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This is an article I was asked to write by Susan Heim in May last year. This year’s  first resolution is to write all articles within 7 months of being asked!

 

Come the beginning of a New Year, we often assess our lives and make a commitment. We promise ourselves we’ll quit smoking, get a new job, give up chocolate, take up sword swallowing, learn Russian, or spend more time with the family.

 

sword swallowing

Some people will do anything to get out of spending more time with the family

 

This year several people have told me that they intend to spend more time with their family, but not necessarily in the sense that they intend to head home from the office half an hour earlier or attend their son’s soccer practice. They were talking about family history.

People embarking on a genealogical investigation are usually struck with two emotions. Firstly, there’s the heady excitement of undertaking a voyage of discovery into who we are, where we come from. There’s the thrill of the unknown: maybe there’s royalty in the family; perhaps an ancestor discovered a cure to a tropical disease, wrote a world-famous opera, or murdered his entire village and ran away to Papua New Guinea where he was mistaken by a local tribe for a hearty lunch. You never know… until you find out…

To read the rest of this article on Susan Heim’s blog, please click here

 

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Grand, the leading grandparent magazine in North America, asked me to write a short piece for their Memories of my Grandparents column.

Princess Margaret after a fall

I could have written about my grandmother telling a policeman who had stopped her for driving thirty miles an hour over the speed limit, to check her tyres, or my grandfather knocking over Princess Margaret.

Instead, I wrote about how my grandmother reacted to the news that her father had sired a secret family, now numbering over three hundred, in a small village in western Mexico. To read the article, click HERE

Robin’s grandmother

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I have always the Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines; I love the sound they make as they go whooshing by!” I can’t truthfully claim to be quite so cavalier about them, although admittedly, this article was due a couple of hours ago. But when I was working on The Mango Orchard, I had a very good reason to write as quickly as possible: one of the main characters in the book was very keen to see it finished, and she was ninety eight years old when I began…

To read on, please click here to go to the literary blog Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dave for which I have contributed this article

Robin and his grandmother discuss deadlines

Robin-writing-The-Mango-Orchard in Spain

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I’m at Broadcasting House, the new home of the BBC World Service, for an appearance on Outlook. I am, I will admit, a little nervous. This is not just a national broadcast, it’s the Whole World. And it’s live.

With ten minutes before we’re on-air, I am taken through to the studio by a producer called Jane, to meet Jo Fidgen, the presenter. She is charming, has a remarkably soothing voice, and eyes almost as blue as her hair. We talk briefly about how she plans to tackle the complex story of The Mango Orchard in the seven and a half minutes allotted.

I am escorted to the sound booth, where there are four producers, each at their station, like naval officers at the bridge of a ship. There is an air of ordered panic. There are three minutes until we go live “We’ve lost twenty seconds” calls one, “Twenty seconds of dead air. I think it’s in Nigeria.” Phone calls are made.

There are two women in the corner with electronic stop watches and clip boards. “We’ve shaved seven seconds of the first piece,” says one. One of the producers turns to me and says, “That’s good, seven more seconds for us.”

We’re in to the news and then the programme begins. The first item on the programme is a pre-recorded interview with three Irish women. Jane turns to me and says, “This is a bit depressing”. It is an understatement. The women discuss, in the most explicit detail imaginable, how, behind the façade of a respectable Dublin existence, their father groomed, abused and raped them. For years. There is absolute silence in the control booth, broken by one of the producers: “I feel physically sick”. She then turns to me and says, “We’re looking to you for some light relief!”

“I know some great jokes about the Pope?” I offer. As one, the four producers and the two women with stop watches turn round with panic on their faces.

Perhaps not.

The main producer turns round to me when it has two more minutes to run and says with a cheery smile, “You’re on!”

I feel like a Vaudeville act, asked to follow a performer who had got up on stage and read an autopsy report.

I had deliberately not looked up World Service audience figures. It’s obviously a lot, but when you are talking on live radio about a book you have taken five years to write, and don’t want to screw up, you really don’t want to know numbers. As we go to the studio, Jane says casually, “There’ll be about 40 million people listening.”

Yikes.

I am trying to imagine what forty million people looks like. If they all linked arms, could they reach the moon? How impressive would the tsunami be if they all jumped up and down at the same time? If they all called the same pizza take away restaurant, how long would it be until everyone had their meal?

Jo is looking at me. It’s time to answer the question. That I didn’t hear. I guess what it was and talk for a while. She asks me some more questions and I try to answer them as concisely as I can and before I know it, our seven minutes thirty-seven seconds of talking to 40 million people comes to an end.

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It’s early on a bright but cold Sunday morning, and I’m making my way to the BBC radio studios in the centre of London to be interviewed “down-the-line” by the legendary Radio Sheffield presenter, Rony Robinson about The Mango Orchard, and genealogy.

Outside the studio building are an anorak-wearing couple waiting for Steve Wright, who is on-air when I walk in to reception. I am shown to an empty studio, which in reality is little more than a padded cell with recording equipment. I put on some headphones and wait to be “dialled in”.

 

I hear some pops and crackles in my headphones, then they burst into life with the Sister Sledge song “We are Family”. Sly and the Family Stone then sing “A Family Affair”. .. all very cleverly linked in to the theme of the programme.

Rony has this lovely favourite uncle chuckle that makes you want to talk. I talk. After my interview, there’s a piece by his producer, Rav Sanghera, whose Indian great grandfather also had a secret family in Latin America, in Panama.

 

Rony starts to wonder if he’s the only person who doesn’t have a secret Latin American family. Then a woman phones in. She doesn’t have any family in the Americas. What, asks Rony, is her extraordinary genealogical discovery? It’s that she’s related to the former glamour model, Sam Fox.

If Rony is disappointed, he hides it very well. Amazingly, without it sounding in the least bit sleazy, he manages to get the caller to reveal that she, and her twin daughters, have all got similarly generously proportioned chests, and we go back to talking about lost families in Latin America.

 

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My great grandfather just before leaving Mexico

I wonder if anything will happen this weekend to cause people to look back in a hundred years’ time.

Exactly one hundred years ago, it was also a cold Easter weekend. I know this as when I was researching The Mango Orchard, I spent weeks in archives looking into my great grandfather’s escape from the Mexican Revolution.

At the end of March 1912, following a tip-off from a local bandit, my forebear left Mexico in a hurry. Counter-revolutionary forces were encircling the town; his life was in danger. He had to pack and leave the country which had been his home for 13 years, in an afternoon. He kissed his Mexican family goodbye on March 26th, and fled to San Blas, where he boarded a ship bound for San Francisco. He would never see his Mexican family again.

Mississippi Flood 1912

He probably thought he’d had his share of trauma, but a storm was blowing across the US. He stayed in New Orleans en route to New York, where, after days of heavy rains, the levees broke. The city was flooded by “the greatest volume of water in the history of the Mississippi”. My great grandfather himself was nearly swept to his death. The New York Times reported that one man only escaped the rising waters by cutting a hole in the roof of his hotel room with a can opener.

In the same edition of the newspaper, very likely one that my great grandfather read, were the ads for steamers sailing for Liverpool. If the floodwaters subsided, he was aiming to be in New York to catch the Cunard ship, the Caronia, on April 10th. If they didn’t, there was another ship he was considering. It was scheduled to sail on April 20th at 12 noon: the Titanic.

New York Times Shipping ads April 1912

More in a few days…

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I arrive at Broadcasting House to appear on Robert Elms’ BBC London programme twenty minutes early; I didn’t want to turn up late and breathless and pant into the microphone.
I sign in at the security desk, sit and flick through the BBC staff magazine, Ariel. BBC reception areas seem to have been designed to give the impression that no licence fee money what so ever has been wasted on such frippery as comfortable chairs.
A young man with spiky hair and a heavy leather jacket appears at the security gates to take me up to the studio. He is about to speak when a man in a pork pie hat charges through the sliding doors. He is panting, red in the face, and cursing the inefficiencies of the Victoria Line. “I’ve just run all the way from Oxford f*cking Circus,” he says, and kneels in front of the water cooler and drinks several cups. I notice his hand is trembling. I decide against pointing out that the tube station is only about 100 yards away, or the fact that I had managed my own tube journey without a hitch.
Still breathing heavily, the man in the pork pie hat accompanies us to the studio floor. As soon as the lift doors open, he barges out and runs straight into the studio. I sit in the waiting area, and listen on the wall-mounted speakers to his continuing complaints about the short comings of the underground system, this time without the cuss words.
I had been told that I would be on-air just after 11, for about half an hour, but it’s 11.20 before I am called into the studio. I am introduced to Robert Elms and he tells me about his travels in Mexico as I am placed in front of a microphone on the other side of a padded desk from him.
The theme for the programme today is genealogy, and I am here to talk about The Mango Orchard as an example of a genealogical search which culminates in a remarkable discovery. I’ve been interviewed enough now to be able to tell the story about how I travelled in the footsteps of my great grandfather and discovered the Mexican village in which he had left over three hundred descendants, in several different ways. Today, Robert is getting the family history-themed, half hour version.
I am mystified  when, only two minutes into my interview, Robert starts signalling for to me to make my answers shorter and snappier. What is he thinking? We’ve got thirty minutes to fill! The interview is almost over before I realise that, perhaps because of the late arrival of the man in the pork pie hat, I only have ten minutes. Or I had ten minutes. Suddenly it’s over and I am out in the street again.

            I walk to Oxford Circus station and get stuck on the Victoria Line

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