In my family, the ability to tell a good story has always been held in higher regard than the ability to command facts and figures.
My Dad (author of the posthumous "Letters from Conrad" blog) did not enjoy arguing as much as he enjoyed watching other people argue, and he would sometimes make monstrous assertions or deny commonsense facts purely in order to see how people would respond. This was in the days before the internet made the instant verification of most facts a straightforward matter. (These days we are reduced to arguing about which one of us has the fastest internet connection.)
Among the stories Dad used to tell was that that his father, also called Conrad (a professional gambler and a professional drinker – subject of many barely verifiable stories) had been named after a racehorse that had died after falling at a perilous fence while running the very first Grand National at Aintree in 1839. Conrad was ridden by a Captain Martin Becher, and the fence thereafter became known as Becher's Brook. The problem with this story is that it gives no explanation as to why a local infant born fifty years after the event would be named after a horse that had failed so spectacularly. When I was younger, such fanciful, groundless assertions used to infuriate me, and I argued with my Dad about the truthfulness of his account.
But another story my Dad used to tell was that he was related, via his mother Mary Moore (1909–83), to the DJ John Peel, whom he would describe as "one of those Ravenscoft–Moores". Could this assertion have some basis in fact? John Peel was born John Robert Parker Ravenscoft, in the right part of the Wirral, and there are certainly plenty of Ravenscrofts, Moores and Ravenscroft-Moores to be found in and around Liverpool.
It's not entirely unlikely, but I felt that I needed substantive proof before daring to repeat this rumour. So I signed up for a free 14-day trial of an ancestry website, and got to work, using as my basis the work of Geoff Brunström, a distant cousin of mine (and father of the ever-controversial former North Wales Police Chief Richard Brunström – stories about whom you'd be hard pressed to believe if they weren't well recorded).
And you know what? I came up with nothing. No birth, marriage or death records, nor a single dicennial census entry for either a Mary Moore born in 1909 or a John Ravenscroft born in 1939. It is as if they both entirely escaped the radar of governmental interference (unless some sort of official cover-up has taken place).
With thirteen days remaining of my fourteen-day free trial, I contented myself with a more fanciful use of the website's online resources. It was surprisingly easy to retrieve documents that traced the male Brunström line back to the first Brunström (the Ur-Brunström: Olaf Brunström (1785–1857) – whose story I'll tell you another time).
Thereafter, drawing not on primary evidence but on the wholly undocumented work of fellow subscribers, I traced the the line back further, through a series of patronymic ancestors. Thus, I discovered that I am . . .
Michael O. J. Brunström (1974–), son of
Conrad K. M. Brunström (1928–2011), son of
Conrad K. M. Brunström (1889–1967), son of
Otto Leopold Brunström (1856–1927), son of
John Leopold Brunström (1824–74), son of
Olaf Brunström (1785–1857), son of
Lars Svensson (1768–1827), son of
Sven Olofsson (1727–97), son of
Olof Persson (1681–1766), son of
Per Persson (1650–87), son of
Per Persson (1620–98), son of
Per Andersson (1580–1652), son of
Anders Persson (1550–1614), son of
Per Andersson (1520–1609), son of
Anders Olofsson (1500–64), son of
Olof Eriksson (1480–1540), son of
Erik Salomonsson (1460–1500), son of
Salomon Persson (1420–65), son of
Per Eriksson (1400–41), son of
Erik, my earliest recorded ancestor, is therefore my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather.
Aside from the grotesque multiplication (19x) of patriarchal primacy, the surprising thing about all this information is how boring it is. Unless we invent stories to superimpose on this dreary list of names and dates, the genealogy is no more meaning to us than a page torn from the phone book. In order to gain any appreciation of the fact that Olof Persson married Sigrid Svensdotter on 12 June 1710 in Anundsjö, Vasternorrland, for example, we must fill in the details of the day from our imaginations. He was 29. She was 19. Was the weather fine? What was her wedding dress like? How many guests attended and how much did they drink? How were the couple feeling?
Facts don't make stories. Colourful details do. The more the factual information is missing, the more of the story we feel we must invent. What's more, when the information is clearly inaccurate, the story gets better. When I stumbled across an ancestor from a different lineage who appeared to have married two different women from the same village with the same surname within three years of each other, but continue to father children with the first woman during his marriage to the second, it is clear enough that a careless genealogist has muddled up two individuals. But the story it implies is better than the reality. The story of the bigamous Swedish ménage à trois is the one I want to hear.
The slenderer the collaborative evidence, the bolder and more entertaining we must be with our assertions. Have I learned my lesson yet? I must admit – the story that I am related through my grandmother to John Peel is simply too good to subject to the tedious scrutiny of facts and evidence, which will only point up a reality that is less colourful and compelling. So yes, I am related to John Peel. I will continue to insist on it, while working on my version of his warm, Liverpudlian drawl.