Genealogy: WDYTYA Gary Lineker

23 Aug

There’s a lot of things I’d like to talk about, but running endless blogs and websites is proving a little more complex than perhaps I would like, and so is very tempting to bring more of them together into one place. If I start posting reviews here, will folk get tired and wander off? Or will you indulge the eclectic nature of my ramblings and stick with it? For the record, I’m going to keep my horror-related material to my other spaces. But can I get away with adding genealogy to my list of subjects here?

For the last few years I’ve been steeped in genealogical research. I’d spent the best part of a decade doing historical research and archival work for institutions and on individuals and reached the point where I felt it was about time I turned the tables on my own family. Since then it has been a constant ticking over in the background, and alongside my own family trees, there are work-related trees, and research on behalf of friends. I’m constantly learning, which considering there are always new records to discover is no surprise.

I came to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are late. I don’t think I watched any of the first couple of seasons, and then dipped in and out. But I’m playing catch up now, and every time there’s a story that brings the research to Northern Ireland I get even more excited – there is always the possibility of a connection (and in the case of the Graham Norton episode, I discovered a cross-over in trees which I’ve had a further look into… more on that another day).

Last night’s episode focussed on former footballer Gary Lineker, a likeable enough chap, who I recall watching a child when he played for Tottenham Hotspur, a team I was partial to during my brief flirtation with football (the other team I ‘supported’ being Liverpool, seeing as you asked).

As with each and every show there were good and bad points, and from the researcher’s point of view, scenes I found all too identifiable.

I did find the opening sequences with Gary showing us around his big empty house rather uneccessary, the quip about the prison guard being after his crisps rather too knowing for the BBC (Lineker has been the face of Walkers crisps in the UK since 1995) and the sequences in the BBC itself perhaps a little too inward.

That said, it was a delight to see him perusing the census records on his laptop and struggling with the technology, and struggling to decipher the text on screen – something which most of us using online records and microfilm will appreciate only too well, and made for a lovely juxtaposition to his uncovering of his ancestor’s calligraphic skill.

But there were other things that rang true. Watching Gary struggle with the rolls of prison records was terrifying, but then I recalled my own archival visits and usage, and it isn’t that unusual to be presented with a fragile collection of documents bound up in string or lethal rusting pins, which insist on rolling up or folding back in on themselves when you are trying to read through. Respecting the original order of the documents can be very difficult, and I dread every time I look at a will – the accompanying legal documents are always a problem.

All too often in the show though, there is an absence of archival protective materials – gloves, protective sleeves, lead snakes etc. The archivist in me is conflicted – I’ve had to use them in repositories, and other places, particularly private archives, they’re absent and I fret about my own impact on the original materials. I can only assume that someone spoke to Gary about dragging his finger along the lines of text, which would be a no-no. Heck, I even saw him lick his fingers in the scenes where he was reading the prison documents. Aside from the risk of catching something from 100+ year old documents, it isn’t going to do the documents any good either, and is an awful example to set.

Being presented with the family tree at the start of the episode seems to have rankled more than a few viewers, but if all we’re interested in is the names and dates then I’m not sure that we’ve really got a proper appreciation of the tree. Genealogy and family trees are about more than basic facts, they’re about exploring the lives of the individuals, the times and communities in which they lived and a sense of identity.

Concentrating on two seemingly arbitrary individuals proved interesting. We all have individuals in our trees for whom we seem to be able to find out more about and who will consequently receive a sort of preferential treatment. What was great here was the pushing of the boundaries of expectation, and looking outside the box. Its easy to focus simply on the census records, and straight birth, death and marriage certs. How much more interesting to look into their occupations, places of employment, and schooling. Its amazing just what fragments may still be available in institutional repositories and private collections. Even then there can be clues to parentage, movements etc.

Gary’s light-hearted mockery of his 3x great-grandfather James Pratt and his run-ins with the law over stealing chickens and the like was at times uncomfortable. I did wonder whether Lineker’s own wealth had shielded him from the poor status of his ancestors and the associated struggles (again making sense of that indulgent opening), but in time he seemed to genuinely reach an understanding of the difficulties faced.

The struggle was juxtaposed with the tale of his 4x great-grandfather Thomas Billington, who also came from humble stock, but through a patron was given a leg up, attended a private school and was trained in the skill of legal writing – a mystical calligraphy. Ultimately, as direct ancestors, both stories had an element of positivity – they survived their ordeals and Gary was the result.

A stark contrast to the tangential history of Lesley Sharp last week who ended up looking into the lives of one of the children her ancestor had adopted, rather than her direct blood line.

Next week is The Apprentice’s Nick Hewer, and another Irish line. Fab.

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