Most days, I walk down the Ledborough Road, to observe in passing the extraordinary variety of human life-forms on display. Suddenly the “brotherhood of all mankind” comes into my head. As usual, I’m glad to be me, thankful indeed. But then I reflect that my birth was no more of my choosing than theirs was to them. I don’t believe in karma and past lives, not even the separation of body and soul; but it does seem to us, or perhaps it’s embedded in our language, that a soul is planted into a foetus some time between conception and taking our first breath. So this soul which calls itself “I” could be any of these people. As a thought experiment, I briefly tried to imagine being one of the persons I passed. Sometimes I thought it could work for a second or two, flying on a momentary attraction or fellow-feeling. But the main thing I got from it was a conviction that none of us can claim credit or discredit for being what we are. We didn’t choose this particular body and we’re not self-made.Thus I became ready to take a dispassionate look at the two parents whose mixed DNA made me and set me off on a path that has ended up here.
Of my father I know little, except that he was born in Perth, Australia. If he’s still alive, he’s 91 or 92. I never heard about him from my mother, and was 49 when I first learned of his existence. He wasn’t around, we were never introduced, because not long after begetting me, he reached his eighteenth birthday. A real man would not hang around taking his turn changing diapers. He would enlist, join a troopship bound for the jungles where the warriors of Nippon must be vanquished for the liberation of South-east Asia and the world. And so he did, not returning till months after the atomic bombs and the Emperor’s surrender. Whereupon he did the decent thing and proposed marriage to my newly-widowed mother, whose husband did not survive hostilities.She spurned him and brought me from Perth to England and reunion with her parents, till she thought of what to do next.
My father’s name is Harold Laurence Amey. His roofing company, Larry Amey & Associates, is still listed at the address where I went to meet him 20 years ago; I guess nobody updates trade websites unless somebody asks. The last time I sent a card, it came back months later with “unknown” scrawled across it. Well, at least we met; and I once had a small photo, a mugshot from when he was 17. One glance revealed the obvious likeness, evidence enough. My elder children changed their surnames to Amey, but he wasn’t pleased, said they should have asked his permission first.
Of my mother’s family, I know a good deal, not just those members I met in the flesh, but also those of earlier generations, thanks to an interest they’ve shown in genealogy. The picture below, taken in 1913, shows my mother shortly before her 4th birthday, sitting on my grandmother’s knee, next to my grandfather Vincent in the straw hat.
The family tree shown below was initially sketched by my sister, out of a special interest in the Elphinstone lineage; this being somewhat illustrious, and well-documented in Wikipedia. The dotted line leading to my name, bottom left, indicates I was not the offspring of either of my mother’s two listed husbands, nor indeed her third, who isn’t shown, though he was my stepfather from 1954 till his death.
My grandfather Vincent Sumner Ward used to have a lineage chart showing direct descent from John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1848 till his death in 1862. I’ve never felt any sense of kinship with him or what he stood for.
Of all my forebears, the one who interests me is my mother’s mother’s father—one of my four great-grandfathers. It may be impossible now to discover more about him than the little I’ve jotted below:
- Rev. Joseph Sanger Davies
- b. 1849 Wales to Thomas Whicker Davies of Haverfordwest Pembrokeshire & Hannah Tanner Sanger of Salisbury Wiltshire.
- d. 1900 in Cannes
- Educated at Queens College, Oxford *
- Married to Harriet Anna Turner in 1881
- Father of eight children [shown in photo above]
- Held English Chaplaincy in Italy and the Tyrol
- Member of the Alpine Club
- Author of Dolomite Strongholds: the last untrodden Dolomite peaks (George Bell & Sons, 1894)
I have a first edition of this book, passed down through the family. It must have been his own copy, for it contains between its leaves some of his line-drawings on flimsy paper. I’ve reproduced them on an earlier post, here. Long out of copyright, it’s currently available in six print editions, in various qualities of facsimile, precious alike to rock climbers today and connoisseurs of high Victorian prose of the best kind.
I didn’t intend this post to be about me as I am today, merely a short essay, such as anyone might submit if the topic set was “How I came to inhabit this body”. We each have had two parents, just write down what you know or don’t know about them, where they came from, how they met. That was the straightforward intent, till unconscious forces got in on the act. It happened this way. Sleep deserted me at 4am this morning, so I lay awake, had the idea for this post, started to plan its content, till at some point I drifted back into sleep and I had a dream.
I’d been accepted for some Civil Service or academic post, it wasn’t clear. A colleague from a different department invited me for a chat, a sort of all-day induction. His company was so easy and pleasant that I felt guilty to be getting paid for such idle fun. Shouldn’t I be sitting at a desk with my head down? He laughed, took me for a walk around the town, no sense of urgency about anything, till we returned to his office for a fine buffet lunch. He said my new boss would be showing up soon, I needed to be briefed in advance. The post was very prestigious. I was to move with my family to Cambridge. I protested: don’t expect me to start a new life at my age! I’m settled. I don’t even want this post, I already have everything I want. Here I’m not answerable, I have freedom of thought: this is my only asset, don’t take that away. Then he delivered the coup de grâce, the killer blow: “You’ll be at Queen’s College! You’re part of the family, it goes back generations, welcome back! We’ll look after everything. There can be no question of refusing. And, now, here is your superior, the College Provost, with three senior colleagues.” Four distinguished-looking persons came in—all women, one in an Indian sari—how disconcerting to be working under them! The Provost said a few words, then they all stood in line waiting to shake my hand, as if this were a long-awaited moment. Gauche and nervous, I muttered that my hands were a little sticky with butter. I looked around wildly for something to wipe them on. They pretended not to notice, waited. All attention was on me.
It was one of those dreams where I’m cornered, and my only escape is to wake up, and learn something I needed to know. As much as I admire the deeds and renown of my shadowy great-grandfather from Queen’s College, when it really comes down to it, I’m my father’s son, a common man, at home on the Ledborough Road, not the ivory towers of Academe.
* I was surprised to check J. Sanger-Davies’ book and rediscover he went to Oxford, unlike the other male relatives in the group photo, who went to Cambridge. Facts never stand in the way of dreams.