My mother was born with only one hand. Her brother died of pneumonia when he was, I think, around 16 and she was around 11. She had no other brothers and sisters.
When he was in his early teens, my father ran away from home to join the Navy. But he was too young and they rejected him.
Eventually, he joined the Royal Navy when he was 16 in 1936, just in time for the Spanish Civil War in which British forces were not involved – although his ship dropped men off the Spanish coast late at night for reasons he was never told.
In the 1950s, he got tuberculosis and had to go into a sanatorium for a while.
My mother’s father, was a joiner and carpenter. He lived with us after he had a stroke.
My father’s father, was a ship’s captain. He died when my father was aged about three, so I never knew him.
Beyond my parents and grandparents, though, I’m not really interested in who my ancestors were. They’re in the past.
As far as I know, I am not in any way related to either Sir Alexander Fleming or Ian Fleming – therefore I am not due any money from penicillin or the James Bond books – and so I don’t much care what happened to unknown members of my family in the past.
About 20 years ago, some Canadian members of my Fleming family – whose existence we knew nothing about – tracked down my father and his sister in England. These Canadian Fleming’s were creating a family tree which they later sent to us. There was a surprising number of men in the family – about 3 or 4 – who died as a result of falling into the holds of ships – presumably while very drunk.
Arguably, other people have more interesting members of their families.
Last night, I went to see Charmian Hughes perform a rough run-through to an audience of six in her kitchen of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Raj Rage, about her trip to India to find out what happened to one of her female forbears caught up in the Indian Mutiny.
It’s a cracker of a story and I would not want to give away the twists and turns, but Charmian has more than one bizarre forbear in her family.
On the wall of the stairs at her home is a portrait of a distinguished-looking, uniformed man.
“That’s my grandfather,” Charmian told me. “My father’s father. He was Irish and was Postmaster General of India for about a week. He was supposed to be from Dublin, but you can’t find him anywhere if you try to look up records of his past. I think he re-invented himself. I don’t know why.
“And this oval portrait,” she said, “is either my mother’s great grandfather or her grandfather. My mother told me he was at medical school and, because he wanted to marry a woman his parents didn’t approve of, they refused to finish paying his fees so, my mother told me, he became what she called That other thing when you don’t qualify as a doctor.
“I asked my mother: What do you mean? A nurse?
“Don’t be stupid! she told me. “Men aren’t nurses!
“A physiotherapist? I asked.
“No, no, my mother told me. You know… When girls don’t want to have their babies.
“He was a back-street abortionist when abortion was illegal. Women paid him with their jewellery. He lived in Cricklewood. They all lived in Cricklewood. The ten brothers and sisters all lived in neighbouring streets. I think he was the one who drank himself to death and, as a result, my grandparents didn’t have a drop of drink in the house.”
Charmian also pointed out to me an ornate carved hat stand in her hallway.
“My mother’s father,” she explained, “was a mercenary who went to Russia during the Civil War between the White and Red Russians after the Bolshevik Revolution and he came back with… well… with stuff. I think he was on the White side. Then he lived in Hertfordshire and he was a travelling salesman for a building materials company.”
And it is a very nice hat stand.
But I still have no interest in my own family background.