Family History

Some years ago I worked in a County Record Office ‘“ not music, but archives – and a large percentage of the people who came in to do research were looking up their ancestors. I was not really too interested at the time as these records only related to that particular county and my ancestors hadn’™t lived there. It was a fascinating job, I liked helping people to find out information and I liked meeting people from different parts of the world, mainly America, Australia and Canada who had ancestors in that county. I thought that when I had the time I’™d like to look up my ancestors too.

My sister has spent several years looking at different records and has gone back to the early 1700s for some of the family. There’™s still a lot to do and so I’™ve started to find my way around family history records. So far I haven’™t actually left the house yet as there is so much available on line. It’™s extremely time-consuming and absorbing, not to mention complicated and frustrating.

You can go back to 1837 in civil records of births, marriages and deaths on-line, but I find myself going round in circles, with page after page of name indexes. It is satisfying when you find the right person and then order their birth certificate (or whatever) on line and it arrives in the post a few days later. For information before 1837 you can look at parish registers, which record when people were baptised, married and buried ‘“ I think I’™ll have to travel all over the UK to see these, although the IGI (International Genealogical Index) is a good place to start. This contains millions of entries of names, taken from parish registers and other sources. I can look at this locally in the Local History Study Centre where they also have microfiche of the annual printed indexes to the National Probate Index 1858 ‘“ 1943. I’™d love to find an old will as these provide the deceased’s name, occupation, address, date and place of death, the names of executors and the value of the estate. Now that would be interesting, but how likely is it that my ancestors left anything like that?

I particularly like the Census Returns, which list people where they were living on a particular day every ten years. These are available from 1841 up to 1901. You can look at these on line too. After a while your eyes begin to feel as though they’™re to big for their sockets, you get a headache, hunched shoulders and a round back from sitting and staring at the computer. But at least this lists everyone living at an address at that date, gives their age and occupation, relationship to other people at that address and the place they were born.

I like to pad out the information as much as possible. So far, I don’™t think any of my ancestors have left diaries ‘“ that would really be a bonus. I can’™t find it, but I remember seeing a photo of my Taid (grandfather) wearing a ‘slouch’ hat in a group of other young men, dressed in khaki. He told me it was taken when he was in South Africa. This week this set me off on the trail of the Boer War records and I found that there were three people with his surname and initial listed in the Roll of Honour as recipients of the Transport Medal in 1900. One was the second mate on the ‘Hawarden Castle’, a ship transporting troops to South Africa in 1900 and as he was 20 in 1900 I can’t think this was him. The others were officers in the Royal Hussars and that couldn’t have been him either. I can’t think where to look for more information.

There may be a lull in my book posts while I’™m delving into the past. One book that may help is Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford and there are realms of websites to keep me busy, before I even leave home to see if I can visit the places my ancestors lived.

There are so many resources to investigate, too many for this post, for example I love looking at old maps and finding out what the area was like when they lived there.

Books Read in 2008

Clicking on the highlighted titles takes you to my posts on the books

  1. The Photograph, Penelope Lively
  2. The Man in the Picture, Susan Hill
  3. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
  4. The Owl Service, Alan Garner ‘“ a re-read
  5. The Christmas Train, David Baldacci
  6. The Magician’™s Assistant, Ann Patchett
  7. Winter in Madrid, C J Sansom
  8. Mr Blossom’™s Shop, Barbara Euphan Todd
  9. The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster
  10. The Moon and Sixpence, W Somerset Maugham
  11. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  12. The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson
  13. Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, Jeremy Mercer
  14. The Illusionist, Jennifer Johnston
  15. Hearts and Minds, Rosy Thornton
  16. A God Divided, Christopher Catherwood
  17. The Death of the Moth & Other Essays, Virginia Woolf also see here
  18. Two Caravans, Marina Lewycka
  19. Daniel Isn’™t Talking, Marti Leimbach
  20. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimananda Adichie
  21. Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders, Gyles Brandreth
  22. Consequences, Penelope Lively
  23. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  24. Revelation, C J Sansom
  25. Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel
  26. Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen
  27. Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster
  28. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
  29. The Death of Dalziel, Reginald Hill
  30. A Good Hanging and other stories, Ian Rankin
  31. The Maytrees, Annie Dillard
  32. The Chrysalids, John Wyndham

Let’™s Review’¦ Booking Through Thursday

This week’™s question is suggested by Puss Reboots:
How much do reviews (good and bad) affect your choice of reading? If you see a bad review of a book you wanted to read, do you still read it? If you see a good review of a book you’™re sure you won’™t like, do you change your mind and give the book a try?

I like reading reviews, sometimes more than the books they’re reviewing. I don’t like reviews that tell you everything about the plot, but I do like to know a little bit about the story and the characters. I like to think that I make up my own mind about a book and often don’t read a review if I’ve already decided to read a book until after I’ve read it. I realise that this does mean that I am affected by bad reviews and I do get disappointed if a reviewer criticises a book I have enjoyed.

I’ve rambled about enough without really answering the question. Yes, I will still read a book I wanted to read even if it has had a bad review, after all everyone has different likes and dislikes. If I see a good review of a book I’m sure I won’t like I still wouldn’t read it. If I haven’t decided whether to read it or not, but think I may not like it I would have a look at it in a bookshop or library based on the good review and then decide.

A Journey Across America

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci (Pan Books 2002, 260p)

I’™ve been reading The Christmas Train and got engrossed in the route taken by Tom Langdon as he travelled by train from Washington DC across America to Los Angeles. I’™ve had to look at Google Maps and Google Earth, Wikipedia and other internet sites in my quest to learn more about the places the train journey passed through. Knowing next to nothing about the geography of the USA I’™ve found this a fascinating exercise.

I wouldn’™t have read this book at all if Sam at The Life and Times of Me hadn’™t mentioned it in her comment on my post on Christmas Books. I saw the book in my local library and I nearly didn’™t pick it up, as the cover of the book didn’™t attract me at all. However, the cover does not reflect the story. It’™s not about a toy train in one of those snow shaker globes ‘“ the ones with a picture and liquid inside that you shake to start the snow particles falling. It is about a real train and real snow at Christmas time. Basically it’™s a love story, Tom, a world-weary journalist is travelling from Washington DC to spend Christmas with his girlfriend who lives in Los Angeles. It’™s also a detective story as there is a thief on the train and I didn’™t work out the thief’™s identity at all, so that was a surprise. Added to that are the stories of the staff and other passengers, including Eleanor, the long-lost love of Tom’™s life, and her employer, Max a movie director ‘“ what is the real reason they are travelling by train, after all Max has his own private jet?

The book is easy to read but what really interested me were the journey and some references that are really extra to the plot. First the references ‘“ Mark Twain and The Cumberland Gap. Tom has decided to use the time on the train to write a story about the journey, inspired by the fact that Sam Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain had married one of his ancestors. There was a legend that Twain had never published the story of his transcontinental railroad trip taken at Christmas time during the latter part of his life and Tom’™s father had asked him to finish the story Twain had never published. Tom refers to Twain’™s Innocents Abroad, an account of a five-month journey on a steam ship to Europe and the Holy Land, as ‘œone of the funniest, most irreverent travel books ever written.’ I’™d like to read that book. I’™ve already got Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn lined up to read this year, so now I’™m looking out for Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi and The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg as well.

The Cumberland Gap I knew of before reading this book is the song by Lonnie Donegan from the late 1950s and I’™d never realised that it referred to a gap in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, a natural breach in the mountains on the route to the Plains and the Pacific; an ancient path widened by Daniel Boone to take wagons into the western frontiers. Reading the book I had the words of the song going through my head over and over again ‘“ I suppose that’™s not the effect that David Baldacci would have expected from his readers, but I enjoyed it.

Photo of Cumberland Gap licensed under the Creative Commons License

I think David Baldacci must like Mark Twain, Hitchcock films maybe (North by Northwest starring Cary Grant gets a mention), and above all I think he must like trains. He obviously has researched the passenger train service, Amtrak ‘“ the Capitol Line from Washington D C to Chicago and then the Southwest Chief on to Los Angeles. I got to know a bit about the places the trains either stopped at or went by – Rockville, Maryland where F Scott Fitzgerald is buried, Harper’™s Ferry West where John Brown made his raid on the federal army before the Civil War started ‘“ another song going through my head ‘“ ‘œJohn Brown’™s body lies a’™mouldering in the grave ‘¦‘, Cumberland Gap, over the Mississippi ‘“ another song in my head, this time Paul Robeson’™s ‘œOl Man River‘; Kansas City and Dodge City – thinking of outlaws, Gunsmoke and High Noon. On the train goes through the Raton Pass, Apache Canyon (more western films pop into my head), Las Vegas in New Mexico, La Junta and Pike’™s Peak in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Albuquerque (visions of the Rio Grande) and Gallup before reaching Los Angeles. The climax comes as the train is halted in its tracks with no way back to Chicago or forward to Los Angeles and they need a miracle to survive.

I enjoyed this book on several levels. I liked the story; it’™s an entertaining easy read with a few surprises along the way. I liked the characters, the snapshot insights into the lives of a variety of people and the passing scenery of the numerous places on the journey. David Baldacci has written numerous books, so there are plenty more of his for me to read and I’™ll be looking out for them.

NB see more Christmas titles here – Suggest a Christmas Title.

Food and Drink Meme ‘“ Comfort Food

This meme came from Geranium Cat at Cat Musings and as I’™ve been thinking it was about time that I wrote about food and cooking here are my answers.

What did you eat/drink today?

For breakfast I had what I usually have ‘“ apple juice and then porridge with the addition of dried apricots, dates, cranberries, walnuts and yoghurt and just a dash of milk. When I was a child we had to make it in a pan on top of the cooker; it took ages to cook and you had to keep stirring ‘“ I used to like it with golden syrup just swirled on the top. These days I cook it in the microwave and it takes 2 ½ minutes. For lunch I had homemade leek and potato soup and homemade bread, with a glass of water. For dinner tonight we’™ll have ‘œWok-It Chicken’ ‘“ left over chicken, with stirred fried vegetables and egg noodles.

Also this afternoon in a throw-back to the 1970s we’™re going to have a slice of black forest gateau with a cup of tea.

What do you never eat/drink?

I eat most food, but not things that my dad used to like, such as tripe, pigs trotters, brains and rollmop herrings. Mum used to cook these for him regularly but I would never eat any of it. I don’™t like tinned tuna, fresh is nice, but tinned is just like cardboard. I’™m not too keen on red meat, although I do like roast beef and I will eat beef casserole. These days I eat very little lamb and hardly any pork. I never drink whisky, I can’t stand the stuff.

Favourite failsafe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don’t

Spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne, steak and mushroom pie or fish pie.

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find

Milk, yoghurt which I make in a yoghurt maker about twice a week, fruit juice, eggs, cheese, carrots, peppers, and broccoli. There are usually some cans of lager (not for me!) and sometimes a bottle of white wine (yes, for me).

What is your favourite kitchen item?

Like Geranium Cat I like my hand-held blender, which is indispensable for making soup. It’™s great for pureeing food, whisking up batter for Yorkshire puddings and whipping cream etc, so much easier than a food processor and easier to wash as well.

Where would you recommend eating out – either on home turf or elsewhere?

I think one of the best meals I’™ve eaten was in The Fleur De Lys restaurant at the Savoy Hotel in Funchal, Madeira, but it’™s a bit far to go!

The world ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?

That’™s like asking what book, apart from the Bible and Sakespeare, would I take on a desert island ‘“ there are so many to choose from and food is nearly as bad (I mean good!). I love all kinds of pasta, penne in particular, so maybe it would be penne with chicken and arrabiatta sauce, or grilled trout, new potatoes with broccoli, followed by creme brulée, or anything made with chocolate.

Time for tea and gateau now.

The Squeamish Obsessions of Edgar Allan Poe


I read some of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination last year and , although I found the Tales themselves a bit disappointing, I became interested in his life. So I listened to BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme this afternoon when Peter Ackroyd discussed how Poe’s strange obsessions and troubled relationships with women affected his life, and outlined the mystery of his death. Ackroyd’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe is due out on 7 February this year and it’s going on my wishlist.

The programme gave me more insight into Poe’s work and made me think I’ll go back to the Tales. Ackroyd talked about Poe’s life and character. Apparently he was a difficult person to understand or to like and was accused of being a hypocrite and a liar. He lived a life of penury and misery and his obsessions were reflected in the themes of his Tales – death, illness, premature burial, decay, and a sense of doom. He earned very little from his writing, either as a critic, or as a poet despite the success of his poem The Raven.

Louise Welsh, Kim Newman and Diane Roberts were also taking part in the programme. Apart from being the first Amercian writer of gothic horror, Poe is also credited with inventing the literary detective through Dupin, and the beginnings of science fiction, in Words with a Mummy which recounts how an Egyptian mummy is electrified (through its nose!), opening its eyes, blinking, etc and eventually speaking, in Egyptian of course! I must read that one. Poe’s work is both dark, ironic and claustrophobic, conveying as it does the fear of constriction in confined and dark places. I remember vividly my horror of waking in the pitch blackness of a two-man tent way out in the countryside, far from street lighting and my panic as I tried to get out.

Poe’s work has a cultural afterlife – through films of his stories and in music. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Poe’s work as was Stephen King and other authors such as William Faulkener, in such books as The Sound and the Fury. Modern authors have tried to solve the riddle of his death but as Peter Ackroyd said it is still a mystery and it was “an unhappy, unfortunate death to end an unhappy unfortunate life.” Last year I read The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl and I think Ackroyd’s biography should be an interesting and more factual account.

Louise, Kim and Diane recommended the following stories for someone who has never read any of Poe’s tales: Ligeia, William Wilson and The Fall of the House of Usher. Ligeia is unknown to me and I’ll try to start my reading of Poe again with that one. Louise Walsh said that it was about the dangerousness of learning.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

This is an extraordinary book. Now I’ve finished reading The Owl Service it’s made me want to go back to Wales. I’ll begin this post with a photo taken from Wikimedia of Yr Wydffa (Snowdon) showing the beauty of Wales.

I read about the book on the Slaves of Galconda blog and remembered how much I had enjoyed Alan Garner’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, about the wizard watching over the 140 enchanted knights sleeping in the caves at Alderley Edge (another beautiful place in Cheshire). The Slaves‘ reviews made me eager to read The Owl Service and luckily the next time I visited the library there was a copy on the shelves in the children’s section.

The Owl Service is not just a children’s book – it’s for anyone who likes a good story with a mixture of mystery, adventure and history. The setting is very important – it is in Wales, that beautiful Land of My Fathers (well, in my case my mother). It’s always a mysterious, magical place, and although the sun does shine it is usually shrouded in cloud and pouring rain whenever I visit. The basis of the story is the Welsh legend from The Mabinogion about Lleu and his wife Blodeuwedd who was made for him out of flowers. It’s a tragic story because Blodeuwedd and her lover Gronw murdered Lleu, who was then brought back to life by magic. Lleu then killed Gronw by throwing a spear, which went right through the stone behind which Gronw was hiding; Blodeuwedd was then turned into an owl.

As I’d read about the book on the Slaves blog I knew the story, but this was enhanced by the Postscript in which Alan Garner tells how he came to write it. In his words The Owl Service is ‘a kind of ghost story’ and the legend is ‘not just a magical tale, but a tragedy of three people who destroy each other through no fault of their own but just because they were forced together.’

The three people forced together, unable to get away from each other are Alison, her stepbrother Roger and Gwyn. They are all living in Wales in Alison’s house, which she inherited from her father, together with Clive, Roger’s father, Margaret, Alison’s mother and Nancy, Gwyn’s mother. Another important character is Huw Halfbacon, who lives in one of the stable rooms at the house. You are plunged into the mystery right at the beginning of the book, when Alison hears something scratching in the ceiling above her bedroom. When they find a dinner service in the loft this sets in motion a chain of events as the legend comes to life.

Alison appears to be enchanted by the pattern of flowers on the plates. She traces it and makes it into paper owls, which then disappear and so does the pattern on the plates. These events enrage Nancy and confuse everybody else, except Huw. Huw appears at first as the local half-wit, the butt of Roger who calls him all sorts of names, reflecting the antagonism between the Welsh and the English. But Huw is far from being stupid. He is the person who helps Gwyn to understand what is going on and prevents him from leaving the valley. Roger, obsessed by his discovery of the hole in the stone by the river, repeatedly takes photos of the view of the ridge above framed by the hole. He is also jealous of Alison’s friendship with Gwyn, who he reviles as ‘ intelligent: but he is not one of us and never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it.’

Then a life-size painting of a beautiful woman is discovered or rather makes its presence known in the billiard room, once the old dairy. Who painted it, who painted the design on the dinner service, why were they hidden and why have they been revived? As the tension builds around the three central characters the tragic story of Blodeuwedd is being re-enacted. Will it have the same tragic ending?

Within the story Alan Garner has also addressed various issues, such as class, racial and social distinctions, education and family relationships. The English owning houses in Wales are seen as interlopers by the Welsh. (I remember the time years ago when houses owned by English people using them as weekend cottages, were burnt in protest.) Huw says:

‘Oh their name is on the books of the law, but I own the ground, the mountain, the valley: I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries: the dark cave is mine!’

Nancy too has her prejudices and wants Gwyn to speak in English: ‘You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.’ Gwyn has bought an elocution course to help with his pronunciation and when Roger finds out he mocks him. I didn’t like Roger much and Alison irritated me a bit with her docile acceptance of her mother’s ban on her contact with Gwyn. We never actually meet her mother, but I didn’t take to her either – she sounds such a snob.

Although much of the story and tension is revealed through the conversations between the characters Alan Garner’s descriptions of the countryside make me feel as though I was there:

‘Roger splashed through the shallows to the bank, A slab of rock stood out of the ground close by him, and he sprawled backwards into the foam of meadowsweet that grew thickly round its base. He gathered the stems in his arms and pulled the milky heads down over his face to shield him from the sun.’

Through the flowers he could see a jet trail moving across the sky, but the only sounds were the river and a farmer calling sheep somewhere up the valley.

The mountains were gentle in the heat. The ridge above the house, crowned with a grove of fir trees, looked black against the summer light. He breathed the cool sweet air of the flowers. He felt the sun drag deep in his limbs.’

However, the weather changes as the tension and panic build up. The heat intensifies:

‘There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white towards the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountains made his heart shake.’

Then the weather changes over night and the valley is ‘sealed by cloud.’ Gwyn in trying to get away goes up into the mountains and this description expresses to me Wales at its bleakest, and its most beautiful:

‘He saw mountains wherever he looked: nothing but mountains away and away and away, their tops hidden sometimes, but mountains with mountains behind them in desolation for ever. There was nowhere in the world to go.’

At the climax of the story the storm breaks, the rain falls ‘in solid rods of water.’ When it rains in Wales – it rains! ‘The mountains showed him rain a mile wide and a thousand feet high.’