Rebecca Tyrrel: 'For such a bastion of Home Counties values, Lord Coe has quite the gene pool'


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The Independent Online

Who knew that Olympics overlord Sebastian Coe is one quarter Punjabi? His grandfather, Sardari Lal, was among the first wave of Indians who came to England to study. He met and married Sebastian's maternal grandmother, Vera Swan, while a London University law student in the 1920s.

The couple later returned to Delhi, where Mr Lal ran one of the city's grander hotels. But interracial marriage was no more a picnic in India then than in England, and an unhappy Vera returned to London with Sebastian's mother, Angela, and his aunt Sheila, settling in the slightly less exotic locale of Willesden Green.

Lal is a Hindu name (translating as 'red', it appears not to have influenced Seb's political leanings). It is not known which caste Sardari belonged to, though his grandson was certainly untouchable in middle-distance races of the 1980s, winning two Olympic gold medals for the 1,500m and setting countless world records over various distances, before swapping the track for the world of the Tory Brahmin. When the Labour landslide of 1997 ended his stint as Conservative MP for Torbay, he reinvented himself as William Hague's 'chief of staff' – and rather predictably earnt himself a peerage. He is now Baron Coe of Ranmore, which is neither in the Punjab nor a suburb of Delhi, but in the county of Surrey.

For such an apparent bastion of Home Counties values, Seb has quite the gene pool. Apart from Sardari, whose hobbies included womanising and driving his Cadillac the wrong way down Delhi's one-way streets, a great-great-great-great grandfather, George Hyde-Clarke, fathered six children out of wedlock while making his fortune from Jamaican sugar cane. Lord Coe discovered this as he took part in the amateur-genealogy-and-conspicuous-weeping show, Who Do You Think You Are?. George was the keeper of 279 slaves and Usain Bolt was born in the parish in which the plantation once stood, so a handy ice-breaker there if and when these past and present megastars of athletics meet in the days ahead.

Although Sebastian has never been close to the Punjabi side of the family, he did visit his grandfather's Lutyens-designed hotel on a trip to Delhi on Olympic business. And in one way at least, he pays homage to his heritage. Lord Coe is a member of the East India, the private gentleman's club in Piccadilly.