Flags of our Daughters

Flags are potent and emotive symbols for many people but when my daughter plonked her new school-bag on the kitchen counter at the beginning of this week I cracked a wry smile.

Brit-BagLove that Union flag?

My reaction to the garish decoration of her bag made me realise what a long way I had travelled from my own childhood, a journey that has been at least partly influenced by science.

The details are a bit fuzzy but one summer when I was about five or six years of age, the colours and curious geometric arrangements of little Union Jacks on sale in my local sweet-shop must have caught my eye because I sacrificed my sweet money to buy one — no more than a bit of plastic glued to a stick — and taped it to the handlebars of my bike. But when my father came home from work and saw me doing laps of the yard, there was no wry smile.

“Where did you get that?”

I was immediately banned from parading my purchase in the street.

It’s not that my father was angry. Rather, he was concerned for my safety because, as a Catholic growing up Northern Ireland in the Trouble-wracked sixties and seventies, the decoration of my bike was likely to attract dangerous interest from both sides of that divided community. Other Catholics (our republican friends, so to speak) would wonder what the hell I was doing, whereas Protestants (unionists – God Save the Queen and all that) would have unmasked me with a couple of questions (“What’s your name?”, “What school do you go to?”) and soon divined that my affinity for the flag was not nearly as thick as blood.

As I got older I learned there was more to a flag than the pretty patterns. Though it was by no means universal, many of the streets and housing estates in Northern Ireland were branded with Union Jacks or Irish tricolours, to signal the affiliation of the local residents. One lot would tolerate you, the other was ‘the enemy’. So despite my initial infatuation with the red, white and blue, the British flag became an intimidating stranger.

My aversion to the Union Jack wasn’t sufficient to prevent me heading to university in London to study physics. This was a big change of scene for a lad from Ballymena. London was a lot to cope with but I revelled in the refreshing new mix of people, none of whom seemed too preoccupied with religious or community affiliation. But there were still odd effects of my upbringing. Every so often I would trip over my Northern Irish roots.

I settled in England, having met my wife at university. Admirable assimilation you might think, but although she is English — her Essex origins had not escaped me during our courting — when she was expecting our first child I started to fret about what it would be like to have a son who spoke with an English accent. Estuary English, to be precise. I was worried that his linking R’s and dropped H’s might be a barrier between us*.

Of course, in the event nothing could have been further from the truth. My son speaks the way he speaks and that is part of who he is. It’s the same with my two daughters. But it took the experience to teach me the lesson. Nowdays we just laugh about our different accents. By which I mean, they laugh at mine.

“Say ‘fruit’ Dad”
“Go on, say ‘eight’.”

The move to England was good for my education in diversity, but the lesson was solidly reinforced by forging a career in science. Life in a modern lab is fantastically enriched by international contacts. As a postdoc I was lucky to do stints in France and the USA (our second child is American, but didn’t stay long enough to pick up a Boston accent). And a whole string of foreign students and postdocs have passed through my lab at Imperial, from as far afield as Argentina, Russia, Israel, Greece, Hungary, France, Ireland, Indonesia, and China.

These observations will be familiar to most people who work in science. The internationalism of the profession may even have come to seem ordinary, but our daily immersion in the world-wide ebb and flow of people is an extraordinary pleasure and privilege. And of course it is hugely beneficial to our shared scientific enterprise.

But international engagement is not such a commonplace for everyone. When my daughter’s bag landed on the worktop, the bright array of red, white and blue also brought to mind the British National Party (BNP), who have blended the union flag into their logo, smearing it with their stunted, whites-only mindset and making it for many a symbol to be feared. There has been a bit of a to-do recently (as we say in England) about the BBC’s plan to allow BNP members to appear on Question Time, a long-running TV show where the studio audience gets to quiz politicians of the day. In my opinion the BNP are an excremental bunch of little Englanders, who espouse loathsomely violent methods of immigration control, but I think the BBC would be right to put them on the show. The exposure to the diversity of the British public might just do them some good (or, at least, some electoral harm). There’s nothing like mixing it with strangers to teach you something new about the world.

Pomp, in the right circumstances (from the BBC)

However, that battle can wait for another day. This evening on BBC-TV there are no politicians because the Last Night of the Proms is being broadcast, the last of a series of summer concerts (held in the Royal Albert Hall) that is famed for the standing-room-only promenade in front of the orchestra. As is traditional, at the end of tonight’s concert there will be Elgar’s rousing Pomp and Circumstance and there will be much joyous waving of the Union Jack. I’m quite partial to a bit of Elgar and, even if I still can’t connect with the flag-waving, I’m completely relaxed about others enjoying it.

I’ve got my roots, you know, but I’m branching out.


*I realised my son’s accented fate was sealed one Friday morning when he was about three years old. We were living in Essex and he was starting to learn the days of the week.
“What day is it today,” I asked.
“Um, Monday?”
“No. I’ll give you a clue – tomorrow’s Saturday. So what is it today?”
“Um, Wednesday?”
“No, that was two days ago. Tomorrow is Saturday,” I prompted, “so today is Fffff… Fffff…”
His eyes lit up with the delight of recognition.


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126 Responses to Flags of our Daughters

  1. Eva Amsen says:

    Your daughter’s bag is really cool, and so is your accent!
    Flags on bags got in the news negatively in Holland a few years ago. I don’t know how it is now. But it was a touchy subject even when I left (2002) and before that time, where display of the flag on jackets or bags meant that that person had certain extremist right-wing sensibilities.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Heh. Flags are great. We need to reclaim them from the fascists.
    I prowl London making sure they’re flying the right-way up and sending in a gunboat if they’re not.

  3. Kristi Vogel says:

    In the US we’ve co-opted the Trio of Pomp and Circumstance March #1 for high school and college graduation ceremonies; is it used as such in the UK?
    I miss seeing the Last Night of the Proms – I’m rather partial to Jerusalem, even though I’m quite areligious (some would say irreligious). Perhaps because it’s featured in two of my favorite movies, Chariots of Fire and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, as well as in a Monty Python sketch.
    In Texas public schools we had to learn the six flags that have flown over the state: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic, the Confederacy (ugh), USA. We also had to learn a bunch of other crap facts about the Alamo, San Jacinto, Sam Houston, etc., which I’m always expected to recall and expound upon when we have outside visitors.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Glad you like the accent, Eva! Though I think I have to credit Jimmy Nesbit (who grew up near Ballymena) with making North Antrim tones cool!
    Sad to see flags being a pretext for disharmony in Holland too. Mind you the Dutch influence was not unknown in Irish history – WIlliam of Orange appears in some of the magnificent paintings that adorn the gable ends of houses in, um, Unionist areas.

    from http://www.wandertheplanet.net

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    @Richard – certainly up for reclaiming flags from the fascists – and having some fun. I have long thought of having this made up as a t-shirt to wear on trips home:

    But I think it might get me killed, even today.
    P.S. Is it the right way up?

  6. Eva Amsen says:

    I just remembered the flag book:
    I went to an American school in Morocco for a few years (2nd to 4th grade), and there were kids from all over the world there. My mom helped out in the school library, and she noticed that the most popular book one year was the book with all the world flags. It really was the best. We were fighting over it in the library. I only had it once or twice, but we also shared it among friends, so I had it in my hands quite often.
    And in second grade at that school, our teacher gave us an assignment to draw the flag of the country we were from. The Japanese girl and I were not particularly excited about this assignment, but after we finished we got a good look at the flags the others were drawing. This is where I learned what the Indian and Philippine flags looked like.
    Best school ever. 90% of what I know now about people’s differences and similarities comes from what I learned at that school. The other 10% comes from working in labs.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    @Kristi – high-school graduation in the UK happens when students go along to school one summer morning to get their GCSE results on a piece of paper. As far as I know there is no music!
    The only graduation ceremonies in the UK are for degrees. Coincidentally, Imperial holds its ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall (just across the street), the venue for the proms. In this view, Imperial is down the road to your left. I can report that the event is not quite as atmospheric as a prom!
    And ain’t it a shame how some schools are so good at making history dull?

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    Eva, I can sympathise with your lack of inspiration from the Dutch flag – is there a variant from another country with the colours inverted? The Irish tricolour (green-white-orange) is easily confused with the orange-white-green of the Ivory Coast…
    That Moroccan school sounds brilliant. A large part of the problem in NI was due to the near-universal religious segregation of schooling which did an excellent job of dividing the communities. It was a corrosive, poisonous influence. As a result/reaction, none of my children attend a religiously-branded school.

  9. Kristi Vogel says:

    @ Stephen – Dullness wasn’t the worst of it, unfortunately; the Texas history lessons were quite often biased and inaccurate as well. Some of the inaccuracies became very apparent later, while I was participating in salvage archaeology projects as part of my undergraduate Anthropology degree.
    I remember once encountering a group of rowdy Irish expatriates, celebrating a football or rugby victory (can’t honestly remember), outside a pub in Wandsworth. I was on my bicycle, returning home from the lab, and several of them grabbed the handlebars and stopped me. By coincidence that day I was wearing a greenish jacket (the Barbour) and an orangish shirt, and besides, when I opened my mouth to speak, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t a Sassenach.

  10. Eva Amsen says:

    The Luxembourg flag looks like the Dutch one after a bad wash cycle. The Yugoslavian flag is the Dutch one upside down. Serbia has the bands in yet another order, and then of course there’s the sideways French one. It’s all very unoriginal.

  11. Sabine Hossenfelder says:

    But the flag is pretty, it really is. It’s definitely my favorite flag. Just look at the crappy German thing, who wants to run around with Black-Red-Yellow stripes. Excuse me, I mean of course Gold, not Yellow. And the Canadian one looks “like a giant nosebleed” as somebody put it so aptly. You don’t want to run around with that thing either. The US flag is pretty too.

  12. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks for this, Stephen!
    an excremental bunch – I love it. Yes, extremists and nationalists are an excremental bunch indeed.
    I – similar to Sabine, I suspect – grew up with a completely schizophrenic attitude towards my country: our parents were the first generation that was born right after the war (or who were very small children during the war). They rebelled against their parents’ generation because of what they’d either done or let happen, and they kind of did it through us as well: different aspects of WWII history came up in at least three different subjects at school – so much so that I remember getting a bit weary. I also remember feeling ashamed on occasion of being German during my first trips to foreign countries. (And yes, it’s somewhat ‘special’ to live in England as a German person…)
    In recent years, people have been getting quite enthusiastic about waving the German flag again, mostly in connection with international football matches – I suspect that this new attitude and enthusiasm started with the fall of the Berlin wall ten years ago: finally, there was a very positive occasion to show the flag. I’m still getting used to it, and there’s no flag in our household!

  13. Richard P. Grant says:

    I saw that one at the Thames Festival yesterday, and thought ‘heh’. I can’t tell if it’s the right way up because it’s the wrong colour…
    Steffi, that’s a bit of a sad one, innit. There’s a certain cultural memory about the horrors of WWII and a justified pride in the role of our grandparents: but unfortunately that often translates into prejudice against the current generation of Germans. The ones I know, and the ones I met when I lived in Germany, are all decent people (as people often are when you actually get to meet them).
    Mind you, you should try being English in England and being surrounded by Irish. That’s pretty unpleasant sometimes.

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    @Kristi – did those rowdy Irish fans call you a ‘Sassenach’? Scots are more likely to use that term – derogatively – for English people. I presume your unpleasant encounters were of a similar vein Richard? Speaking personally, I am charm itself in the pub: no matter how much I’ve have to drink, I never start singing.
    @Sabine and Eva – I think you both might want to start a petition to get your national flags changed to something more interesting!
    @Steffi – what a fascinating story (a blog post one day, perhaps)? The baggage that the innocent carry from history can be very heavy at times. The recovery may have been slow but it has surely happened – and aided by science (and even, perhaps, football).
    I’m very fond of German students in the lab because the one’s I’ve had in the past have been so bloody good! Also fond of well-run German synchrotrons! And it’s only through science that I have had the opportunity to visit Japan and meet some wonderful friends/collaborator there, though I know that journey isn’t so easy for people of the previous generation.
    As regards waving the German flag, there seemed to be a very healthy re-awakening (is that the word?) around the time of the last World Cup in Germany. It was certainly remarked on — positively — in the TV coverage from the Beeb. There’s always a danger that for some the flag-waving too easily becomes an excuse of aggressive national posturing – but that’s something I think we will always have to try to deal with. Keeping the mix going is probably the best way!
    Oh, by the way, congrats to Germany’s Women Footballers – European champions for the 5th time!

  15. steffi suhr says:

    The baggage that the innocent carry from history can be very heavy at times.
    It’s part of who we are, though – and it should drive us to do a better job of being accepting and inclusive towards other cultures (there’s much room for improvement!). I started wondering recently how my son will deal with that part of his German heritage when he’s older – this will also depend on where he chooses to live, of course: Germany? the US? somewhere else? Actually, there are so many parts in the world today where being American isn’t very popular…
    Stephen, could you even imagine living in Ireland again one day? Just wondering, because for me being back in Germany has been (is) such a trip.

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    For sure it is part of our identity but, as you say, it is up to us to transcend the bad bits of the past. I hope your son will be proud of his German heritage. With mixed parentage, surely he is also likely to be a broad-minded citizen of the world.
    Do you mean your return has been a trip in a good way? I would certainly like to return to Ireland if there was a good job going but my wife – a total southerner – isn’t keen on living any further north that where we are so I am resigned to my fate.
    And now we are off to lovely Leigh-on-Sea in Essex…

  17. Mike Fowler says:

    If we’re going to be reclaiming our flags from unpleasant types, I think it’s only reasonable to reclaim other things, such as the words ‘nationalist’ and ‘nationalism’.
    ‘Fascists’ and ‘Racists’ already have perfectly good words to describe their approach to life, so having a sense of pride in the history and identifying features of your culture shouldn’t always be a bad thing.
    As for sassenists sassenachs, it’s said to be derived from Scottish Gaelic (spoken by Gaels), referring to Saxons (Sassenauchs), later appropriated by Scots to refer more generally to southerners. I guess Stephen could easily refer to his Republican neighbours, while the Irish also use Sassenach to describe the English. With Gaelic words, and the frequent historical migrations between Scotland and Ireland, it becomes difficult to figure out where and when they originated.
    Funny how ‘nationalism’ and ‘Republican’ can have very different meanings on either side of the pond…

  18. Kristi Vogel says:

    Heh. I got “Sassenach” from Joyce’s Ulysses; it’s one of the terms that Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus use for their tower-mate Haines.
    Don’t ever call me a Republican, though. 😛

  19. Graham Steel says:

    Great post, Stephen…
    I think it’s only reasonable to reclaim other things, such as the words ‘nationalist’ and ‘nationalism’.
    One of my relatives (Ian Hamilton) was the man responsible for such an event in 1950:-

  20. Graham Steel says:

    Personally signed copy of the book in memory of my Grandfather.

  21. steffi suhr says:

    Interesting. From the Orwell piece:
    By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.
    I don’t think we have the best way of life in Germany – it just happens to be the way of life where I was born. Yes, it’s pretty good, but there are aspects of it I don’t like at all. Sometimes I wish I could mix and match the good bits from here with those I’ve seen in other places/countries and then force the results on my fellow citizens convince others it’s the way to go.
    That also answers the question on the return being a trip: it has been good in many ways, but some other things really p*** me off! I am not sure we – as a family – will really fit in one hundred per cent anywhere, mixed lot that we are.
    P.S. Stephen: my wife – a total southerner – isn’t keen on living any further north that where we are so I am resigned to my fate
    My sincere sympathies. Do you remember how I kept pointing out how much I love living in a nice, small town when I was in London for Science Online? Yes, I do – but part of this is also an attempt at autosuggestion, because there is no way I can get my husband to move to a big city… (he grew up in a town with 60 people in Northern California – no, I don’t know how we ever got together!).

  22. Heather Etchevers says:

    Heh. I sympathize with your kids making fun of your accent. Mine get a perverse pleasure from correcting my French, especially my younger daughter.
    Yes, Elgar’s Pomp has definitely been appropriated by the United States high school graduate population, so much so that your average American will probably believe it was written by John Philip Sousa.
    We did the same with America (my country, ’tis of thee) where we appropriated God Save the Queen/King and made it ours. This is possibly why the Irish have been so well integrated into America – there is a lot of thumbing the nose at the original patriotic tendencies of our first English settlers.

  23. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. One of my relatives (Ian Hamilton) was the man responsible for such an event in 1950:-
    Ah, so it “You’ll have had your tea” really a veiled reference to the Stone of Scone?

  24. Frank Norman says:

    Interesting journey, Stephen. I grew up at a similar time, but in London. I just knew The Troubles from news reports and never appreciated the total separation of the communities until much later when I visited Belfast in the 90s and saw the physical barriers that had been constructed.
    On flags, it is surprising how many are red, white and blue. Here’s another (with a bit of yellow on too).

    Philippines flag

  25. Frank Norman says:

    As far as the Last Night of the Proms goes, I’ve been a few times. I used to be in the BBC chorus so saw it mostly from the stage side. It is a jolly occasion, and I remember there used to be all kinds of flags – Australian, EU, German as well as Union Jack and other national flags from the british isles. Some Dutch friends attended and thought it was great fun, they certainly didn’t feel the merrymaking was exclusive, in a nationalistic kind of way.

  26. Cath Ennis says:

    Great post, Stephen.
    Having witnessed sectarianism (and experienced that nasty anti-Sassenach streak first hand) in “Belfast-lite” (Glasgow), I can understand your father’s concern when you brought home that flag. But it is such a cool design though (and I love the Irishized version!), I’m glad that its reclamation from the nationalist thugs is underway.
    I like the Canadian flag! I’m actually in the early stages of obtaining a customised tattoo to celebrate my recent dual citizenship. It’s going to be a maple leaf with a Celtic design inside – my husband has come up with an initial design which we’ve now handed over to a professional for polishing. It’s going to be all black though, so no-one can make allegations about nosebleeds!

  27. Stephen Curry says:

    Gosh – thanks to everyone for making this such an informative thread. Respect to your Grandad Graham!
    Oh and Cath, I have to ask: where’s the tattoo going?

  28. Cath Ennis says:

    Everywhere that I go, I expect.

  29. Rory Macneil says:

    Coming to the conversation a bit late . . . Picking up on the language and identity parts of your theme, I would like to add another – the point that each generation also selects their own identity, and to some extent language. We (American father and Hong Kong mother) moved with our kids to Scotland from Hong Kong when they were 6 and 3. It amazes the locals, but we actually moved to Scotland because we wanted to live here. And I have tried to bring the kids up with a very positive view of Scotland. Although they do have a mild Edinburgh accent and support the Scotland football and rugby teams (although not as fervently as they support Celtic), they mostly complain that we don’t spend enough time in Hong Kong and the US. And of course these days it is not hard to see US tv wherever you are, so they think they understand what life in the US is like — in their view very rosy. It may have been their father’s dream to return to his roots in Scotland, but apparently it is not their dream. Or perhaps they would take the view that their roots are in Hong Kong or the US? And that is where they will ‘return’ when they are older? Time will tell; I expect that their views about where their roots are, as well as where they want to spend time, will continue to evolve throughout their life. If they follow that pattern they really will be chips off the old block!

  30. Stephen Curry says:

    @Cath – har, har. Well, I guess I won’t pry any further!
    @Rory – welcome to the conversation! That’s an interesting scenario that you paint – one I imagine is becoming increasingly common (shades of Steffi’s experience). Have your kids ever been to the US? They may be in for a shock if their impression is derived solely from the TV!

  31. Rory Macneil says:

    Thanks, Stephen. They have been to Canada but, as my Canadian mother will be quick to point out, Canada is not the US. Sadly, however, it is a lot more like the US than it was when she was growing up. Global homogenization is a negative flipside of the ever growing opportunities we all enjoy to communicate and share experiences across cultures. Sorry I digress — we are hoping to take them to the US next summer. It will be interesting to see how that visit impacts on their views. I will let you know!

  32. Henry Gee says:

    If you want someone to hate you, I mean, really really hate you, go around with this symbol about your person. It’s funny how quite a bit of that hatred will come from people who see themselves as liberal, left-leaning and tolerant.

  33. Cath Ennis says:

    Stephen, it’s just my fear of chickening out that prevents me from saying more. If and when I go ahead, there will be a blog post!

  34. Mike Fowler says:


    Ah, so it “You’ll have had your tea” really a veiled reference to the Stone of Scone?

    Actually, unless Graham’s Grandad came from Edinburgh, it’s unlikely he ever put it like this.
    If he came from Glasgow, it’s more likely that he’ll have been dodging soap in an elaborate excuse to avoid capture.

  35. Richard Wintle says:

    I had to laugh at RPG’s comment about the flag being upside-down. Having lived in Wales for a year, to this day the sight of a Welsh flag with the dragon’s tail curling the wrong way will provoke all kinds of outrage among my family.
    In certain quarters, there can be acrimony even in Canadialand, should one wave the Maple Leaf in the middle of a St. Jean Baptiste day celebration in Quebec, for example. Perils of a multicultural society I guess.

  36. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Very nice post, this is a topic that is often in my mind, as the French dad of a half-Arab boy growing up in London! My own dad is more concerned by which rugby team he’ll support when he grows up…
    And forget about accent, we’re waiting to see whether his first words will be Arabic, French or English with god knows what accent. We did consider talking to him only with a Jamaican accent for laughs…
    It is a shame that flags do tend to be co-opted by nasty elements of the far right variety, but that’s because other external signs of nationality are difficult to wave about or hang in a window. And while we’re on the topic of flags, my favourite is Nepal’s:

  37. Stephen Curry says:

    @Henry – sadly, very true.
    @Cath – good luck with that decision!
    @Mike – I was already confused by Bob’s comment and now I think I am even more so. Clearly the Scots are a complex and inscrutable set of people…!
    @Richard – crystallographically speaking then (might as well try to show-horn a bit of science in), a left-hand screw is correct (as shown in Wikipedia)? I guess its nice to have such a technical issue to argue about (as with the orinetation of the Union Jack), especially since there’s no specific Welsh component to the UK flag – it’s an amalgam of English, Scottish and Irish crosses.
    @Nicholas – I fear your Dad may be disappointed. My brother lives in Switzerland and his son supports them in preference to Ireland. And what a shame you didn’t see through the Jamaican project…!

  38. Richard P. Grant says:

    The Welsh have a flag?
    I thought they just [elided] sheep.

  39. Stephen Curry says:

    Now, now Richard – play nice with the Welsh boys and girls.

  40. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yes Mr Curry sir. Sorry Mr Curry sir.

  41. Austin Elliott says:

    Hmm. You’re the second person I’ve met from Ballymena, Stephen. The first one was from the other lot, though.
    Re. the accents, I used to spend a lot of time in the US trying to explain to people that on the UK mainland it was your accent and where you grew up that really defined your English/Irish/Scottishness, not your ancestry or surname. My most thoroughly Scottish Scottish friend’s surname is “Smith”, for instance.
    I remember once getting warned very solemnly about going to an Irish bar in Bethesda on St Patrick’s Day “because your accent’s SO English it’ll stand out for sure and you may get some static”. Certainly I’ve always thought of myself as squarely English based on birth, residence, education and accent (b. London, ed. in London, Oxford and Bristol). But anyway, I recall sitting there musing that my Irish Catholic maternal grandparents (grandma from Co Down and grandad from Derry) probably meant I could claim more direct Irish descent than any of the massed Irish-Americans in the bar – real Irish Irish patrons were totally absent, and only the barman was from Dublin. Anyway, the way some people in the US (and Australia too) adopt a kind of retrospective Irish/Scottish/Welsh-ness always leaves me a bit puzzled.
    I guess my point is that people have moved around Britain so much in the last 200 years that it has all got rather blurred, as your story bears out. Talking of which, for UK based readers a fun thing to do is see where people with your surname were distributed in the 1881 census, and then in the 1998 one.

  42. Stephen Curry says:

    Only the second? You’re missing out…
    I’ve had similar experiences in America – on a visit there as a student it seemed to me that practically everyone I met would, on hearing where I was from, would announce, “Oh, I’m Irish too..”. Not ‘Irish-American’, ‘Irish’. It seemed a bit rich to me at the time, but I’m melllowing. Perhaps it has something to do with the youthfulness of the USA – people therefore like to reach back further in history to find their roots?
    Thanks for the link to that site, though shame it doesn’t cover Ireland as well. I see, somewhat surprisingly, that Currys in England are concentrated in the Newcastle area.

  43. Richard P. Grant says:

    Currys in England are concentrated in the Newcastle area.
    yeah, I’d have thought Birmingham.

  44. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh, and great link, Austin. The Grants moved south via Leicester to Rotherhithe. Which, um, is what happened. Eventually.

  45. Kate Grant says:

    @Austin – great link, thanks.
    I grew up in NZ and had always yearned to go back ‘one day’. I have since found too, that Rotherhithe is rather cool and it turns out that my 1881 relatives (via Austin’s link) also liked lurking in London – must be something in the sheep water.
    @Stephen – where did your daughter get the bag? We have a niece DownUnder who would adore it. Even though she is a Kiwi through-and-through there is a familial patriotism in her and she will relish showing it off to anyone who dares to look.

  46. Stephen Curry says:

    Hi Kate – I can consult with the purchasing authority tonight but I’m pretty sure she got it in Bromley. I’m sure we can arrange to get you one for your niece.

  47. Richard Wintle says:

    Bromley? Full of Wintles, according to that map, at least in 1881.
    That really is a great link, thanks Austin. The Wintle were concentrated in the Forest of Dean as expected (with a satellite in Devon, which is interesting). By 1998 they’d expanded to a somewhat larger area but still focused around the Forest. I can see minor concentrations in other parts of the country that I can put down to people I can name, which is quite fun.
    @Stephen – yes, Wikipedia is correct, the tail coils behind itself (or in a left-handed helix as you so scientifically mention).

  48. Brian Derby says:

    The surname map is a great link. Just what I needed when I was getting bored of writing the review paper/grant application (alternating tasks) and not really wanting to check over the course I have to give at the beginning of Term.
    Derby’s are concentrated in Dumfries, Galloway and Argyle – they are singulary absent from Derby. An Irish extension would be interesting as my Dad is from N. Ireland and as he is a Prod I guess the Western Scotland concentration might stretch over into Ulster.

  49. Austin Elliott says:

    Ditto to Brian’s comments about work avoidance. Emails about arrangements for the start of term keep arriving in my inbox and invoking bouts of existential despair.
    The surname map reveals us Elliotts (two “t”s) very plentiful in Billy Elliot (one “t”) country (the NE of England), though my ancestral bit of the family was certainly London-based by 1881. Of course, like with many surnames, there are multiple spellings of Elliott (vary consonants as preferred). There are Scottish (borders) Elliots (various spellings), and there is even apparently a tartan, though I would suspect that was a Victorian invention. My father likes to tell people that family tradition held that Elliott ancestors were regularly hung in Carlisle for sheep-rustling.
    One of the things I find interesting about names in Ireland (at least in the North) is that the surname itself doesn’t seem to reveal the religion. Thus my gran from Co Down was a Ward (Catholic) but I have a Northern Irish colleague who is a Ward (Protestant). All v. complicated.

  50. Brian Derby says:

    I expect religion/community is found in the Christian name in N. Ireland. My Dad’s family had Gordon, Norman and Jim as boy’s names – although I expect James/Jim might have crossover potential.
    Traditions do change one of my (catholic) cousins is called Jason. My grandmother (catholic side) is alleged to have said “What are they playing at, its not even in the Bible”.

  51. Richard P. Grant says:

    I should hope that your ancestors, Austin, were hanged.

  52. Austin Elliott says:

    I stand corrected, Richard. Or possibly hang.

  53. Kristi Vogel says:

    Anyway, the way some people in the US (and Australia too) adopt a kind of retrospective Irish/Scottish/Welsh-ness always leaves me a bit puzzled
    While I agree with this observation, as an American who lived in London for three years, I often felt goaded into this behavior. I can’t tell you how many times various random people at work, or on public transport, insisted that I resembled some Irish friend or relative of theirs, and therefore must have Irish ancestry. I am, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, Mostly German in ancestry, and AFAIK have no Irish ancestors. Scottish and English yes, but not Irish.
    Genealogy research is quite popular in the US, though – the largest database has been assembled through the LDS church.

  54. Richard Wintle says:

    Heh. I am entirely English be ancestry, but have on more than one occasion been asked if I was German. I blame the re-emergence of Teutonic good looks, buried deep in many generations of Saxon heritage. Or something.

  55. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks for the counter-argument, Kristi. I had never thought of that but I;m sure you are right.
    Bit surprised you got it from your work colleagues in London – obviously not name aficionados.
    In Hinsicht auf Abstammung spricht mir die Familienname “Vogel” klar nach Deutsch/Holländisch…
    Sorry, I’ve only written that in my school German so that Steffi or someone else will correct it for me.

  56. steffi suhr says:

    Sorry Austin – I have my hands full correcting my husbands German these days!
    When I lived in Southampton, I was asked by taxi drivers on at least three occasions whether I was from Norway… in the US, people usually asked me whether I was from NZ. No idea why.

  57. Graham Steel says:

    Excuse me Madam, does this thread bus go to the station Blabelfish ??
    Unlike Bond J et al in Tomorrow Never Dies, I’m not a very cunning linguist, allegedly.

  58. Kristi Vogel says:

    There are a couple of complications in the US that can make it difficult to be precise about European ancestries. Two of them are relevant in my case – 1) immigrants often changed their surnames, or had them changed by immigration officials, upon leaving their home countries, or upon arrival in the US, and 2) people moved around a lot, often under unhappy and untraceable circumstances, during the (first) Depression.
    I think I look generically Northern European; that, combined with my mockingbird talents, has led to embarrassing incidents in which a torrent of Swedish/German/French is unleashed upon my uncomprehending (for the most part) ears.

  59. Henry Gee says:

    I am a Red-Sea Pedestrian, on both sides, right back to Abe, Ike and Jake. There might be some Cossack in there, though, but we don’t talk about that. Apart from that Ich Bin Ein Wiener I am as English as the Daily Telegraph (recently run by a Canadian).

  60. Graham Steel says:

    As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on NN before, my Uncle Harry started off with Judism, drifted into Buddhism and ended up with Rheumatism.
    If I ever get a Second Life, NPG’s Joanna Scott Wombat tells me/us I/we should all hang about something called Cromer The Elucian Islands
    Next ?

  61. Maxine Clarke says:

    This is all quite confusing to me, as I had previously thought that the Irving-Clarke household had done its bit with a Scottish-Irish-Welsh-English mix (if you take the two parents, in the ratio 25:12.5:12.5:50) with a strong Cumbrian accent from all sides. But I see we have been sadly misled. Such is the modern world.

  62. Austin Elliott says:

    In Len Deighton’s famous 60s spy novels (e.g. the IPCRESS file) there is a recurring joke that the hero (famously protrayed in the films by Michael Caine) always insists that his false passports use a European-sounding (i.e. not particularly English-sounding) name. The idea is that nothing is more authentically English than a non-English sounding name.

  63. Maxine Clarke says:

    PS Eire, not Northern Ireland, so perhaps that is where we fell down.

  64. Maxine Clarke says:

    Austin: I think that hero celebrates his 100th birthday in one book, if memory serves. I sneak-read these when far too young (along with James Bond, Boysie Oakes, Modesty Blaise and others faded beyond memory). I was permanently confused by reading this, as one officially far too young for these books. Irony, Irony, etc….(Kenneth Williams)

  65. Richard Wintle says:

    Daily Telegraph (recently run by a Canadian)
    It’s ok, we don’t want him back.

  66. Stephen Curry says:

    Cor blimey, I can’t keep up with you lot. I turn my back for a minute…
    To pick up a couple of things
    I suspect that most, if not all, of us have mixed ancestry. Well I certainly hope so – makes for more interesting history. On my mother’s side there are French Protestant Hugenots – Montgomerys – who brought the textile industry with them to Northern Ireland (and Scotland?) when, ironically, they were chucked out of France by the Catholic king. I’d like to see BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s family history show Who do you think you are – I suspect his family tree might teach him something interesting about his origins… might even get him kicked out of his own party for not being sufficiently indigenous!
    This idea that you can tell someone’s country of origin from appearances baffles me.
    Oh, and you heard it here first: Henry Gee claims to be able to walk on water. “Red-Sea pedestrian” indeed! Or did you mean that the waters parted as you approached…?

  67. Cath Ennis says:

    I’m always amused that my husband and I, despite being born and raised thousands of miles apart, have almost the exact same genetic mix – both our fathers are (genetically, at least) 100% Irish, and both our mothers are a Scottish-Northern English mix.

  68. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, Maxine, the shedding/adoption of name and identity is obviously a recurring theme in spy stories.
    I had forgotten that Deighton’s protagonist is nameless in the books, and only became “Harry Palmer” when they made the IPCRESS File into a film and had to have other characters address him by name. The story goes that they christened the hero “Harry” because there is a bit in the IPCRESS file where someone addresses him with “Hello Harry” prompting him to muse:
    “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever had been.”

  69. Stephen Curry says:

    @Cath – do you think our genes know something that we don’t?

  70. Graham Steel says:

    Lordy. What a great innings thus far, Stephen.
    But will Prof Curry make a NN (comment thread) Century though? At this rate, and whilst not a gambling man, me thinks this may be an absolute possibility, Gov.

  71. Richard P. Grant says:

    He’s only on 71 72 Graham. Plenty of time for a nick to the slips.

  72. Stephen Curry says:

    It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the quality of the conversation (for which thanks to all above)!
    In any case 72 73 is an amazing score for any English batsman (in the 1-day game…) 😉
    Mention of quality induces me to correct my spelling of Huguenot. Before Richard has time to construct another gallows…

  73. Kristi Vogel says:

    I am a Red-Sea Pedestrian
    I think Henry might be referring to that incident at the Ford of Bruinen.
    You know, when the Nine and their steeds were swept away?
    I once had a wealthy individual here in Texas ask me “who my people were”, and it was such an utterly ludicrous question that I immediately succumbed to fits of giggling. I should have removed myself quickly from the vicinity to preserve decorum, but I would have fallen off my horse laughing, at any gait faster than a walk.

  74. Graham Steel says:

    ++Intermission Time++

    Which means, I can now does Stellog’s In The Navy (Ropes ‘n Flags Mix) [Explicit].
    Oops. Did I just crush a swan ?? More oops.

  75. Stephen Curry says:

    @Kristi – stupidly, I thought you were referring to some event in history (!) but I guess you meant Tolkien’s version of the Old Testament story…
    @Graham – I’m sure I don’t know where to look! This is a nice, family (history) thread…

  76. Graham Steel says:

    Time for beddos.

  77. Eva Amsen says:

    An uncle of my mom’s (who I never met) once looked into the family history and traced it all the way back to the Spanish branch of the House of Bourbon .
    The ex-wife of one of my cousin’s did the same (for our family, not hers – well, I guess hers as well) and that one I saw: it went back to the 18th century and was 100% Dutch since then. But she got my parents’ wedding date wrong on it, so I’m a bit skeptical of that one as well. (In case you didn’t feel the implied skepticism with regards to me being related to royalty )

  78. steffi suhr says:

    My husband’s makeup is mostly Italian and German (“get mad quick, stay mad forever”, as his mom says). But there’s also some English in there, apparently. Anyway, the girlfriend of a friend in the US told him one time that he had ‘a bit of an ethnic look’ about him. Kristi: I don’t think I actually giggled, I had too much trouble processing that one….

  79. Eva Amsen says:

    I just want to apologize for the wayward superfluous apostrophe in my previous comment.

  80. Henry Gee says:

    Oh, and you heard it here first: Henry Gee claims to be able to walk on water. “Red-Sea pedestrian” indeed! Or did you mean that the waters parted as you approached…?
    We Nature editors get our Olympian pleasures where we may.

  81. Stephen Curry says:

    Eva – royalty would have been my first guess (Your Maj.)!
    Steffi – is the ‘get mad quick’ phenotype Italian or German? 😉
    So nice of you to deign to mix it with us mere mortals, O great Henry.

  82. Richard Wintle says:

    Oh, sorry.
    @Eva – could be worse, if you were me, you’d be descended from a long line of sheep stealers farmers on one side, and a family rather over-populated with church organists on the other. Makes for an interesting mix, now that I think of it, although the current generation is rather full of physicists and engineers. Go figure.

  83. Austin Elliott says:

    One of the interesting aspects of the reading the older obituaries / biographies of Fellows of the Royal Society is the typical discussion of their antecedants and occasionally ancestry. Probably a bit less common in the modern obits. Many of the great late C19th / early C20th scientific/academic families inter-married extensively, as we have discussed a bit following an earlier post of Stephen’s
    Among families with a multi-generation scientific/academic tradition, one I have written briefly about is that of early C20th Cambridge “proto-biophysicist” Keith Lucas. Lucas was the mentor of Nobel Laureate ED (Edgar, later Baron) Adrian, and also a key early influence on AV Hill, but died young in a WW1 flying accident.

  84. steffi suhr says:

    is the ‘get mad quick’ phenotype Italian or German?
    That’s the Italian one, Stephen – the German one is ‘stay mad forever’. We do things very thoroughly…

  85. Stephen Curry says:

    What class that Austin Elliot brings to proceedings (the editor, no less(!), of Physiology News – which he linked to above).
    Thanks for the clarification Steffi – I guess I should have… guessed!

  86. Graham Steel says:

    @Graham – I’m sure I don’t know where to look! This is a nice, family (history) thread…
    I sincerely hope not, Prof Curry as this was a wee song we wrote about a relationship I had with a rather nice gal from The Borders. Never worked out in the end, though.
    Can we make “a Century” on this thread, Prof Curry ?? That would be cool.

  87. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, apologies for stealth-pimping Physiology News, Stephen, but it’s one of these nasty little habits editors of small circulation publications often acquire. Nature editors, it goes without saying, are above such subterfuge and flagrant self-plugging.
    Oops, I did it again …said he, inadvertently quoting Britney.
    PS How far are we off a hundred now?

  88. Graham Steel says:

    @Austin, Comment No. 89 – No comment

  89. Frank Norman says:

    Austin – I agree those obits can be fascinating. Suddenly the phrase gentleman scientist makes a lot of sense.

  90. Stephen Curry says:

    Pimp away Austin!
    Graham – no need to be so formal: you can call me Al.
    Don’t forget the lady scientists, Frank!

  91. Jennifer Rohn says:

    ‘gentlewomen scientists’ just sounds wrong on so many levels.

  92. Frank Norman says:

    I think there are more fierce women scientists.imho.

  93. Stephen Curry says:

    I agree with Jenny about the cumbersomeness of the term but wouldn’t go so far as to compare rates of occurrence in the two sexes, Frank…!

  94. Stephen Curry says:

    That was very gallant of you Richard, but I think I’m going to have to disallow (and delete) those one-word comments.
    I’m not in the market for artificial inflation… 😉

  95. Richard P. Grant says:

    You reckon?

  96. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ah, now, you see, what about multiple word comments?

  97. Stephen Curry says:

    You’re a stubborn one aren’t you.
    Bad news for Kate, I’m afraid: the bags were completely sold out at our local Primark (my blog is far more poplular than I imagined!). Can check again at the weekend…

  98. Graham Steel says:

    This marks the 98th comment on this thread. By my reckoning, Prof Curry is on the incline verge of hitting his 1st NN Century. But who will post the award winning 100th comment ???

  99. Richard P. Grant says:

    Who cares?

  100. Graham Steel says:

    Dr Grant, you have just won absolutely nothing for the 100th comment on this thread. Give yourself a good pat on the back.

  101. Richard P. Grant says:

    Can we stop this silliness now? You base 10 bigots.

  102. Austin Elliott says:

    Richard’s last post reminds me of the geek T-shirt slogan that reads:
    “There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who don’t”

  103. Stephen Curry says:

    Graham, you’re a real sweetie – but it wasn’t my “1st”:http://network.nature.com/people/scurry/blog/2009/05/30/i-don’t-know-what-to-say
    Richard, I prefer the term ‘base 10 afficionado…‘. Base 10 has a much finer and longer history than binary, in any case. It was simply better suited to the first digital age. The one based on fingers, not bits.

  104. Richard P. Grant says:

    You could say base 12 is better for digits, actually.

  105. Stephen Curry says:

    How so? Do you mean in Norfolk? 😉

  106. Richard P. Grant says:


  107. Henry Gee says:

    Who? What? Stations? Buses? I’ll just go back to sleep, then.

  108. Daniel Frankel says:

    My son has a strong Geordie accent, he speaks russian and he was born in America. I can thoroughly sympathize with your predicament!

  109. Stephen Curry says:

    But can he speak Russian in a Geordie accent? That, I’d like to hear!

  110. Stephen Curry says:

    À propos nothing at all, Stephen Fry just used Austin’s binary joke on his own blog. Could be be lurking at NN? I’d love to think so!

  111. amy charles says:

    Oo, look what I’ve been missing here. Beautiful post, Stephen.
    It hit me a few years ago that I was raising a small midwesterner, with one side of her family that peculiar, adrift upper-midwest Protestant — it’s maintained a New England rectitude, but living poor and with no one watching it’s gone a little strange and forgotten where the floor is, exactly. My daughter told me very earnestly one day when she was three that she couldn’t possibly give away a present she disliked, because her grandmother might come over and see that she didn’t have it, and have her feelings hurt, and besides she meant to save it for her children and grandchildren. We have buckets of future heirlooms already. Her father’s side also has a genealogy (her dad wasn’t pleased when I laughed at the fact that the great pilgrim forebear was a drunken carpenter who kept walking off jobs and insulting the worthies, & consequently spent much time in the jail he helped build), which means she narrowly escaped being named Experience.
    She’s also picked up a wholly disconcerting nice-lady cheerful/dismissive “Uh-huh”, heard only in these parts. I’ve been here nearly twenty years now and am still not sure what it means, but I get the distinct impression that it means I’ve said enough and should go now. I’m afraid to ask. Also, the kid says ore-enge, not ah-renge, which gives me a twinge every time.
    I’ve no idea what people make of me here. I’m about half the height of your average blonde teen giantess and I don’t knit. They’re not too sure about that star of David here, Henry, except that they generally mistrust zealots and a lot of the Palestinian supporters come off as zealots here. The young ones, anyway. The older ones still figure we’re Christ-killers. Uh-huh.

  112. Henry Gee says:

    They’re not too sure about that star of David here, Henry
    In London, a Star of David was enough to get your synagogue windows broken into (with the Police turning a blind eye); have one risk assault by what the BBC euphemistically called ‘Asian youths’; or one’s Israel-hatin’ left-wing colleagues shuffle their feet and change the subject.
    In Cromer, I’ve no idea what people make of it. Perhaps they think a Magen David denotes the support of some druidic cult; a fondness for Siouxiee and the Banshees – or is just nice jewellery.

  113. Stephen Curry says:

    @Amy – many thanks for that. You may have forgotten where the floor is but your daughter’s feet still seem to be firmly planted on the ground.
    I guess bemusement at the star of David is a step better than outright hostility, though I guess it doesn’t constitute open-minded acceptance.

  114. Sean Seaver says:

    Funny you mention ‘everyone’ in America telling you they were Irish too when you visited as a student. I think that is a testament of the breeding abilities of a fine people. And yes, I am also Irish 😉

  115. Stephen Curry says:

    @Sean – well of course you would have to be with such a fine first name!
    I guess what struck me and (if I’m honest) rankled a little, was that these people declared themselves ‘Irish’ rather than ‘Irish-American’. I wondered if they were being too hasty to shrug off their American influences? As I tell my US-born daughter, she’s half-Irish, half-English and half-American and should be proud of all three heritages!

  116. Mike Fowler says:

    As proud of her heritage as she may be, I just hope your daughter’s better at mathematics than you are, Stevo…

  117. Stephen Curry says:

    I think you’ll find, Mikey, that in the 11-dimensional hyper-space that our reality is actually composed of, my maths makes perfect sense!
    Or at least it does in Ireland.

  118. Mike Fowler says:

    Ahhh, so three halves do make a hendecahedron. If only Carol Vorderman had been my maths teacher in school. For maths reasons only.
    And a little something for the flag lovers. From the Benin Empire

    You put your left arm in…

  119. Stephen Curry says:

    What a most excellent flag! Tell it like it is, eh?

  120. Stephen Curry says:

    Wow – that’s quite a tattoo Cath! I hope you’ll both be very happy together…

  121. Henry Gee says:

    Phew, Cath. I read your blog and my eyes watered just thinking about it.

  122. Cath Ennis says:

    It really wasn’t that bad! It didn’t even peel or anything – I just lost a few flecks of inky skin, and it had stopped hurting completely by the 4th day. I’m looking forward to showing it off on holiday next month – better than having Canadian flag patches on your luggage!

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