Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew started speaking Yiddish, something he does when I mention my Welsh Protestant background'
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The Independent Online

My brother Noel called a while ago with some news that I immediately relayed to Matthew, who was playing internet poker in his office. "You won't believe it," I puffed, out of breath from racing up the path, "but Noel's found him!"

Matthew looked at me quizzically and said, a shade tartly: "Who is this 'him!' of whom you speak. Not, I imagine, the jack of clubs to make my straight flush."

"Him!" I explained, "is a great-great-great-grandfather on our mother's side of the family!"

"Ah," said Matthew, "and where the Dickens – or indeed, given his age – the Trollope is this callow youth?"

"Well, obviously, he is in a graveyard in Wales," I said. This prompted Matthew to start speaking Yiddish, something he often does when I mention my Welsh Protestant (shiksa, as he would have it) background on the maternal side. He said my brother and I and, unfairly I thought, my great-great-great-grandfather in his Welsh grave, were "meshuga".

Meshuga means foolish and meshugas means a foolishness or lunacy and Matthew clearly feels that a meshugas is what my brother is caught up in. I, on the other hand, would call it an obsession. Noel often gets obsessions. The current one started when he was listening to Steve Wright's Radio 2 show. Tony Robinson (Baldrick) was a guest, and he was talking about his fascination with a genealogy website called Noel was intrigued, signed up to the site for £10, and ever since has devoted his every leisure hour to tracing various family lines back as far as possible, traipsing round sunken graveyards looking for the headstones of long-dead, ivy-engulfed relatives.

In the early days, before I knew what he was up to, he phoned to tell me he'd "unearthed" a great-great-grandmother in a neglected churchyard in Dorset and I assumed he meant he had actually disinterred her. If he hadn't sounded so excited I might have reported him to the police for desecrating a grave.

Such is his obsession that there are churchwardens in the rural South-west who would gladly see my brother strung up (as, it would appear, was one of our distant relatives) for the haranguing he is giving them in his quest to find the resting places of our antecedents. Noel is particularly intrigued by two specific Dorset villages, where, it would seem, large numbers of our father's family lived, including someone who has gone down in the annals as being a feeble-minded pauper. My brother, seeing himself as the defender of the bloodline, is taking this personally and feels an injustice has been done that should be posthumously righted; that this poor fellow, aged 23, could have been suffering some degenerative brain disease such as Alzheimer's (early onset, obviously) and was only a pauper because he was unable to seek employment.

It is all very fascinating, although there are times when I am with the churchwardens on the hanging debate. I have been receiving an average of 15 emails, texts and phone calls a day. Three days ago, Noel called seven times to report with glee the discovery of some landed gentry. "Great-great-great-great-Uncle William was quite the aristocrat," he said, in a triumphant voice that implied we should reconsider our stations in life and take action. I asked him what he thought we should do, exactly. Squat in the nearest stately? Take up hunting?

The latest finding concerning a great-great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother's side is, from the hysterical note in Noel's voice, possibly the most significant yet.

"And what was this intriguing gentleman's name?" asked Matthew. I didn't answer him at first, because I could foresee the reaction. "I am so sorry," said Matthew, interrupting the silence. "You are right, that was rather opaque. Let me simplify the question for you. What. Was. His. Name?"

"His name," I replied, "was Thomas Thomas."

Now, Matthew has a thing about double naming and the ensuing speech came as no surprise. "You know how I feel," he said, "and with good reason. Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby Kennedy and robbed America and the world of its shining hope. Humbert Humbert is literature's leading paedophile. As for Neville Neville, he sired the left-back whose insane lunge gave away the penalty that removed us from Euro 2000. These people must come from stock so dumb they lack the imagination to think of another name. And now you come in here, all out of breath with excitement, to tell me that our son, whose own middle name is Thomas, has a doubled-named ancestor in his gene pool."

Noel rang again this evening, and spoke to Matthew. He told him he had discovered that Thomas Thomas's daughter had married another Mr Thomas. "And guess what her father-in-law's name was," said Matthew as he relayed the conversation to me. "I'll give you a clue, two words, both beginning with T."

I've been trying to think of a person with a double name who was quite clever. Magnus Magnusson? But of course he only asked the questions on Mastermind. He didn't actually answer them.