Don't let the census perplexJan 17th, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Personal Columns
Getting out of bed at 3.30 am Austrian time (2.30 am Dublin time) was not a cheery start to the day. The bus for the transfer journey from the hotel to Innsbruck airport collected us at 4.10 precisely. At one corner in the village, there still stood a group of young people who had not returned from the previous evening’s apres-ski.
By the time of take off at 7.45, another brilliant blue Alpine morning was dawning. In the quietness of a cabin filled with drowsy passengers, the outside world came crowding in through the pages of the complementary copy of the Financial Times. Ireland featured prominently on the back page Lex column, “Anglo Irish Bank, Ireland’s most reckless commercial property lender, has at last been committed to the safety of an institution: the Irish government. Dublin procrastinated as Anglo Irish gasped its last, the chairman resigned over governance lapses and risks grew of a dangerous run on the bank. Full nationalisation fast became the only option to avert a collapse of the Irish banking system”. The thought of coming home to a complete financial collapse was hardly an inspiring thought.
The inside pages allowed an escape from the gloom. “Let the census inspire” wrote John Lloyd as he considered the online publication of the 1911 Census:
The mania to know oneself through ancestors spiked again this past week, as some 700,000 people searched the 1911 England and Wales census before lunch on Tuesday, when it was put on line. They could have discovered that David Beckham’s great great grandfather was a dustman (or “scavenger”) for Walworth Council; Amy Winehouse’s great great grandfather was a “hawker”; and that a number of bold women scrawled over their census returns variants of protests that they could not vote: “If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper,” wrote one, “I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper.”
Why the itch to know? “There’s been such a loss of families’ oral histories,” said Jane Haynes, a psychotherapist, whose book, Who is it that can tell me who I am?, explores dilemmas of identity. “Divorce is so common: so many have lost touch with their pasts – and believe they can find it if they know who their grandparents and before were.”
Ms Haynes cited a cycle of poems by Elizabeth Cook, The Twelve Degrees of Loneliness, in which she describes the suicide by shooting of her grandfather in the Far East, and imagines the bullet travelling across the world, back to England, where “unspent, you linger/scorch yourself in/to the grain of his children”. A number of Cook’s extended family were drawn to suicide or fatally destructive behaviour – as was her brother, the comedian Peter Cook.
Do genetic bullets fly down the centuries to prompt actions which, unknown to us, derive from our ancestors?
Excited by the prospect of discovering something more about my late grandfather, born in Isleworth in west London in November 1906, I logged on to the website at the first opportunity after getting home, paid for access to transcripts, and . . . nothing.
He is not there. The census has no record of a Sidney Poulton born in 1906. Where had he gone? People cannot just disappear and then reappear, particularly people who are only four years old at the time of the census. I tried every possible variant of the name, and drew a blank.
“Do genetic bullets fly down the centuries?” asks John Lloyd. Who knows? It doesn’t seem that the Census is going to provide much inspiration to our family.
By lunchtime, Dublin was beset by gales and driving rain; much more the sort of weather to reflect the mood of the back page of the Financial Times.