Monday, August 23, 2010

Will they let me declaim poetry?

I have a family history website for the benefit of my relatives, but I try to keep it separate from this blog because my family history is really very dull, and this blog has enough problems with my life being boring. Certainly I can't compete with Nick Clegg or David Cameron's genealogies; nobody in my family has ever been beaten to death by his own peasants, had an affair with HG Wells, or been King of England.

Alas, not only are none of my ancestors famous, but they are also all English: there's not even an Irish, Scots or Welsh person, let alone a Jew, Huguenot or freed African slave, thus making my family history so un-PC that it must be ineligible for BBC Radio 4's Tracing Your Roots which seems to require at least one immigrant strand to your family to be included in the programme.

However, I discovered a week ago that one of my great-great-great-grandmothers, named Elizabeth Watkins, was briefly famous in the last year of her life for being the last surviving witness of the Battle of Waterloo. This was in 1904, she was 94 years old and she'd been five when she helped her mother bandage the wounded. Her father Daniel Gale was in the 3rd Battalion of the 95th Regiment of Foot - the same regiment as the fictional Sharpe, which gives me an excuse to insert a picture of Sean Bean. Please feel free to admire him for as long as you wish before continuing:

Elizabeth's longevity with all her wits about her has been repeated in every generation of her descendants, which gives me cause for optimism for my old age. But, there's more: when she was interviewed in 1904 they let her recite a poem about Waterloo "with much dramatic action", which must have been a sight since she was wearing a voluminous black skirt with a bustle.

My mum wanted me to talk nice, so I did speech and drama lessons from the age of five to sixteen, which left me with an RP accent, fearlessness about public speaking, and a large stock of memorised Victorian poetry which I've been wanting to perform ever since, but whenever I launch into verse people either leave the room or throw something at me, so my ambition remains frustrated. Can it be that if I make it to my nineties I'll get an audience at last? I'll start rehearsing now:

"It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company...."

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