Tag Archives: ancestry

Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.

Ancestral Pie

Both of my grandmothers made pies. No doubt for women of their generation, this was a much more normal thing to do. Their pie-making was distinct and individual. My paternal grandmother had been in service. She made shallow cheese and onion quiches/flans with a light, crumbly pastry. She may have made other kinds of pie for non-vegetarians, but I never encountered that. My maternal grandmother made deep pies with a heavy, brown flour crust. They were mushroom and onion pies, with cheese on the top, and sometimes tomatoes. I don’t recall her ever making any other kind of pie.

I too am a pie maker. I make the kinds of pies that I’ve been told are ‘proper’ pies – i.e. that have a crust on the top, or a potato top. I make fruit pies. I also make the kind of pies that are egg-based and untopped. I defend my right to call these pies – my grandmother called this a pie and I choose to use my ancestral baking language!

My pies are very different from the pies of my grandmothers. Like my maternal grandmother, I favour the deeper pie and the brown flour. However, I have inherited cold hands from my paternal grandmother and this gives me a pastry texture closer to her baking style. Unlike both of them, I will cheerfully put anything in a pie. I don’t have a standard pie I make, I like to mess about with pie form.

We live in a culture that tells us that to express your identity through the medium of pies, you choose your brand. You choose from a narrow selection of fillings someone else has put together. Of course as with every opportunity we are given to purchase our identity through products, there’s not much range in it and precious little joy.

A pie made at home is inescapably an expression of self. What ingredients do you pull together? What shape of pie? What decorative features (if any)? Do you make a small selection of pies, or do you experiment wildly? Do you make sweet pies, or savoury pies, do you make them moist on the inside or do you favour a firmer, drier middle? The pie that you make for yourself, is a personal thing.

One of my grandmothers was neat and precise, and this came through in the shape of her pastry. One of my grandmothers was much more rough and ready, and her pastry was the same. Neither of them spent ages doing fiddly lattice tops or cutting out leaves, or hearts for decoration. I do, sometimes.

My pie making comes from their pie making, no doubt. It comes from eating their food. I am more influenced by the grandmother who let me be in on the process. I don’t know what kind of pie making traditions either of them had from their mothers, and grandmothers, but I bet there was something. Most of our ancestors are unknowable to us as individuals, but when we pass down this kind of thing, we pass down something of them, too. There is no fixed ancestral pie, but there’s something to tap into, and I suspect that holds true for a lot of other things as well!

Did you whisper back? A Review

I picked up this psychological novel by Kate Rigby through my involvement with Neverland blog tours. What a wonderful find! I read it over an afternoon and evening – it’s not a huge book, but it was also something I found I just couldn’t step away from. I had to know.

This is in essence a book about how ancestral choices can play out in the lives of later generations without them having any idea what’s underpinning things. The central character, Amanda, is both withdrawn and clearly a bit irrational, and we see this early on as she makes some troubled leaps of logic as part of a quest to find her missing twin sister. The book blurb reveals that the missing twin isn’t real and that Amanda is heading for mental breakdown, so, no spoilers from me in saying that much.

The questions of how and why the young woman at the centre of this story has become so unhinged from reality takes us on a journey into her past. As someone who has done a lot of work on ancestry and how it impacts on descendants, I can heartily recommend this novel as a representation of how things get passed down.

The writing is incredibly paired down and intense, full of depth and precise observations of both wider life, and the world inside Amanda’s head. This is an exquisite exercise in telling rather than showing. I’m not a big fan of the modern fad for ‘show not tell’ because it limits where you can go. When it comes to psychological issues, ‘show’ often won’t do it, and ‘tell’ can take us in deeper and far more effectively. There’s no page space wasted on playing everything out. We’re allowed instead to grapple directly with the meat of the story, and with the ghosts haunting it.

I loved this book, I think it’s a fantastic, gem of a novel. It isn’t comfortable or easy reading, but it is profound, intense and provocative.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Did-You-Whisper-Back-disturbing-ebook/dp/B0077E2M26



In our ancestry

I know that when my maternal grandmother was young, there was an odd double standard in that her brother always got cream cakes, while my grandmother was given buns. My great uncle was, undoubtedly, the favourite. It’s possible the double standard is older – go back to my great grandmother’s mother and we’re back somewhere in the 1800s, where double standards around gender were much more normal. My grandmother would buy posh biscuits for my brother, who could eat a whole packet in a session, but would tend to offer me something plainer, cheaper, more in line with the bun.

It’s easy to talk about the food choices, but they represent something deeper, something about the way women in my family teach their children to think about gender, perhaps. The women of my family tend to prioritise the menfolk, and I grew up understanding that masculine validation was essential.

We pass beliefs and ideas down family lines alongside the genes. We hand down stories about who we are, and what we can expect, and the same flawed myths can mess up generations. Little phrases can encapsulate a world view. “Neither use nor ornament.” “If you were a horse, we’d shoot you.” “Getting too big for your boots.”

Our family background, whatever it is, forms our first impression of what ‘normal’ looks like. It’s our reference point for making sense of the rest of reality. It often isn’t helpful.

If you’d like some tools for unpicking what’s in your ancestry, do have a look at my Druidry and the Ancestors, and Jez Hughes’s The Heart of Life, which explores shamanic healing for family legacies.

Tales of the Witchy Granny

Back when I was working on Druidry and the Ancestors, I was thinking as much about the stories we tell as I was about factual history. One of the great stories of modern Paganism, is the witchy Granny. I had one. You probably do too. And if you don’t, you’ve probably got a mad old uncle, or a semi-mythic great grandmother, or a more archetypal image to fill the gap. We need the witchy grannies, they fulfil a really important role.

The witchy granny stands between us (as disconnected moderns) and an ancient world of mystery. She has knowledge that evokes the Pagan past, and is closer to the land than us. Life has taught her compassion, but she probably won’t be too fluffy or nice. Hers is the compassion that can put a suffering animal out of its misery or can tell someone they’re on a hiding to nothing. She does not tolerate fools lightly, speaks her mind, knows her heart. Of course she isn’t perfect and the odds are she isn’t popular because she scares people. The witchy granny connects us to the past, roots us in our ancestry and tells us that nature worship isn’t some distant idea, but recent, alive and available.

Considering all of that, it doesn’t matter whether or not she was real in any literal sense, if she was your biological ancestor, or even if any of them ever existed. Witchy grannies are a modern myth of great value, so let’s embrace them as that.

Last week I read a wonderful ‘witchy granny’ story – Hexe, by Skadi Winter. It’s set in Germany after the second world war, so the granny of this tale is much more rooted in the Heathen tradition. Given how the Nazis tried to appropriate Heathenry (and still try) this book has a lot of layers, levels and implications in it. How do we reclaim a past that another group of people have approached in sacrilegious ways? How do we make connections with our ancestors when some of the more immediate ones are a real problem? How does identity connect to ancestry, and what happens when ideas around that become dogmatic and toxic?

Writing stories that help us explore the past is a really important process. The more difficult the history, the more important it is to get in there and try to make sense of it. All kudos to Skadi for taking on this period and these issues, and for sharing her insights.

If you’d like to check out Hexe, it’s here, while Druidry and the Ancestors is here.

Imagining the ancestors

Some of you may have read Druidry and the Ancestors. For those of you who haven’t… it’s not a history book, but a contemplation of the stories we tell about history. The narrative shapes we wrap around the past can tell us a lot about ourselves, and other people’s stories reveal a lot about cultures and assumptions too.
For many Pagans, the idea of ancestry can be uncomfortable. Many of us have rejected the religions of our most recent ancestors, and struggle with the people we are most closely related to.

Those of us who do not fit too well in the here and now may hark back to an imagined Pagan past in which we had a proper role as village wise woman, druid elder, cunning man, or however we self-identify. We may picture a culture in which our way of being would have made sense to those around us, and been supported.
We imagine the past. The stories we create around the ancestors we hope we had, help us work out how we want the world to be. History is all about the future. However, not all of our ancestral stories are consciously chosen, some come to us subliminally via our cultures and families. Not all stories are right, and not all are useful – wrong and useful may be a lot better than an unhelpful story with a factual basis.

If you happen to be in the north of England, I should like to invite you to an event. “Imaginary Ancestors” 9 August at 19:00, The Grand Hotel in Scarborough, North Yorkshire
It says ‘talk’ but it’s going to be a mash up of assorted things. I’m going to ask people to think deeply about the imagined ancestors. There are no wrong answers here, only the truths that we carry with us, and the implications our personal truths have for how we live our own lives. If you don’t have a sense of distant pagan ancestry to root you, that’s not going to be a problem. Maybe I can help you build that thought form. If you’re just curious, that’s fine too. I’m not terribly despotic about this sort of thing!

If you aren’t in viable striking distance for Scarborough but are thinking this sounds like a good idea, feel free to get in touch. This event is happening because local-to-Scarborough pagan Debora undertook to set it up. I am travelling in the UK, I am willing to do moots, workshops, conferences, camps and other events, and any topic that pertains to the books or you’ve seen me cover on this blog is fair game. If there’s something you’d like me to tackle, ask. I’m more than happy to have a go at requests. I’ll give priority to events that are closer to home, able to help with transport or accommodation costs, (putting me up is one solution) and that fit in with the rest of my life, but my preferred answer is to say yes as much as I can.

Rebellious Roots

I spent last night listening to the BBC radio 2 Folk awards. On the whole radio2 tends towards the shiny end of folk, and I tend towards the raw and dirty end, but they had Billy Bragg on and Treacherous Orchestra, so that was fine. Folk is where I come from, it’s home, ancestry, community, more so than Druidry because folk has been there my whole life. I’ve seen a fight, in my lifetime to keep the folk traditions alive. Back in the 80s, the prospect wasn’t good, with aging and dwindling clubs, but, there’s a tremendous resurgence going on and a lot of brilliant young people coming through.

At the Druid Network convention back in November, Paul Mitchell pointed out that our folk traditions are as much a part of our heritage as Stonehenge. More so, because folk has the potential to belong to everyone, and apparently Stonehenge doesn’t, and we can’t all get there and it would be bloody crowded if we did. Folk is where you are, there’s plenty around. It’s your traditions, your heritage, be that farming or industry, or protest or something else.

I have some sense of who my people were, what they did and the land they come from. Not everyone has that. One of the things the folk tradition does is gives you a huge pool of possible ancestry to pick from. Of course you had your share of poachers, soldiers, peasants, and poets – we all do. Not everyone engages with folk, too much beard, woolly jumper and finger in ear… except most of it isn’t like that, and never was. Folk can be sexy, angry, militant, ironic, dangerous… and also loud, or more like classical, or all kinds of things. Still, I’m not going to lure everyone in.

I was listening to Billy Bragg talking about how much now is like life under Margaret Thatcher, and about how it keeps coming round and we keep having to fight the same fights. The protest songs serve in part to connect you to all the people who had to do it before, to make it less lonely, help see the point, keep your courage up. We all have these fights, and in sharing them, they become easier. Workers protest songs from a hundred years ago and more are very relevant. We’ve rioted before over impossible rents, and lack of food, and shitty systems and we’ll do so again.

It helps to know this. How many people don’t know? How many people live in the small awareness of a few generations, overwhelmed by what the system is doing to them and unable to imagine that you could fight back, much less that it would work. How many people don’t know about Ned Ludd and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Peterloo massacre, the peasants revolt, chartism, levellers, diggers, and all the other brave attempts to put things right. Each round of fighting takes us a little bit further forward. Without that knowledge, without the history of dissent, revolt, non-cooperation, and uprising, it’s easy to believe that you can’t do anything.

What does that give you? A whole new kind of feudalism, in which the peasants are held in place not by laws, but by our own lack of knowledge and disbelief. That’s the developed world for you, all too often. Bread, circuses and being dictated to by our lords and masters.

Show of Hands, in their song ‘Roots’ have this line – “Without our stories and our songs, how will we know where we came from?” We don’t. We have no idea, and that makes it very hard to figure out where we might be going or how to even own that process a bit.

Ancestors of Land

I talked a bit earlier this week about the relationship between Druidry and the Ancestors and Beyond the Map in terms of experiencing blood family. Ancestors of Land are also a connecting thread. We honour them in ritual, and they are whoever happened to be on the land before us. I have a keen sense of many ancestors in my current location. The canal was built, and there are ancestors of the boating life too. Go back far enough and this landscape would have been marshy. It has yielded evidence of ancient settlement. Listening to the wind in the rushes, kayaking, I have a sense of those first people who lived alongside the Severn, hunted the wild birds, and put some of their own dead in barrows on the hillsides. I’ve become conscious of how walkable the Severn vale is, and how, if there was no motorway, the journey from river to hill would be feasible.

This landscape is full of hints about ancestors. Having read Oliver Rackham’s book on the history of the British landscape, I had some ideas about things to look for, but they were broad and general. Then a thing happened. Tom and I were walking down the towpath to get to one of the places I can download email, and I saw a chap with a map in hand, looking out across the fields. There’s a footpath down towards the river, but it’s not as well signposted as would be ideal. I’ve stopped and talked to walkers many times about where the path goes. So I stopped and asked if he was looking for the aforementioned.
He wasn’t.

He had come down to look at a particularly old landscape feature indicative of former settlement, and explained to me how to read the humps and bumps in the fields. The enclosure around a settlement or farm means lower land levels on the inside as the river dumps soil round the outside. He told me how the New Grounds had been deposited by the river in mediaeval times, leading to court cases about who actually owned the land. An actual, real to goodness land historian, on my towpath, talking about my landscape. He was a tad self-effacing but after enthusing at him we managed to elicit both a name, and the critical information that he writes books. I’ve now got one of them – Gloucestershire 300 Years ago. The author is Alan Pilbeam and he’s written a few. He has an accessible writing style and an eye to the implications, so that the political and power shifts he thinks of in terms of ordinary people, too. So many of our ancestors exist as a silence in the historical record, a reasoned attempt to put some of them back in, is a wonderful thing. There’s a lot of detail about things you can go and observe, including pointers to ancient Pagan sites. It’s wonderful stuff.

To the handful of Gloucestershire Druids and for that matter non-Druids who read my stuff, I can only say hunt out this man’s work, it is brilliant. I don’t know who else is doing this other places, but if you can find any, do. There’s nothing like being able to look at the bumps in the ground and know what they mean and who was there, and why…

Poetry, Druidry and Ancestors

I didn’t realise until I did the final proof read of Beyond the Map, just how much a companion piece this is to Druidry and the Ancestors. Partly because the writing and research for the non-fic happened in the same time frame, partly because the real life experiences shaping one, also shaped the other. I moved back to Gloucestershire, land of my ancestors, had the pleasure of introducing my child to a vast array of history, story, connection and people. Landing in Slimbridge we lived for a while in a cottage that had been in my family for a good eight generations, and found distant relations amongst the locals, ancestors in the graveyard, and stories. It was quite a journey.

Ideas about family, ancestry, progress and connection lace through Beyond the Map. It was also written during a time when my relationship with my son was at a heightened level of intensity. That process of radical life change and upheaval created a degree of mutual dependence and greater closeness as we dealt with all manner of challenges. What it means to be a parent, what it means to be a future ancestor, were all very much on my mind.

It was also fascinating watching my son developing and changing relationships with his own ancestors. The sense of engagement and connection he experienced, living in that cottage, and meeting people, were really important to him. In the same time frame he also gained access to his paternal family in a way that hadn’t been available to him before, and seeing him find his place there and other feelings of belonging was also powerful.

There’s so much in normal, modern life that encourages us to cut away our own roots. The pressure to move, for work and study, the financial issues around rural living that make it impossible for many people to stay in the villages they were born in, the age divides we’re encouraged to accept… so many things unroot us. I think in the last few years I’ve become more conscious of just how much our cultures have changed around age. The tribe meant everyone. Smaller communities, historically, included people of all ages. The rise of the car and the television combine to reduce our contact with our neighbours, making us less aware of the people around us who don’t engage in our much more restricted social circles. We divide more readily by age, affluence, level of education and leisure preferences than ever before, and its easy to go through life only engaging with other people who resemble us, missing so much of the diversity.

Walking makes a lot of difference. I’ve actively sought spaces where I could engage more diversely. Steampunk, folk and Druidry are notably communities where people of all ages can mingle. That way you get communities with elders in them, shared ancestors of community become relevant and available. Ancestors of tradition are much more present in life.

Beyond the Map is the emotional journey that went with Druidry and the Ancestors. It’s full of comparable ideas and concerns, explored in different ways. I think they go rather well together, which is a happy accident – I certainly didn’t plan it that way, and didn’t even realise what I’d done until this week! The poetry isn’t in order of writing though, there is no narrative chronology – at least, no intentional story being told across the book.

The evil ancestors

One of the things that made me want to look at the issue of ancestry, is the problem of how we deal with the difficult ones. I can’t think of a single family that I know well, where there isn’t a problem person tucked away in the not too distant history. Not necessarily entirely ‘evil’ people, but points in the family tree where bits have broken off and things have gone badly wrong. I have a few.

I never knew my maternal grandfather, even though he lived just a few miles away. It’s only in recent years that I’ve been able to make any connection with that side of my family. It feels odd. My grandmother has been dead for some time now but I still worry about whether she would have been hurt by my wanting to know, would have felt betrayed.

Go back far enough and we’re all going to have tricky ancestors, whether we know their names or not. Modern witches descended from the sorts of people who would, a few centuries back, have been very keen on hanging or burning. Sometimes it’s not that distant, either. The raping, pillaging, looting, land stealing and genocide is in our history, and we’ve all got a bit of it somewhere, odds are.

What do we do, as modern Druids, with the ancestors who would have hated everything we believe and feel, and who would have been ready to kill us for our own good? Where are they when we hail the blessed ancestors? What do we do with the more immediate ancestry? The tyrants and curmudgeons, the drunken, violent, angry, abusive, incestuous, mad and otherwise inevitable that seem to be hidden in so many skeleton closets. The legacies of fear, and victims, the ones who never dared to be true to themselves, and  who hammered that fear into later generations. The ones who failed, and expect everyone else to fail too. The ones who lived through a world war, and were changed, and could not speak of it. We all have them I think.

Ancestry can be a deeply uncomfortable topic. But this is where we came from, our genes and our heritage. This is the stuff we are made of. To carry a fear of turning into one of your parents, or becoming too much like the mad uncle no one likes to talk about, can make it that bit harder to figure out who we are in ourselves. How much of identity is unique to us, and how much is the replaying of genetic history, and exactly how many crazy people do I have in my family tree anyway?

It’s important to know, I think, and to face up to what we do know. Skeletons in closets are only useful to authors, because they make such wonderful plot devices. In real life they’re nothing but trouble. Best to get them out and name them, and give them a proper burial.

We choose who we are. This has been very much the underlying thought form in the last week of blogging. We can only do a good job of that choice when we know what we’re choosing. It’s very hard to avoid repeating a pattern you won’t admit exists. It’s much easier to change things after you’ve acknowledged them.

All families are a bit mad and a bit dysfunctional in places because all people are a bit mad and a bit dysfunctional too. Some hide it better than others. Some manage to channel it in good ways, and some, like one of my distant ancestors by the name of Octavia, lose the plot entirely and have to be taken away. Some lose the plot a little bit and just go to bed for the rest of their lives. Some pass as normal.

I have a fair idea where I’ve come from, and some of it is good, and some of it isn’t. I’m trying to replicate the good bits and step away from the things I don’t think are so good. Coming from three generations of women who did not hold the first marriage together, I’m conscious that many of my mistakes are not very original. But I think I can move beyond that. It’s got to be worth a try, at any rate.