|"Most disquieting reflection of all, was it not bad form to think about good form?...It was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form."—James M. Barrie|
I’ve got English and Irish in me, and they hate each other.
Actually it’s English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh—the whole catastrophe.
But it doesn’t stop there. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Counting thirty years per generation, as genealogists do, three hundred years ago you have one thousand great-times-nine grandparents. Six hundred years ago, you have a million. Nine hundred years ago, you have one billion direct mothers and fathers.
Now, nine hundred years ago there were only two million people in the British Isles, which means everybody there had to be my straight-line parent—let me do the math, here—five hundred times over.
And as genealogists tell us, the only thing we know for sure about our ancestors is that they slept around. What pours down through that bottleneck that kept mine so busy?
Going back to the beginning, there seems to have been an aboriginal people on those islands before the arrival of the invaders from Siberia, a short people Tolkien immortalizes as Hobbits, and that’s as scientific as we’re likely to get about them. Whatever happened to them?
The land of my father’s people was occupied by the Picts, about whom much has been written but nothing is known, except that rather than conquer them the Romans simply built a wall across the thinnest part of the island to keep them out.
The various waves of Celts that swept in seem to have left them intact until the Irish, who, when Ireland was called “Scotland,” invaded Pictish territory and took over the Highlands. But that was later.
I gave my first novel to an old Belgian painter, and when he finished it he said, “You’re a Celt!”, though my name might have tipped him off.
The first traders to come to the remote British islands ("British" is a Celtic word) were those adventurous Phoenicians, who must have left behind some of their seed—what sailor doesn’t?—so there’s Syrian blood in my background.
Britannium was a Roman province for four centuries, a long time by any standard—street lights, highways, libraries, museums, swimming pools, a police force, central heating—yes! The Romans built their houses over pits of live coals so the heat came up through every part of the floor. They knew how to live there. Not till the Americans took over was it again possible to be warm and clean at the same time in Britain, though they still don’t have the hang of it.
So there’s a lot of Italian in my racial mix. And into that civilized and enlightened holiday spot for rich Romans came Diaspora Jews, Greek high-school teachers, Alexandrian scholars, Côte d'Azur serving wenches—people from all over the Empire.
Soldiers guarding Hadrian’s Wall brought in their wives and families from Spain, North Africa and Asia Minor. Archeologist are still finding their jewelry and kitchen stuff. Moors, Arabs, Egyptians, all in my family tree.
Then came those Hell’s Angels in boats, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes (pronounced “Yutes”)—collectively speaking, the Germans. Bastards. They burned it all down, pissed on the ashes and slaughtered, raped, enslaved and married the Celts. The rest they chased into the Welsh and Cornish hills, where they still are. Sort of like what the Scots did to the Picts and what we did to the Indians. And Britain, for the next thousand years, was more or less a camp.
Courtesy my mother’s father, William Parker, I’m an Englishman—and a Welshman, thanks to my mother’s mother, Eliza Evans.
And from all directions, a Viking. More bikers in boats. They filled eastern Britain (King Mark of Norway complained that his country was empty because everyone had gone to England), and built Dublin.
They went everywhere, and their habit was to take prisoners to row for them; those they didn’t work to death they dropped at the next landing and captured replacements. They must have brought in some Chinese, because they came back with at least one carved Buddha; and some Russians. The climate was warmer then, so sailing across the top of Asia wasn’t a problem, any more than negotiating the ice mountains floating in Hudson Bay. One of those turns over and it’s a tidal wave. Ah, the Vikings!
And they probably imported some North American Indians; we know from a particularly vivid saga that they met them and fought them. And some sub-Saharan Africans. International people, the Vikings.
But not sweethearts. They used to sail down to the French coast, beach the boats and run (run!) to Paris, where they raped, killed, pillaged and burned, and then ran back to the boats. One of the most aggressive of them was Rollo, and King Charles made a deal with Rollo: take this strip of coast, but defend it; keep the other Vikings away. He did, and when they sailed down from Blondland they began making a right turn before they got to "Normandy".
Here's Winston Churchill on Rollo's great-grandson, who saw the daughter of a tanner doing laundry in a stream: "His love was instantly fired. He carried her to his castle, and, although already married to a lady of quality, lived with her for the rest of his days." Out came William the Bastard, and he was exactly that. If there’s one thing more to be feared than a Viking it’s a Christian Viking, a Viking married to a Frenchwoman. Chilling. From across the little channel his eyes fell on Angleland. I’m having that, he said.
He organized Britain for war, which is what feudalism is. Aristocratic titles are military offices, and from the ground up the purpose of the smallest farm was to put a knight, or a share of a knight, in the field. He counted every square foot in the country—they thought he was nuts!—and wrote it all down in what by an exquisite piece of sarcasm was known as the Doomsday Book. Only God knew as much. He made Hitler look like a Boy Scout. (Actually Hitler did look like a Boy Scout.)
And for the next four hundred years the British aristocracy spoke French; which is why we have two words in the language for every kind of meat. “Boef!” called the lord. What’s that? What’s that? Cow, cow, give him cow. “Mouton!” What’s that?
“Parker” is a Norman name; it means “keeper of the park,” or the forest, a high office because only the king was allowed to shoot the deer, except for Robin Hood. And there are lots of Parkers, just as there are lots of black people in America named Jefferson. Our fathers took the name of the manor they were attached to, and came by it honestly because the lord had had his way with their mothers.
Which brings us down to the two-million bottleneck. Of course people have poured in since then, which renders precious even these speculations.
According to tradition the Black Irish, those of us who don’t have Nordic coloring, were fathered by Spanish sailors who swam ashore when the Armada was wrecked. My father's mother's uncle didn’t know where in Ireland he was from: one morning as a small boy he just got up and walked down to the port, boarded a ship and sailed away. Where you from, kid? Ireland.
So there I am, a pure-bred Celtic-Pictish-Syrian-Italian-Jewish-Greek-Moorish-Arabic-Egyptian-Gallic-Anglo-Saxon-Viking-Chinese-Russian-African-Amerindian-Spanish-English-Irish-Scottish-Welshman, with a trace of Hobbit.
How about you?