The Family History As A Method Of Torture

I spotted it in a trice – on the shelf of the council library. It was a self-published history of a local family. Paper-bound, A4 size, but about a centimetre thick. I’m a bit hazy about the exact family name but I remember it referred to a country town where they lived and styled them as ” Pioneer Nobility “.

That’s a concept you don’t see all that often in an egalitarian society – but it lurks in the heart of every amateur genealogist. If they can assert that their family is noble, and get you to believe it, they can control the universe.

I come from a mother and a father. They, in their turn, came from mothers and fathers. Funnily enough, so does everyone else riding the N0.507 bus to the train station. And so do you. It is the common experience of mankind to be born because of the combination of a mother and father.

The lucky ones get to know who they were. Even better – they might have gotten to see them for some portion of their lives and can treasure this. But there is a catch to the treasure – a curse, if you will…if you try to grasp too much of it, it turns to fire and burns away your happiness. And that fire can consume all the social oxygen and leave everyone around you asphyxiated.

I met today with a relative of my wife – a pleasant man who is the amateur genealogist for her family. He is good at it and has facts and figures of all the extended family at his fingertips. You have only to sit still long enough and you will find out when in 1887 one cousin shifted addresses in Adelaide, and how we know this, and what it means for the Scottish branch of the family in 1934…

It is not polite to sneer or yawn. Neither is it to run and hide in the toilet or fall lifeless to the carpet. One must look bright and attentive. And not scream.

But, just as with the accounting of dreams, so the history of someone else’s distant family connection to even more distant relations who have done no more than breed and move is the saddest and most banal of communications. No-one wants to know.

None of us are remotely interested in the thing, and unless you can prove in court that you are a direct descendant of a liaison between Benjamin Franklin and Cleopatra, we’re not likely to care. Publish all you like, prattle all you will, thrust forward parish records from the 19th century all you may – We. Don’t. Care.

But let me tell you about my uncle Agnes and the time she met the Kaiser in Woolies…

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The Social Register

A social register is a grille set into the floor or wall that emits hot air in winter.

No, wait, that’s a central heating system. The social register is a small book that is available at a public library that emits hot air all year round. It tells you who is considered to be important enough to be noticed by the people who are not important. It’s the handbook of snobbery.

My experience with these books is small. I was never asked for an entry in Who’s Who or DeBretts. The Amanach de Gotha is so much German to me. I did briefly feature in ” What The Hell Was That? ” but it has a limited readership. Most of the information in it was hearsay and I am glad I neither heard it nor said it.

The whole idea of public record of social standing is a little like zinc chromate paint – a necessary treatment but a sickly colour. You may read as many potted biographies in the book as you like, but the real question will be why you are reading – for moral gain or financial advantage? Worship or targeting information? And are you required to believe anything you read?

Remember that many of the people in there wrote their own guff – or were rich enough to hire someone to write it for them. Are they likely to be telling you dirty little secrets? Not on your nelly. What you’ll read is the image they wish to project – even if they are dim, cracked, and dirty to begin with the result is likely to be shiny and bright.

But do not be too discouraged or cynical. Social registries do have a benefit for the community. Once they are published the lies are out in the open – and recorded clearly for all to see. As time goes on the truth about most people surfaces, and then you can compare it to the advertisement for an even more piquant experience. The lawyers of the powerful will prevent you from scolding or scalding them, but they cannot stop you from laughing.

 

The Day Of Fools

April 1st.

My day. My birthday. April 1st, 1948. And laugh if you will, when I give the signal, but it has always been a pretty good day for me – fool or not.

As a small child the day was always a celebration that had no connection to anyone outside my family and friends. You’re centered in that as a kid. It was only in the latter part of grade school that the significance of the occasion as a national prank day came to my attention.

Of course, in the natural way that school children have, it was seized upon as an excuse to torment me. And I was a little ashamed of the connection – until one person said that they were jealous of me because I would be able to do anything I wanted to others on April 1st morning and get away with it. It was the dawning of, if not wisdom, at least a new career.

Most April Fool jokes are practical to some extent, but short of damage to property, there’s not much of a practical nature that one little kid can do. But if they are inventive, coats can be switched around in cloak rooms, water coolers can be blocked with wadded paper, and similar low-grade japes. If they talk fast and in a complex manner they can infuriate the slower minds without being actually culpable. But they must stop at noon so as not to overstep the immunity.

This year I simply told the staff members at work that their employment contracts were being rescinded in favour of the system of physical slavery. They were advised to practice the phrases ” Yowsah ” and ” Sho Nuff “. When, by accident, the Star Track man delivered three bales of cotton, I left them to it.

 

It Is Good To Fail Occasionally

I never thought I would be making a statement like that…it sounds vaguely memetic and that is really only one letter removed from emetic. But I have made a few blunders and errors in the last few months that have given me to think.

When I am riding high and doing all the things I want to, it all gets too seductive. I start to get arrogant and flippant with others. They generally don’t know it as I keep it to myself, but it still poisons my perceptions – both of them and of myself. I need a little failure to remind me that I am, as stated before, a plain bun.

Fortunately no-one got hurt and nothing got spoiled by my mistakes. It was a nuisance, but not a disaster. And I can do something that mends the faults in the future. I can also be darned grateful that the times when I really did mess up either did not get noticed or go through to completion. I think I got saved by a number of bells.

Here’s a final thought to send you all off thoughtfully sucking on the end of either a pen or a dagger – we often make ” B-for-Bucket ” lists of things we want to do in life to tease ourselves into action. Or we make ” F” lists to tell us things we do not want to do or people we don’t want to deal with. All good so far. We’re about as likely to follow one list as the other…

But how about making an” M ” list for yourself – call it a Muckit list – a list of mistakes that you have made in your life. You can make it as vague or as specific as you like, but when you’ve got the first part you should make a matching section that tells you what you’ve learned from each blunder.

Like the “B ” and ” F ” lists, the ” M ” list should be strictly hidden and kept a secret from everyone else. If they are going to see anything, let them see you getting better and better for a mysterious reason.

When Someone Starts It Up

The” it ” can be anything – sex talk, politics, religion, a lawn edger…anything. You’ll know it’s ” it ” because everyone will edge away from the speaker and start to examine the paintwork on the cornices. Some will remember appointments and some will answer their mobile phones …” There’s an emergency at work and they need me…”. The fact that they have been retired for years might give you a clue. A clue that the topic is unpleasant, unwelcome, and unnecessary.

The wise person seeing this reaction will pull up and ask themselves whether they have been riding their hobby horse too fast – indulging their rhetoric a little freely – making a right prat of themselves. The unwise person will make use of the deadly silence that has descended on the crowd to get off more Trump jokes or try to convert the infidel.

The unfortunate part of this all is that the social media we all love has pointed us in the diametrically opposite direction from that of previous generations – we are now positively encouraged to be offensive, overbearing, and lewd. And the sad thing is we are being trained to do this to protest against people who are offensive, overbearing, and lewd. We tar ourselves with our own toothbrush.

Let us all resolve and publicly declare that we will be polite, careful, and discrete in the next twelve months. We will set off none of the media trigger wires that they so generously rig across our computer screens. We will cut everyone some slack, even to the point of cutting it so slack that they fall off the edge of the social media platform and are lost forever. We will allow dissent from our obviously perfect understanding of the universe – on the principle that they’ll find out how wrong they are when it’s too late and we’ll laugh at them as they are hauled away in a tumbril to a well-deserved execution.

Where did I put my knitting?

” I Have Loved You From Afar…”

Cut out the title of this column and keep it ready by the phone. You are bound to get a scam phone call from India around tea-time and it is a very good phrase to use. If you do it with a sweet voice and then say ” Alas…” and let your voice trail away, the caller will not bother you again. They may go home to their little Indian flat in the heat of the night and scratch themselves all over, but that is not your affair.

There are other words and phrases that can help us through our day.

a. ” You are the one I saw yesterday. ”

This is a perfectly innocuous statement that can be spoken to nearly anyone in a public place. It has the ring of truth. It is also quite disconcerting, but no-one knows why.

b. ” You may speak to me now. The restrictions have been lifted. ”

Ditto for (a.). A little riskier because you may find that they have not spoken to anyone for a month and this will open the floodgates. If they start to become agitated, threaten to call a policeman. Call the policeman a bad name and then say the other person said it.

c. ” Your prices seem a little low. I was hoping to pay more. ”

This said to any retail seller will ring alarm bells throughout their whole body. If you then leave the shop they will be left wondering whether they have made a serious mistake somewhere. When they decide to raise their prices storewide, come back in and demand a discount.

d. ” Does your food contain ingredient 453B? Because I am not allowed to eat 453B. It’s on the EEC schedule 2, you know. Do you have a list of ingredients? ”

This said in any eatery, from Jamie Oliver to a pie cart, will cause the owner to bristle like a warthog. The wise ones will throw a pan of hot fat at you and have done with it – the foolish will try to argue their way out of it.

e. ” You were recommended to me by your competitors. “…here you can insert the name of an actual business rival for better effect.

The person you are speaking to will be flattered and frightened. Are you a plant or a trojan horse designed to make a nightmare of the place? Have you been so unpleasant at another shop that they have desperately sent you here? Or are you a chance for a big sale?

A variant on this is to say that you have been recommended by several other firms – and give their names…but the kicker is none of them are in the same business as the shop you are in…

f. ” Do you mind being recorded for evidence? ”

If they say yes, you ask what they have to hide. If they say no you ask whether they realise what is being said about them at the department. Have them speak clearly into your top coat button.

Be Careful Who You Curse

Note: For the North American market – curse here doesn’t mean foul language or swearing – it means actually drawing the wrath of whatever down upon your enemies. You can swear all you like.

The business of cursing someone is a serious one. You should not do it lightly nor wantonly. You must reserve it for occasions when it is really necessary. This is not because your curses will lose potency if they become too common – it is because they may very well precipitate disaster for the victim.

Calling down the wrath of Heaven ( or raising a similar affliction from Hell ) should never be a matter of petulance or smart aleck behaviour. Both Heaven and Hell have more important things to do than act as your minions. Do not invoke them unless it is a serious matter indeed. They are not patient.

Consider before you curse whether there is another, milder, way to resolve the problem – a fist fight or stabbing or somesuch. If you have access to anti-tank artillery, use that. It is far kinder to put a 17-pounder round through someone’s door than to spit on a coin and throw it across their threshold. The AT shell will only make a big hole – the coin will destroy anything it touches – lives, reputations, businesses, etc.

Do not curse if a blessing would prove more helpful. Or damaging. Blessings are generally more acceptable to Heaven, though they may not be acted upon. It is the optional nature of the thing that lets them be racked up on a spike and attended to whenever there is enough spare time. Curses need answering right now.

Of course, the right now may be in galactic terms. Many of them take generations to come to fruition and people who are eventually sitting there covered in dung do not connect the actions of their ancestors to their fate. This may not seem to be rewarding to the cursor ( or is that curser? I can never tell. ) but if you take time to see far enough into the future you can get some inkling of the effect. The first American Indians who let tobacco loose upon mankind  probably never saw a lung cancer case in their short lives – but they can look down from the Happy Hunting Ground now and see what a curse they unleashed.

The reader of this essay who is skeptical about it will not draw a curse from me. They are free to think for themselves. But they are directed to enquire about the fate of the Han’s Café business.