a few weeks ago. I’d put it it off for about 40 years as I thought I’d better things to. Maybe I was wrong.

My initial motivation was curiosity about the obvious black sheep character in my family – one of my grandfathers – who allegedly was “a useless drunk” (my father’s words) and had been thrown out of his own family home in Glasgow by his own sons when they became old enough. I soon learned that he died of TB in a hospital in 1939 – not living with his family and presumably alone. A dramatic and tragic tale made more intriguing by the rumour that he’d also been wounded at Gallipolli – did this explain his later decline, I wondered? Would the story of his eviction and rejection help explain my own dad’s distant and difficult relationship with me?

Well, one of the things I quickly realised in my research was that you don’t find the answers to questions like that – though you can, perhaps, get some facts assembled that allow you to make better guesses. But what you do learn is that there are all sorts of questions that you’d never even thought of asking.

Take my Granny, for instance. Writing this, I automatically typed her name with a capital letter because as a child I was taught to think of her as a fearsome, upright, revered and long-suffering Scots woman who you did not cross. My Mum was certainly intimidated by her, but maybe that’s what most women feel about their mother’s-in-law?

However, I slowly uncovered an unexpected Granny tale: I’d started out with a vision of a heroic picture of a woman who dealt determinedly with the failings of her husband and then laboured stoically with the burden of bringing up 6 children alone. But the truth is messier than that – isn’t it always?

Family mythology always placed my father as the eldest of her children, followed by his first sister (who in later years became the embodiment of primness and correctness). Bombshell No 1 was my discovery that the sister was born before my dad – and just a few months before Granny’s marriage – a shotgun wedding, no less.

So, next question – how come Granny – a young woman (18 at the time) – ended up pregnant by this possibly unsavory character and, come to think of it, how come none of her own brothers and sisters (all older than her) came to the rescue when she was dealing with 6 children unaided?

Time to look a generation further back in more detail, I decided. I started to delve deeper  – and also to spend money on subscribing to pay-per-view records. There was even an element of gambling thrill to this – every time you pay some of the credits you’ve bought, you have to hope or guess that that the record you’re about to see is about someone you’re looking for and not some other person with the same name. You win some, you lose some.

Gripped by mild gambling fever (it’s nice when you do win), I scrutinised my great-grand-parents records and soon realised that Granny’s parents were not the simple straightforward pairing I’d first thought. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century he had emigrated from Ireland to Scotland and, much more unexpectedly, he’d already married twice when he finally married Granny’s mum. So that made all Granny’s brothers and sisters probably just half-siblings.

Granny’s mum was no less intriguing. She too had married previously – to a bizarrely-named sailor and probably had a child by him.

So Granny’s marital role models were pretty ropey. That might be part of an explanation – so much for the stability and respectability of old-time family life.

But to the next question that arose: after Granny’s parents died (both gone by the time she was 12), where did she disappear to? Her 2 older (half?) brothers had by then married and started families of their own but the remaining 3 were living together as orphans – but without her, strangely. Was she farmed out to another relative? Shipped back to Ireland temporarily? Sent to live with other people by her rejecting half-siblings? A homeless waif and stray in the tenements of Glasgow? I simply don’t know (well, not yet, anyway – another thing I’ve learned is that family history research is never finished!)

So, the time Granny next surfaces in the record books, she’s got pregnant and married. Did she stay with her husband long? How and when did the marriage collapse? Again, records don’t really tell you that – but he was at least getting back into her bed 16 years after the marriage ’cause that’s when the last of her children were born.

So what have I learned? That the skeletons you find aren’t necessarily the ones you were looking for. That the past is something we change and shape using our own perspectives and value judgements. That the more answers you seek, the more questions you raise.

And, surprisingly, that researching your family tree can actually be compulsively interesting. Must stop writing know as I want to take a look at my great-great grandfather’s siblings …


WOMEX 2013

You’ve been to WOMAD, right. You know all about the £140 it costs, the effort involved in hauling all your gear into the campsite, the tiredness you feel after being on your feet for 15 hours each day, the rush to get from the Radio 3 stage to the Siam tent before the next band starts, standing in the rain at the main stage.

But it’s always worth it, somehow, ’cause you come away besotted by some act you’d never heard of before you went – Darkhabrahka anyone? Or Dub Collossus? Or Anda Union? ‘Nuff said.

But wait a minute. There is an easier way to get to those kind of pay-offs. WOMEX is not so much WOMAD-lite as WOMAD-concentrated.

I won a pair of tickets in a competition to go to the 3 nights in Cardiff last week  (born lucky, that’s me) and went along not knowing quite what to expect. What I found was shorter sets admittedly (45 mins) but that was more than made up for by merely having to turn 90 degrees to get from one stage to another (OK, sometimes I had to walk 50 yards). And I could get to the bar. And the loo. And have a coffee. And stay dry. And sit down if I wanted. In soft seats. And sleep in a proper bed.

This may sound like World Music for softies, but believe me it felt just as good as the real thing – with the added bonus of  not needing a holiday at the end of it and having rubbed shoulders with endless music biz insiders and successfully pretended to be one of them.

Oh, and this year’s WOMEX sensations? Fanfara Tirana meets Transglobal Underground from Albania were great fun. Lau were really nice (though invisible ’cause they sat down!). Filastine & Nova were fascinatingly multi-media and had something to say. And my jaw is still aching from when it hit the floor 4 bars into the set from Korea’s Jambinai. Watch out for them all next year.

So, I’ll still go through the pain of going to WOMAD next summer, confident that it’ll still be worth it. But maybe I’ll give WOMEX a try next autumn? It’s in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. It’s not as nice as Cardiff, admittedly – what could be? – but I’m already plotting a trip. And entering more competitions!

To Senghenydd – with my little pick and shovel

It was a mixture of things that prompted me to drive over to Senghenydd the other day – a desire to discover more about an utterly shameful episode in our local history, a chance to share a rare moment from the past, a way to express a lingering solidarity with the lost political cause of the miners …

But there was one other thing that prompted me – a bizarre feeling of connection, especially strange given that, even though I was brought up in north Cardiff  and used Caerphilly mountain as a sort of backyard playground as a child, I’d never actually set foot in the place.

Connection? Well, there’s the unique song we Cardiff City fans sing for starters – “with my little pick and shovel I’ll be there ” – a historic symbol of the fact that the roots of CCFC lie in the heyday of the South Wales coalfield.

More to the point, there’s the fact that (as was said in the oration at the ceremony) “men and boys coursed their life’s blood to carve the coal seamed Klondikes into new communities, vibrant of spirit and searching of soul, they set up, from wage contributions, the cornerstones of society in their clubs, institutes, halls, libraries, hospitals and chapels.” The very fabric of South Wales society and culture – the fabric of which CCFC is a vital part – was created out of the boom years of the coal industry.

But there was one more thing that drew me. Somehow, in an impertinent way, I felt that the memorial event mirrored what’s been happening to my club recently. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to suggest that the needless sacrifice of 440 men and boys in any way is equivalent to the fortunes of a football team. But somehow there are parallels: ordinary working people being treated as with contempt by those with more wealth and power than them; those same ordinary people rediscovering a belief in their own worth, their own past, their own future; an attempt by ordinary people to set the record straight and build for the future by learning from the past.

As I reflect on it now, although superficially it seems trite, it nevertheless seems true – both Senghenydd and CCFC’s recent past are about the same things: history, pride and identity.

I respectfully attended the ceremony, learned a little more about the terrible events of 100 years ago, found the ceremony moving in parts, was impressed by how close-knit a community Senghenydd seemed to be, even now, sang along to a lusty rendition of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (impressively, nobody bar the choir joined in the English one! ) and then drove home again.


The final paradox of the day dawned on me later. As I trawled the net looking for crumbs of information about whether Malky, our manager, had been sacked or what had gone on during the day’s 5-hour board meeting (gradually discovering that we were again being told absolutely nothing), I felt a strange growing sense of solidarity with the ordinary people of Senghenydd.  During the day they had waited patiently and with dignity outside the railings of the memorial park, watching those inside the enclosure – the dignitaries, politicians, priests, the wealthy and powerful – dominate the event and then linger before going off to free refreshments in the VIP marquee. Only then were the gates opened for ordinary members of the public to get inside, lay their flowers and pay their respects. Some things, it seems, never change, but the memorial remains as a testament to the success of a local community in rediscovering their history and taking pride in their identity.

Now that’s something –especially in these dark days of the club’s history – that all CCFC fans could take heart from.