Daily Archives: July 17, 2007

Who do you think you are?

One of the rudest questions, and one of the most civilised BBC programmes.

Since it started in the autumn of 2004, BBC2 has made barely two dozen of these programmes, with another eight promised for this autumn. For the totally ignorant, a celebrity is invited to research her or his family history. Many of these encounters turn out to be profoundly emotional experiences.

A grateful nation was transfixed in January 2006 when Jeremy Paxman, old hard-boiled Paxo himself, was confronted by the hardships of his ancestors. These included the “directed labour” that the Poor Law Commissioners imposed on the Paxmans of Framlingham, Suffolk, transporting them to Bradford, to work in the woollen mills. And Malcolm now refuses to explore the topic, Engels and Anti-Dühring, despite the temptation.

This evening, long overdue, Malcolm caught up with the Stephen Fry episode on one of the minor cable channels. On one side of the family, there had been workhouse and childhood TB: on the other, roots in Slovakia which led inexorably to Auschwitz.

There is always the risk that such “entertainments” can become exploitative and trite tragic-comedy. Malcolm found this Danubian exploration as cathartic as any tragedy. He knows of families who, similarly, have little knowledge or documentation of the fates of their close relatives.

The bitter-sweet truth is that anyone of us will have other, perhaps lesser but still real and emotive stories in our family history. Malcolm’s therefore celebrates the lost ancestors.

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