Though I will avoid mentioning him by name, one of my friends has a fine aristocratic title, if nowadays a somewhat less splendid estate. Many years ago, having nothing better to discuss, we took opposite sides in the class war. “Oh, it’s all right for some,” I said in my bitterest man-of-the-people voice. “While your people were living it up in those castles, mine were scratching in the dirt. Do you feel no shame at twenty generations of shiny leather boots, all polished with the sweat of my ancestors?” His reply was that twenty generation of experience had shown beeswax to give a better shine to boots than the sweat of smelly peasants. He had a point. But, had I taken the trouble to bore him with the facts of my own ancestry, he might have had a better point.
In or about 1909, one of my great grandmothers was a parlour maid in a big house in Donegal. She seems to have been a pretty girl – or at least an available girl. The young man of the house took a fancy to her, and things took their usual Catherine Cookson course. As soon as her belly grew too big to be disguised, the young man’s father kicked her out. What happened next is one among many blank entries in my family tree. But the mists clear in the early 1930s, when her son took a job as a coal miner in Kent. He was something of a trouble-maker there, and was soon in search of new employment. He found this as a sailor on one of the Channel ferries, where his own fancy settled on the daughter of the manager of the rope-making factory in Chatham Dockyard. Their romance proceeded through a drink-sodden party somewhere between Ramsgate and Dieppe, where the captain presided over a grossly invalid marriage ceremony, followed, just under nine months later, by a hurried shuffle through the Chatham Registry Office. From this emerged my mother, followed in due course by me.
Now, when she explained this to me, my grandmother took an aggrieved view of her late husband’s origins. Never trust the upper classes, she assured me – they were all wicked people. If she may have been right, I have no reasonable choice but to take a more balanced view of the matter. It was my great grandmother who was got into trouble, and, for all I can tell, was kicked out into the winter snow. All the same, it was my great grandfather who got her into trouble, and my great-great grandfather who kicked her into the snow. I have no more reason to feel bitter about how that girl was treated than I have to exult in the pleasure that young man of the house took in her, or to join in the self-righteous curses his father heaped on her. For all the lawyers and priests may disagree, blood is indifferent to what side of the blanket it flows.
I can go further. That young servant girl may have been the pure-bred descendant of blameless victims going back all the way to when they first tried standing on two legs. But I strongly doubt that. Given full knowledge, I am sure I could point to generation after generation of fruitful couplings with landlords and priests and army officers. My friend can show a complete family tree going back to the Conquest and beyond, and can plausibly deny that any of his female ancestors so much as looked at a serf. Outside his exalted order, the bloodlines are more complex.
For the past three centuries, first in England, then elsewhere, we have grown used to the idea that social mobility is on the whole upwards. Those of us who take the trouble to dig through the records can find ancestors in much humbler circumstances than our own. From this, the idea has emerged that social mobility has always been upwards, and therefore, that, unless our own immediate ancestors did well enough to rise into the higher classes, those of us in the humbler classes can look back with masochistic resentment on centuries and millennia of oppression by their ancestors of our ancestors. The conversation with which I began this piece was not serious on either side. Add in the element of race, however, and it is now the source of much social and economic bitterness – a source both false and dangerous to the improvement that mankind has enjoyed for the past three centuries.
Rather than upward, most social mobility in the past was downward. Obviously, if you see a mediaeval king who had five surviving sons, only one of them could ordinarily become the next king. The other four would join the senior nobility. But, in those countries where titles and property descended to the eldest son, these would often have more sons than could inherit their fathers’ status. These in turn would move down a rank. The surplus children of the nobility would fall into the gentry. Their surplus would join the professions. So it would continue downwards. Looking at the bottom of society, the workers on the land might be more fecund than their betters, but had the least salubrious lives, and the least means of getting through the periodic crises of pre-modern societies. Therefore, the less fortunate descendants of those at the top would eventually find themselves at the bottom. That is without the irregular unions I have mentioned that could short-circuit the downward genetic drift. Therefore, the poorest he that ever was in England has always, and often in a significant sense, been the progeny of the greatest he.
This is the case too for the Mediterranean world, where I also have ancestry. I will not deny that some of my ancestors must have been slaves or the more or less unfree lower classes of the Roman Empire. But slaves notoriously did not reproduce, which is one of the causes of those endless wars of conquest that filled the slave markets of the Empire. The free poor were the first and heaviest victims of the plagues and famines that swept the Empire from the second century onward. If I were able to trace that side of my blood back far enough, it would terminate more than anywhere else in the senatorial or equestrian classes, whose own families had always been at or near the top of their societies. I suppose that justifies, for anyone who wants a justification, my obsession with the Ancient World. When I read Livy and Herodotus, I am not reading the equivalent of some modern court circular, about the doings of the betters and therefore the oppressors of those who actually begot me: I am reading about my own most probable ancestors. And if I or you were to go back far enough, we would all find ourselves descended from those horrid raiders on horseback, usually with slanted eyes and scars carved on their faces, who were the continual parasites on every ancient settlement – men who, having murdered their competitors, filled the genepool with their own seed.
This much is plain for England and for the Eurasian landmass in general. But, making such changes as may be obvious – but that, in a country as unfree as England now is, it may not be convenient to spell out in detail – the same has been true in other parts of the world. Therefore, every age has had a class of oppressors and of oppressed. But these have never been separate bloodlines. The oppressed have always been the less fortunate cousins of the oppressors.
The cult of hereditary victimhood in which our society now wallows is a sham. All of us – my noble friend excepted, or excepted so far back as he can trace – can point to ancestors who suffered ill-treatment. But it is a selective tracing of family trees if we choose to focus on those and not on the other ancestors who themselves treated others badly. Let there be full knowledge of our family trees, and we are all the progeny of rapists, of slave-owners, and of mass-murderers. We owe each other nothing today – not financial compensation, nor so much as an apology. The most we owe is a resolution to ourselves and each other not to behave in the future as our ancestors behaved in the past.
I suffer from a condition called Dupuytren’s contracture. You can look this up for yourself – it is more a nuisance than a danger. It is most likely that I take this from the Vikings who invaded and made trouble in England between the eighth and the eleventh centuries. At least one of my ancestors on that side must have gone about murdering monks and burning churches and raping and impregnating nuns. That and the intervening thousand years are somewhat more than another blank entry in my family tree. But the generality of descent is probable enough. One of those wicked ancestors may even have assisted in a “blood eagle execution.” He would have taken a prisoner from one of his raids – a young man like himself – and hacked his ribs away from the spine, and pulled out the bones and skin and guts to form a semblance of wings. He would then have danced to the sound of dying screams and got drunk afterwards – assuming he was sober at the time. Do I look at the palm of my left hand and feel bad about that? If you want to hold your breath while waiting for an answer, I hope you have powerful lungs.