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A DNA kit arrives in the post, a gift from my son. This kit promises if I spit into a little plastic tube and fork out £85 (thank you, my boy) to tell me where I come from.
Now this is irresistible to me as my understanding of family history is patchy at best and extends no more than three or four generations back, and any relation that could tell me more is long gone.
I am therefore all up for this DNA stuff.
I begin by brushing my teeth & rinsing my mouth for an age in plain water. Feeling suitably clear of unwanted biological contaminants I gob into a plastic phial provided, seal it, and repack into the box in whence it came and trot off to the postbox.
I take note that I am promised results in six to eight weeks.
As the days and the weeks go by, I find myself increasingly curious as to what my DNA may reveal. I wistfully think about a spot of Tuareg blood in there somewhere, or Gypsy, or Native American Indian, or Polynesian, or hunter gatherer from the Russian Steppe, something with an air of romance to it, and at the same time realise that if my results come back as 100 percent English I will be sorely disappointed. This would by implication mean that my forebears were lacking in any sense of adventure and never went anywhere or came from anywhere more exotic than Watford.
(Apologies if you are from Watford, but I am sure you know what I mean.)
There is one other trait that this kit can reveal which I do not want to see, Neanderthal Genes. The test identifies Neanderthal ancestry and that I most certainly don’t want to be there for.
And as the weeks go by, I channel two thoughts for my DNA:-
Please don’t let me be 100% English & Neanderthal.
The weeks grind by slowly and I become more and more desperate to hear about my history. It’s my birthright to discover where I come from. Immediately six weeks is up I email 23andMe.
I haven't heard anything yet, it’s been six weeks, what’s happening?
I am sent an auto generated message that has never touched a human being that tells me they will get back to me.
Then another email that tells me that my spittle arrived finally five weeks after I posted it. Now I am irritated, five weeks, WTF? Was it being delivered by a snail?
I send a caustic mail in response. A human being emails me back to tell me that the five weeks represents not the time it took to get there, but the date the package was opened and then registered at their labs. OK, well that's not really very helpful, but I get it.
The following day another email again not from an human advises me that 23andMe are doing a computer update of their systems to improve the quality of service. Therefore there will be further delays in processing.
This makes me incandescent with rage. How could they? Why choose now to update their systems, in the middle of me and my business? And another thing, I might know sweet Fanny Adam about computer systems, but an upgrade is usually a quick process. Why more delays?
Mr. Angry sends off another email that talks about inefficiency, incompetence, and professes to know a thing or two about systems updates (which of course I have no clue about whatsoever). For good measure I lambast their customer service; I throw in the word woeful, to round off. Take that.
I feel like I am now on a crusade as clearly this company is holding back on my birthright. All I want to know is where I come from and these swine will not tell me.
The next day, just before the eight weeks is up, an email arrives from 23andMe with my results.
So they’ve done exactly what they said they would in the time frame they gave me at the outset. I now feel like a complete dick for having made such a fuss.
I decide to draw a veil under the matter and forget the correspondence, or rather my ranting emails, as quickly as possible. The important thing here is where I come from.
I click on the mail and there in big numbers is my DNA broken down by percentage.
70.9% British & Irish. Ok, not quite what I was hoping. 17.4% French and German, a bit of Scandinavian and the rest unidentified European. In all. I am 99.7% European.
To be honest I am just a bit crushed—no ancestors in canoes across the Pacific, or riding camels in a desert, or ponies across the steppe. Maybe I am more Watford than Waikiki after all?
23andMe has other reports on my DNA, so next I look at my Neanderthal markers.
Bollocks! I have an above average count of Neanderthal DNA. That's just bloody great.
And there in those two reports I have almost exactly what I least wanted to find. I am an Englishman with Neanderthal ancestors.
I go on with the reports and find a little succour in a timeline which tells me about some of my ancestors.
I knew nothing of a Scandinavian connection and had only family rumours about a French one, so a DNA confirmation is a progress of sorts, but I want to know more.
Then I click on DNA family and am somewhat flabbergasted to discover that 23andMe has 965 individuals on their database who are in some form or another related to me. These range from first cousins to remotely related individuals. A map indicates that they are spread across the World from America to the Antipodes. I begin to look through the names and recognise none of them, not a single one.
I am somewhat relieved to find that not all of my family are dyed in the wool English Neanderthals. But then who are all of these people? How am I related?
I take the person second highest in percentage of common DNA. 23andMe tells me they are most likely my first or second cousin, the forename & surname are quite unusual, and I figure it will be easier to track them down than a John Smith type. I put them into Google and a Facebook page pops up.
I click and there is the relation I’ve never met looking out from his Facebook page. He is Canadian, close to Toronto, in his thirties—he looks like a pretty cool dude. The last pic on his FB is of him astride a big motorbike on the road in Asia. Behind him on the bike is a rather attractive woman. Things are looking up, I've a cool dude relation.
That is until I go back to Google, put in his name once again but this time add his hometown, and up pops a string of newspaper articles. I know this is my relation because on reflection his hometown is familiar—an aunt that died long ago emigrated to Canada and my family didn’t really remain in contact very much, but I do recognise the town name and the surname when I come to think of it. This fella is definitely my relation.
The first article begins with the word Gangster...
I read one article after another. The words that stand out are: Murder, Cocaine, Heroin, Firearms—my Cus is a bad boy, a very bad boy. As I read on I find that two of his siblings have met dark ends, one murdered, one dies under suspicious circumstances. What happened? How on earth did he get into all that stuff? Maybe its not worth getting in touch with him just now.…
A day later I get an email from the first name on the list out of the blue. It’s from another bloke in Canada, by the name of John. He says he can see we are related from 23andMe. Neither of us know how we are connected, but we know we are first or second cousins. Rather encouragingly he tells me that he is a retired mining engineer living in Canada, so I figure that he is no gangster. We exchange emails and figure out that we share the same grandfather, though as a result of two marriages a different grandmother. We talk about a family connection with Egypt, about Canada, our mutual gangster relation and of our grandfather. I tell him that I know little of him as he died when my mother was an infant and neither my mother nor grandmother talked about him.
Though over the years, I had heard snippets and rumours that he was a bit of a dodgy character. When I mention this it seems to give my new cuz the green light to dish the dirt. I learn that my grandfather, a doctor, died of a heroin overdose in the 1930s. We don’t know whether it was accidental or deliberate—given that he was a doctor he would certainly have known how to medicate. John also went on to mention that at the time of his death, Grandfather was also suffering from a rather virulent case of the clap, other anecdotes about him were also deeply unpleasant, he isn't a nice bloke...
Shortly after his email I get another mail from a different relative on the list, this time a woman in California. After a little delving we work out that my great grandfather and her great grandmother were brother and sister, on my father's side in Worcestershire in the late 1800s. This connection seems much more wholesome, no ghosts in cupboards.
Quite quickly using a genealogical website with the information I have so far begun to trace family back in time from birth, marriage & death records. One strand goes back to the Scottish Highlands—before Scotland became part of the United Kingdom (we are talking the 1600’s). I like the idea of one of my forebears in the Highlands in a wooly skirt with a sporran, and yet elsewhere there are big gaps in the tree, the French connection, the Scandinavian, of these so far I know nothing. As I begin to delve into the lives of my ancestors I am curious about how they lived, about what was important to them, of where they went and why. And behind these questions I also carry another, what in me comes from them? Do my actions, the way I think, what I believe in, how much of me is a mirror of those who lived before?
I will carry on delving into my ancestors. It’s darned interesting, trying to fill in the gaps, learn more about their stories, of where I came from, but at the same time through this exercise I see that dwelling too much in the past is like going down into a labyrinth that hides now. One can’t lose sight of the present. The here and now is a gift from those who came before me and what I make of it good or bad, beautiful or ugly is my choice.
We are a product of our ancestors. Without them we wouldn’t be here. We take something, perhaps only the most infinitesimal aspect of them, maybe a shade of eye colour, a similarity of jaw line, or mannerism, or gait, or the way we may react to a given stimulus, but each of these I think of as being rather like a tool in a large tool box, or a tube of paint amongst a painter's colours. How we use what we have is entirely down to us, we are our own masters and creators.
I am the gangster, or druggie, or the Englishman that set off for America all those years ago, or the Scandinavian who crossed the North Sea in the 1700s and started a family in Britain, the Highlander in the 1600s—all of them are there in me, traces in the blood.
With what they have given me and what I in my own thoughts and actions add in turn create a new story. Armed with that knowledge I, 99.7 percent European male with above average Neanderthal DNA, set off once more on the continuing journey that will become just another part of history.