Last week I wrote about how a story I had concocted for Turnberry Hotel around a true wartime incident had come to the attention of someone who thought a relative might have been involved in the event.
Yesterday I spoke to the person concerned, a retired policeman from the Glasgow area who had recently started researching his father’s wartime exploits and had been led by some twist to the Turnberry website. His father, he explained, had served during the war with the Air Sea Rescue service at Greenock and had attended several air crashes, one of them in the vicinity of Ailsa Craig, the island that sits out in the Firth of Clyde, where the pilot in my story had been forced to ditch.
The first thing I had to do was to explain exactly what in the story was true – the location, the ditching and the subsequent rescue of the crew by a fishing boat; and what was not – all the rest of it. At first, gratifyingly for me, and perhaps in some kind of reversal of his own policeman’s instincts, he found it hard to believe how much of it was the product of my imagination. Once that was established, we were left with the problem that there was nothing in my story, or in anything he knew about his father’s missions, to link the two together.
At the end of a pleasant conversation we agreed that he needed to do some more research, and that a visit to Turnberry might be in order at some future date. But there was one thing he said that particularly struck me. He was explaining that all this had arisen because he had recently started to look through his late father’s possessions and that had prompted him to research his family tree. ‘It’s really brought me and my two older brothers together,’ he said.
A family tree is a diagrammatic telling of a big, complicated story, a story that is owned by many different people, all of whom have their own versions of it. Deceptively simple as the tree may appear, this flat, graphic representation of the tumult of human relationships can offer powerful insights of its own.
Sarah and I work with family trees in our workshops, The Stories We Tell. They’re a good way of getting a snapshot of some of the bigger stories we carry through life with us, and if we look at them as offering us more information than merely the degrees of consanguinity we share with our relatives, we can start to find all kinds of patterns and repetitions of family traits and behaviour. These trees offer a lens through which to re-evaluate the myths that grow up around people, to look at rifts and estrangements, to consider illnesses and emigrations, to appreciate liaisons and affections and many other aspects of the family history.
It’s tempting to think that our own stories begin at birth, but they don’t. We drink in what has gone before with our mother’s milk. And seeing ourselves as part of a continuum, even if it only goes back a single generation, can alter our perspectives. It can help us to become more connected to ourselves, and also to those who belong on the same continuum, who share elements of the same story with us – as my policeman friend is discovering. Even when they’re partly made up, stories connect us like nothing else.
So as not to spoil Friday for anyone of nervous disposition, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting occasionally on the referendum on a different page of this site, starting with a new post today. If you’re interested, you can go to the Referendum tab above, the link opposite, or click here.