Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two versions

Version #1: She is researching a book about how there would not be an HSBC today were it not for the dozen or so young Irishmen who landed in Hong Kong in the mid to late 1800s.

Version #2: She is researching her family tree.

Both of the previous statements are true when it comes to describing what I am up to these days, yet the first leaves me feeling that my work has some merit, while the second leaves me feeling like a doddering old fool who should be left to her tatting.

Why is this? Why should one version trigger more cultural coin than the other?

In Victorian times, that there was a high regard for the role of amateur in the development of knowledge. The notion of a Gentleman Scholar was not an oxymoron – although because women were not yet regarded as Persons, they didn’t count and so therefore, I wouldn’t have either. The events where these men gathered to gabble about their most recent discoveries were expected to support the advancement of human knowledge and understanding – the latter being what is virtually impossible to find these days with a quick Google.

Do we look down our collective noses at bird watching in the same way as we do when we hear the worlds: family history? Do we have that same inner judgemental voice that would regard bird watching as frivolous while by contrast ornithology is decidedly important? I don’t think so. Perhaps to some extent we do, but my sense is that we don’t regard bird watching as quite as daft as trudging around gravestones, transcribing old deeds, and scrolling microfilm past glazed eyeballs.

Sometimes I wonder if there might not be a wee touch of sexism in how we judge the differences. After all, there is a disproportionate number of women in the study of family history, while it is disproportionately males who twitch their binoculars in the direction of every tweet, hoot and caw of the winged species.

The reality is that both ornithology and the study of history would be kneecapped were it not for the contributions of bird watchers and genealogists respectively. Amateurs often start with the observable bits of detail while the scholar often is good for contributing the grand organizing view, and there is a middle point where the two blur. These days, the twin tools of computers and the internet have made the blur territory even larger.

For myself, I am actually incapable of constructing a history that is both accurate and compelling without first nailing down the who, the when and the where. That is what the family tree is for, nothing more. It is simply the bones, and they are absolutely necessary for adding on the flesh and creating context. It is only after I have the bones all connected that I feel confident to venture a guess at the whats and the whys and wherefores of it all.

Okay, for some people- and even me too when I am procrastinating - there is the baseball card collecting aspect to it all. Whatever.

Actually, the main point of this blog is to give you heads up about my next one which will terminally boring to anyone who doesn’t have a passion for reconstructing the skeletons in the JACKSON closet.

Consider yourself forewarned. I think I will write it tomorrow.

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