With both my Grandmothers still with us (both were born in 1912), I’m very fortunate to have living connections with the late nineteenth century. When they talk about their childhoods and youth, they are describing a world which has always seemed completely alien to that in which we live today, and using one’s imagination, to go beyond that world, further back into the past, that place, the world, becomes stranger still. This world, when conceived within the imagination is like a fiction. In a talk I gave as part of my residency at OVADA in May 2007, I stated that:
“…as a child, I liked to create and map worlds; countries which I would build from fragments of the world around me; forests, mountains and plains – unspoilt landscapes. And in these worlds there would exist towns and cities, created from ‘the best bits’ of those I had visited.
These invented worlds became, as I grew up, the ‘invented’ or imagined landscapes of Oxford’s past; landscapes that were – just as they still are – created from fragments, parts of the past which are still extant in the city; old buildings, walls, objects and so on. Between these structures, these fragments, I would fill the gaps, with my own imagination, with thoughts derived from my own experience. The city’s past and the past in general, as it exists within my mind, is then, to use the metaphor of cloning in Jurassic Park, a cloned dinosaur. The extant buildings, structures and objects within museums, are like the mosquitoes trapped inside the amber. They are broken strands of DNA. All that is required is for me to fill the gaps, and this I can do with my own DNA. I am in effect, the frog.”
I will return to the frog later.
All I knew prior to my research, was that part of my family, on my father’s side, came from South Wales and worked in the mines, and that my family on my mother’s side heralded from Reading. My paternal grandfather was always an Oxford man and his family had been in the area for generations. My maternal great-grandmother (born in 1878 and who I can remember) was said to have come from Suffolk and was the daughter of a farmer (Norfolk as it would transpire).
Researching the family tree quickly becomes, not so much obsessive, but rather, compulsive; necessary. The dead, and at that, the anonymous dead, come back to life and make themselves known to you, and, what is more compelling, one feels oneself become more solid, more flesh and blood than ever before; one begins to exist in four dimensions rather than simply three (as if we, in the present, are not really a part of time) becoming part of a network whose strings vibrate like those plucked on an old musical instrument – whose sound, although feint, can nonetheless be heard or even felt. It’s rather like plugging a short-wave radio into the vast network of cables that comprise the national grid, and listening to the distant voices of ancestors telling you who you are; crackling like the damp wood of a fire which will never quite go out.
What has particularly interested me, aside from the obvious personal interest in finding lost relatives (one is also taken aback by the sheer volume of living relatives one must have but which one doesn’t know about), is how the whole project fits in so precisely with what I have been doing with my artwork; finding and identifying with the anonymous dead buried in the traumas of history, placing myself in the spaces of the past which have witnessed the most terrible catastrophes – placing myself, in effect, in the panorama of history itself. Through doing this over the past year, history has become overwhelming, its incomprehensible size as impossible to grasp as the distance of the stars. But through locating myself in the personal panorama of family history, History itself becomes a little less overwhelming; events of the past become known through great-great grandmothers and fathers – they are personalised, and yet, with this list of names and dates and with this new geography of the past, dwelling as it does in the villages of Monmouthshire and Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Oxon, one’s own impossibility is augmented still further. What were the chances of my great-great grandfather, Jabez, meeting his wife Elizabeth (what were the chances of either of them being born) and then having their son Albert? What were the odds against him doing everything he did in life exactly as he did; meeting my great-grandmother Elizabeth and having my grandfather Norman? The further one goes back into the shadows of family history, the less likely and more impossible one becomes, and this heightens, to a dramatic effect, one’s sense of place in both time and space.
Again, from the talk I gave as part of my residency, I stated:
“This metaphor [the frog and the dinosaur] is interesting in that DNA patterns are, of course, unique to everyone. My DNA is different to everybody else’s as there’s is to mine. Therefore, using my imagination to plug in the gaps of the past, means that the ‘past’ will comprise large parts of my own experience; my dinosaur will contain elements of my own being. But although my DNA is unique, it is nonetheless derived from my own past, elements have been passed down by my ancestors from time immemorial. The code which makes me who I am, comprises parts of people I know now (parents and grandmothers), people I knew (grandfathers and great-grandmother) and people lost to the past altogether (great-great grandparents and so on) [people whose names have since I wrote this become so familiar I feel as if I knew them, or rather know them]. What interests me about this, is that, through stating above how ‘my dinosaur will contain elements of my own being’ I can now see that it will also comprise elements of hundreds – indeed thousands – of people, the majority of whom I will of course never know and who have been dead for centuries. I like to think therefore, that ‘my dinosaur’ and my imagination aren’t entirely unique.
The philosopher Henri Bergson says of the past:
‘I believe that our whole physical existence is something just like this single sentence… I believe that our whole past still exists.’
Given that DNA strands are made up of letters I found this quote particularly interesting.”
The further back in time we go, the less unique we become, at least in terms of our DNA, and therefore, our individual dinosaur, that subjective sense of History created from fragments of the past (objects, buildings etc.) is increaingly attenuated; less individual and less subjective, because the ‘DNA’ (our individual selves) with which we plug the gaps is derived from that of hundreds, indeed thousands of people. That very history we are seeking to build inside myself is already there. What is more, the further back we go, with each step and every generation, the wider the family net is thrown and the greater number our number of relatives. Things which happen to other people, things on the news and so on, could be happening to people with whom we share a common past; and indeed, the same is true of events in the past. Separated by time and space, we may in fact be linked by the very fact of existence.