Sunday, April 20, 2014

Parental paranoia fuelled by Korean tragedy

Yesterday morning, before the rain came, Izzy was hunting in the garden for chocolate eggs. As I watched her giggling with excitement and screaming at every new discovery, I felt strangely uneasy. 

I’ve had this sense of anxiety since Wednesday, when the world ended for 300 people on a boat in South Korea. The story of the capsized ferry has combined a terrible sadness for the fate of children I’ve never met with a fear of how I could ever completely protect my own. As I watched the videos of obedient students, many the age of my youngest son, huddled in corners waiting for the instruction to disembark that never came, I shuddered and thought: what if one of these were my child? 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What's in a name?

Not my great great great great grandfather

I don’t know where the name Gutteridge came from. Wherever it was, I wish it had stayed there. 

Gutters, Guts – it was so easy to burden me with schoolboy nicknames. I feared the sniggers of classmates when the teacher called out my name for the first time. Even now, when asked to spell it for the benefit of Indian call centres, I say the first five letters slowly, g-u-t-t-e… then a quick “ridge, as in the top of a hill”. I mean, why use the awful “gutter” word if I don’t have to? 

I used to cling to the hope of gentrification offered by those ridiculous “know your name” companies. 

“The name Gutteridge has a long Anglo-Saxon heritage,” they’d say. “From the region of Goodrich in the county of Hereford. Gód means good and Rica means powerful.” 

So I was descended from a king. Then the company would try to sell me the family crest. 

All nonsense, of course. There’s no more nobility in the Gutteridge name than the word Smith, Baker or Hann. You are what you make of yourself, I always thought. 

So the recently published research into surnames and social mobility by Scottish-born economist Gregory Clark (out of an American university, predictably), raised several eyebrows. According to Clark, there’s no more social mobility in the world now than there was when the Gutteridges were good and powerful ones. 

A person’s surname carries information about their social status, which generations can do precious little to change, and the narrowing of the gap between the posh and the poor (I paraphrase here rather shamelessly) has scarcely narrowed in centuries. Despite what we’d like to believe about the effects of the industrial revolution and the efforts of politicians to create a more even society, the principal influence in our social status is our great- and great-great grandparents’ names. 

In other words, try as I might, I can never take the gutter out of the Gutteridge. Well that’s what Professor Clark reckons, anyway. Clark comes from the Latin clericus, meaning scholar. So his life was pretty preordained too. 

The popularity of the television programme Who Do You Think You Are, the obsession with and other genealogical resources, indicates a general fascination with our origins. 

This is nothing new. My father used to tell anyone who would listen that his four-times-great grandfather was an admiral of the fleet who rejoiced in the name Sir Cloudesley Shovell. This is the man who, in 1707, became famous for failing to navigate the British fleet round the rocks off the Isles of Scilly, thereby occasioning one of the worst naval disasters in our country’s history. 

His ship was called HMS Association, and according to Dad, it probably contained the family fortune. Dad was so convinced of this association with the Association, that he named his first-born (my half-brother) Cloudesley, who named his dog Cloudesley, and eventually his own son, my nephew. Try listening to that name with a straight face in school assembly. Fortunately the boy went to Eton, which is full of silly names. 

Once I met a man who had dived down to the Association wreck and retrieved some sovereigns. He was called Rex (seriously). I presented my half-brother with one for Christmas and he got all misty-eyed. 

“All that's left of the family jewels,” I heard him mutter sadly. 

Unfortunately, a few years later I got rather hooked by the genealogy bug myself and signed up to the GenesReunited website. You start your own family tree and immediately the computer matches it with others from around the world. I quickly struck the jackpot. 

A distant relative had been compiling his own tree for 30 years and had thousands of entries going back generations. But no Cloudesley Shovell. I emailed him to ask why. 

“Oh, that old chestnut,” he wrote back. “Your very-great uncle William first thought there was a connection when he went to Somerset House to investigate his own tree. He must have misread the entry, for his ancestor was actually a cabin boy on the Association, not the admiral.” End of association. 

Mind you, I’m rather relieved. Imagine the nicknames you’d get with the name Shovell.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why Boots will never be a Facebook star

Last week the world of Facebook was enthralled by an extraordinary video. I’ve been sent it more than a dozen times by assorted “friends” and over half a million people viewed it in the first couple of days after it was posted.