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Archive for the ‘Genealogy’ Category

 

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 became a vegetarian the day I began my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather around Latin America. My grandmother had told me wonderful stories about her father’s adventures in the Americas; wild jungle journey’s, gun fights, hidden treasure in a mango orchard and a daring escape from the Mexican Revolution with the help of bandits. She had never said anything about the near impossibility of avoiding starvation if you are a vegetarian. Mind you, as you’ll see, there were a lot of things she didn’t tell me…

To read the rest of this article on YTravelBlog, click HERE

The only non-meat option when my great grandfather was in Mexico was a hard stare

A food stall in Cartagena, Colombia, serving fried meat and plantain. The stall’s name is ‘He who criticises, sufers’

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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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Yesterday, I experienced a minor miracle. It didn’t involve any would-be saints, Andy Murray winning a tennis match, or even David Blaine. It concerned a letter sent from Mexico.
The person who sent it didn’t have my address, so she sent it to someone who might. They didn’t have it either but sent it to somewhere I had lived, and the person now living there, redirected the letter to my present home. Some three weeks after the envelope left Mexico, I managed to snatch it away from the dog before it was chewed to bits (another minor miracle) and opened it.
It was a lovely letter, from a lady called Nina, who, having read The Mango Orchard, journeyed over 800 kilometres from her home in Mexico City to have her photo taken in front of the Bellavista factory, a place which plays an important role in the book.
Nina’s father, like my great grandfather, had set out from England for Mexico to work in the cotton industry, but unlike my ancestor, he stayed.
Nina with Juan Cañas, curator of the museum
I have received many very kind e-mails and letters from people who have read The Mango Orchard, and wanted to share the memories that the book provoked. As far as I know, Nina is the first person to travel so far to have her picture taken. I am very touched, thank you.

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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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