Most people have received an inheritance, a bequest or legacy of one kind or another. From my grandfather, I have a watch. It’s a small gold fob watch with a cracked glass cover. On the back, an engraving shows that it was a gift to Geoffrey Shakespeare, on the occasion of his winning the parliamentary seat of Wellingborough for the Liberal Party, at the election of November 15th, 1922. No doubt he appreciated the gesture, because he kept the watch. But it didn’t take him long to lose the seat, in the election which followed on December 11th 1923. He wouldn’t return to Parliament until 1929, this time as Member for Norwich, the constituency which he went on to represent until 1945.
I don’t know when the watch got damaged, but I doubt my grandfather ever used it. I never wear a watch myself and once, long after I was grown up, my father noticed my bare wrist and remarked that his father had never worn a watch either. I remember feeling a sudden pang of kinship and validation. The unused commemorative gold watch is kept in the felt purse in which it probably arrived. The purse is wrapped in a faded piece of newspaper. The newspaper sits in a small square box, with a long-forgotten address and a postmark from the 1950s. The whole package feels like a pass-the-parcel prize: the music has stopped, and it has ended up in my hands.
The watch arrived when Buffy, my grandfather’s second wife died. Although I was pleased to have anything of Geoffrey’s, what I really wanted was his cribbage board because of fond childhood memories of visiting my grandparents’ home in Chislehurst. We would be served roast pheasant or fish pie, and my grandfather would always remind us that he had married Granny Buffy because she was the best cook in Norfolk. In the middle of the table sat silver salt and pepper pots shaped like partridges. I inherited them too. They’re tarnished now, but in my memory they shine. After dinner we would drink tiny glasses of liqueur, and my fascinating Grandpa would teach us games, drinking to the health of Cardinal Puff in emerald Chartreuse or amber Benedictine.
I wanted the cribbage board, because it was the game that Grandpa had taught me to play. In his eighties, he spent much of the afternoon in bed, and I would sit beside him and try to follow the rituals of scoring: fifteen-two, fifteen-four, one for last card, two for his nibs and one for your nob. The hours we spent playing cribbage were the only time we ever spent alone together. The board would have had the personal significance that the gold watch or silver cruet set lacked, but nobody knew what had become of it.
Sometimes, an object speaks of an unknown past. From Sheila, my mother’s mother, I inherited an ebony stick, a simple wooden dowel about sixteen centimetres long. She would use it every morning in the front of the mirror, rolling her fringe into a hair style which dated from the 1950s. As a child I would sit at Granny’s feet, entranced. She explained once that it was a drumstick, and the mystery of its origins added to the magic of the ritual. According to the vicar’s eulogy at her funeral, my grandmother had been a keen dancer in her early days. My mother told me that the stick had been one of a pair belonging to a musician in a Cuban band touring Ceylon. Granny had seized it from him as a souvenir. “You don’t need both of them”, she’d told him, conveniently ignoring the fact that he hit the two of them together to make the rhythm. I imagine her dancing, her hair pinned up and her heels flying, and I remember her singing to me popular songs from the thirties and forties: Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today.
My grandmother lived a few miles away from my childhood home, and so I retain strong memories of her. But I never met my other grandfather, Douglas Raffel, to whom she once been married and with whom presumably she had danced. A dozen of his paintings hang on my mother’s wall, and I’ve already identified the ones which I hope one day to inherit. For now, my only relic of Douglas Raffel is a college edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, printed on cheap paper in a typeface too small to read in comfort. It is made notable by Douglas’ inscription on the flyleaf:
“To commemorate the marriage of Susan Mary Raffel to Dr William Shakespeare (a descendant of the Bard of Avon) on 3.6.1964 in Boston USA.”
Another inscription records that he’d bought the book on April 23rd – the day of my parents’ engagement. Was it a coincidence, or did he make the purchase a few days later, after receiving the telegram from his daughter? From the contents page, it’s clear that he read all 37 of the plays – they’re carefully ticked off – and that he particularly enjoyed The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a few others which have a second tick in the “I Liked” column. Like my father, I can’t bear the idea of defacing a book with marginalia, but to see my grandfather working his way through Shakespeare – carefully underlining favourite passages – connects me to a man whom I never met. His daughters left for England in 1955 and he never saw them again before he died, ten years later.
My father was protective of the books in his shelves, always noticing when one had been removed. Although he is long dead, I still think twice about taking his books from my mother’s bookcases, but there are several which I’d like to inherit, at the appropriate time, because they have family significance. For example, the two leather bound illustrated Bibles. When I examined them recently, I realised from the gilt initials on the cover that they must have been confirmation presents: one for my father William, born in 1927, and one for his sister Judith, born in 1931. The discovery thrilled me, because Judith tragically died when she was 18, and nothing else of hers remains. Her Bible seems more used than her brother’s, probably because she was a rather pious young woman. Turning to the back, I discovered Judith’s annotation on the flysheet in blue ink:
“The gift of faith. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour, for he hath regarded the lowliness of his hand-maiden. John Chapter 12. A miracle ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole’ (after 2 yrs of loneliness).”
Holding this book, which had meant so much to her, I felt a sense of connection across the sixty years which separated us.
My aunt’s religiosity must have skipped a generation from my great grandfather, John Howard Shakespeare, because my grandfather was far from pious. John was a Baptist minister, and the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. He grew up in the small Yorkshire town of Malton, and in one of his books on church matters, he records that in his childhood the only books in the house were the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. He grew up to love books, calling his eldest son William, after Shakespeare, and his second son Geoffrey, after Chaucer. I have the family copy of Bunyan’s book, and I’d like to think that it once belonged to John, the Baptist.
* * * * *
Objects handed down in families become heirlooms, a word which dates from the 15th century. “Lome” was an Old English word meaning tool, because the first heirlooms were the tools of the family craft, which were passed on from parents to children, so that the heir could inherit the family trade, as well as the tools needed to carry it out. The writer Alan Bennett, so fascinated by nostalgia and inheritance, writes of keeping 2 pairs of steel shears, tools from his great grandfather’s employment in a hardware shop:
“I want them because they have a history, which is also my history.” [i]
For a writer and actor, the shears are of symbolic and sentimental rather than practical value, like the tinplate toys which Bennett’s father made during the war and which Bennett tried to track down, delighted when someone finally sent him one which they had bought in a Doncaster antique shop.
Today, the word heirloom has two slightly different meanings:
- Something of special value passed on from one generation to another
- A valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations.
In other words, sometimes an heirloom has value because of the money it would fetch. But an heirloom is also valued because of the individuals or the stories with which it is associated. As an object with an aura, the heirloom is related to the lucky charm or the relic, although its power is imaginative, not magical. Its significance lies in the connection it establishes with an ancestor whom we may never have known. The heirloom embodies family history. Without necessarily being useful, or valuable, or even beautiful, it becomes a treasured possession.
Everyone watches TV programme like Antiques Roadshow just for the surprise and joy on the face of someone who is told that an heirloom that they had previously disregarded turns out to be priceless, or perhaps even better the schadenfreude of someone being told that their prized possession is virtually worthless. Every family has a story of past wealth dispersed. Sheila, my fox-trotting maternal grandmother, told me how her beloved brother Patrick had inherited a Penny Black stamp with his stamp collection, only to swap it at school for a bag of sweets. Geoffrey, my roguish paternal grandfather, had as fine an eye for paintings as he had for girls, and was an avid collector of art. He once spotted a Constable oil sketch of Helmingham Park in a junkshop and bought it for £15. At one point he also possessed works by Edgar Degas, Pierre Renoir and Edward Lear, as well as good examples of the Norwich school artists John Crome and John Sell Cotman. The collection would today have been worth millions, except that almost everything was sold during the depression of the 1930s. The Constable fetched £1500, which delighted my grandfather. The only picture which remains in the family is a watercolour by one of Cotman’s sons, charming but of negligible value.
The history of a family’s property is a continual shuffling and churning. Estates are built up, and broken apart. Collections are made and dispersed. Money ebbs and flows. In his novel Saturday, Ian McEwan’s neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, clears out the house of his demented mother:
“As the shelves and drawers emptied, and the boxes and bags filled, he saw that no one owned anything really. It’s all rented or borrowed. Our possessions will outlast us, we’ll desert them in the end.” [ii]
Most of us come into Tory grandee Michael Heseltine’s disparaged category of those who have to buy their own furniture. Personal items are shed, as we move, declutter, upgrade or replace with something more fashionable. A lifetime of property is distilled into a few relics, whose main significance is their survival. I cherish the objects which I retain from my forebears, but it’s striking how few these treasures are. They could fit in a cabinet. Perhaps one day I’ll have one made, my very own Wunderkammer, a theatre of memory and a microcosm of my world.
The Egyptians fondly hoped that their funerary ornaments would travel with them into the next life. We leave our possessions behind to pose questions to our heirs. But how much worse to be parted from treasured property halfway through life’s journey, as a result of migration or accident? My friend Simon was simply moving house from Sheffield to Manchester when disaster struck. All his belongings – clothes, photographs, furniture, artwork, documents, diaries, letters – were stored in a removal van which was parked in the depot. Overnight, the vehicle and all its contents were destroyed in a fire. When I heard the news, I was deeply shocked. His entire life had gone up in smoke: evidence of achievements, relationships, creativity, experiences all vanished in a blazing hour.
History’s refugees and exiles have often fled with no more than could be packed in a suitcase. Nothing quite as dramatic happened to my own ancestors. But my mother’s family were sixth generation Sri Lankans and when my grandmother and my mother and her sisters moved to England in 1955, they had to leave almost everything behind. The treasured family furniture was dispersed and my great grandmother’s sapphire and emerald jewellery was sold to cover the costs. Beginning again in cold and dreary Britain, my granny never got over the pain and loss of her life in Ceylon, missing the tropical climate, the fragrant curries, and her days of carefree dancing.
* * * * *
Material possessions – wealth and objects – pass on from one generation to another, but inheritance threads through families in other and more mysterious ways. Genes also ebb and flow, shuffle and recombine. So children enter the world carrying the features of their parents, or grandparents. Thomas Hardy, who was so interested in Darwinism and biology, wrote a poem called Heredity
I am the family face; Flesh perishes, I live on, Projecting trait and trace Through time to times anon, And leaping from place to place Over oblivion. The years-heired feature that can In curve and voice and eye Despise the human span Of durance – that is I; The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.
Hence my brother is tall and lean like my paternal grandfather, and his own son looks to be turning out the same way. I most resemble my father, because we both share the genetic mutation which causes the disability achondroplasia, or dwarfism. The red hair which he inherited from Geoffrey has returned in my own son. Geneticists can explain the genetics of hair and eye colour, but they can’t yet cast light on how genes influence facial features, despite the very clear resemblances across generations. My friend the photographer Julian Germain has made a series of very striking portraits of family groups – son, father, grandfather, great grandfather, or daughter, mother, grandmother, great grandmother and sometimes even great great grandmother. In these same gender portraits, it’s extraordinary how not just the same face continues across generations, but also the same expression, the same way of standing, the same taste in clothes. But these images reinforce the popular idea that inheritance is gender specific, as when Oscar Wilde quipped that “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” People owe half their genetic endowment to each parent. Despite looking like my father, my behaviour owes more to my mother.
We like to think of ourselves as individuals, making our own way in the world, but we each stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. In every cell of our body we bear the mark of their past lives. Not just because of the way we look – or the diseases to which we are vulnerable – but in what we think and how we behave. Geneticists point out that genes influence the development of our brains, as well as our bodies. They highlight the similarities between identical twins which prove that genetic factors play a major influence on our personality, responsible for around fifty per cent of the variation.
My great grandfather, the one with Pilgrim’s Progress, rose to become secretary of the Baptist Union at the turn of the twentieth century. He played the leading role in turning what had been a movement of nonconformist congregations into a united denomination. Thanks mainly to his efforts, the Baptists ended up with salaried ministers, a London headquarters, and influence in British religious life. He was a very driven, hyperactive person, who led from the front. In particular, he was passionate about ecumenism, whereas the rest of the Baptists had no intention of reuniting with the Anglicans or other denominations. He ended up isolated, having left most of his colleagues behind him.
From his biography, it appears that John Howard Shakespeare experienced episodic but severe mental illness. During his life, he suffered several breakdowns, brought on by overwork and stress. His obituary in the Baptist Times described how he died feeling that his mission had failed:
“There were disappointments and frustrations but, always highly-strung, he was ill, worn-out in our service, consumed by fires within. He could do nothing by halves. But he had built better than he knew. He had lit lamps that flickered but have not gone out. He never saw the British or World Council of Churches, Without him they might not have been even now. His name is held high in honour by all who work with him. I saw him in the last days, tired and helpless, yet with eyes that shone whenever we spoke of the work he loved…”
I felt very moved by that account. I’ve never had mental health problems, but in other ways, I identify with his urge to achieve social change. In particular, I think I share his hyperactivity and impatience. When I read the autobiographical chapter in my great grandfather’s book, a few lines leapt out at me.
“there is not the slightest danger that anything great and good will advance too quickly. Sometimes I feel like a passenger in a crowded thoroughfare, who has urgent business and who cannot get along, hindered by those who saunter with a leisurely step and casual air as if time were of no account.” [iii]
This sense of impatience spoke to me, because it is one that I share, just as I share his vulnerability to insomnia.
I think of my own personality, and wonder whether it could possibly be partly derived, through genetic inheritance, from John Howard Shakespeare who died four decades before I was born. The parallel may just be a coincidence, like the fact that I share my grandfather Geoffrey’s interest in art history, and collect pictures just as he did. But I think I have far more in common with grandfather and great grandfather than I do with my own father, despite our shared stature, and the similarity might conceivably be attributable to my inherited DNA. Whatever the truth, I find it interesting that I seek a sense of connection with an ancestor I never met. Finding common experiences, shared values or similar traits seems to be about validating my place in a family tradition, the same tradition which makes me treasure my heirlooms.
Despite the work of behavioural geneticists, much of biological inheritance remains a mystery. Fifty years after the discovery of DNA, we are not much further towards answering the questions which puzzled the 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne:
“What monster is it, that this teare or drop of seed, whereof we are ingendered brings with it; and in it the impressions, not only of the corporall forme, but even of the very thoughts and inclinations of our fathers? Where doth this droppe of water containe or lodge this, infinite number of forms? And how beare they these resemblances, of so rash and unruly a progresse, that the childes childe shall be answerable to his grandfather, and the nephew to his uncle?”
This book explores the many ways in which inheritance shapes and influences us, starting with genetics but also including culture, class and status, and socialisation. It also asks what difference disability makes. Through sharing stories of my own family, I will try to illuminate themes and patterns which are relevant to every reader. These include questions which go to the heart of identity, free will and determinism. I want to show why it is important to be aware of what went before us, not least because we now have increasing powers to chose what continues after us, through advances in genetics and reproduction. But this is to get ahead of myself. I need to begin with a different sort of inheritance, one which left me with a whole new wardrobe at the beginning of the journey that led to this book.