Tuesday, May 4, 2010

And I thought the Blue Book was for old cars.

As a poor, working-class kid growing up in the London suburbs, one of the things I loathed about England's class-ridden society was that I was expected to show deference to certain other human beings solely because their great-great-great-great-great-grandmother had bonked Charles II.  Not that we saw that many Earls on Hounslow High Street, you understand, but there was that whole Royal Family, "God Save the Queen" thing.

Not expecting the revolution anytime soon -- nor having the guts to foment it -- I came to America, where I thought class would be different, and of course, it is. (Race replaced it years ago.) But even in New York City, where ill-gotten, ill-spent wealth whips breeding any day, there can still be that elitist, social register, Blue Book, Four Hundred undercurrent.

Who cares if you're directly descended from one of those English puritans escaping religious intolerance who stepped off the Mayflower and proceeded to be instantly intolerant to anyone in the Massachusetts Bay colony who didn't share their precise religious beliefs. After 20 years of Manhattan living, I find a phrase springs easily to my lips (along with "Fuhgeddaboudit" and "I'm walkin' here!"): "What, you think you're better than me?" Or a little more mildly, "Yes, but what have you done?" It was Samuel Johnson who said that, in terms of justifying questionable behavior, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." I'd add that "It's all in a good cause" comes in right behind it.

There's an odd kind of reverse snobbery, though, that may be equally noxious -- and I 've had these conversations: "My great-grandfather stepped off the boat on Ellis Island with nothing but his hat-blocking wrench, so what gives these immigrants the right to think they can just waltz in here. . .?"

Yes, but what have you done?

Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Well, of course I do, for God's sake. Proud as I am of the (somewhat peculiar) name Beechey -- spellable in 47 different ways, even without turning me into the adverbial "Beechley" or other close variations -- it signifies for me only the profound love and estimable values of my adoptive parents. Otherwise, in terms of heritage, race, bloodlines, breeding, ancestry and ancestors, it's as immaterial as a nom de plume or a wife's married name. Whether Sir William Beechey, portraitist of George III and Nelson and about the only famous Beechey*, showed up in my family tree was an utter irrelevance, since I could claim no share of his DNA. (Incidentally, he doesn't.)

Because I was the first to grab "beechey.com" as a URL, I often receive emails from Beecheys scattered around the world asking if we could possibly be related. (There's quite a contingent in New Zealand, and I had a request from South Africa.) And I have to explain regretfully that "Beechey" is just a label for me and point them in each other's direction.

So my own ignorance of my genealogy probably made me a little more intolerant of anyone who claimed some special privilege because of their descent, whether it's the right to think their grandfather's rise from poverty reflects on their own character or whether it's the right to ascend to the English throne and be called "Your Majesty." Your family tree, your family history is, of course, fascinating and well worth knowing and preserving. Your ancestors' achievements are a source of pride, but they don't make you important.

But now, making up for lost time, I've been researching my family tree on the birth side -- I'm a concatenation of the Russells and the Huggins.** And next time I get on this blog, I'll explain why this inverted-snobbish tantrum and yesterday's truly tedious diversion on exponentials have come together in my life this week. (They feature in the book, too, for similar reasons.)

If there's anybody awake out there, that is.

**Hugginses? Huggins's? I'm only definitively opinionated about possessives. Plurals puzzle me.
***Meaning I have high hopes for my kids.

No comments:

Post a Comment