New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

On Family

I’ve written a family saga, so I guess that family must mean a lot to me. With the wonders of modern technology, I’ve carried out my personal genealogy, to find that I am fifteen sixteenths English and one sixteenth North Welsh. The English members were, in the eighteenth century, all living north of the Severn to Wash line, so the short a is the pronunciation I’ve received. I’m predominantly Lancastrian, with some significant Worcestershire/ North Gloucestershire input. My Y chromosome, whose provenance has been confirmed as genuine by YDNA testing, is from just over the boundary into Y for Yorkieland and the village that time forgot, Heptonstall.

It’s a fair assumption that the specific geographic mix will go back more than a thousand years further to the Anglo-Saxon settlement period. The identity conveyed is solid, if out of sync with modern North London where I’ve made my home. My wife’s heritage is entirely from London and the South-East, apart from a great-great-grandfather from Bolton, deliciously ironic given the stick she used to give me for my support of Bolton Wanderers. I think as a result our mind-fix is a little different from most of our neighbours. In my own head I’m a top person, so I take the Times, being too old for the Guardian and too animated for the Independent. It has excellent columnists with whom I agree when they argue for this country’s virtue in being welcoming to immigrants such as their ancestors. I don’t think though that they understand the sense of loss in those of us whose ancestors have been settled for sixty generations rather than two. Their loss is profound but of elsewhere. (My youngest son was even given a map of the world in primary school and asked to mark where his ancestors came from. I think he was the only pupil who struggled with the scale of the map.) I can’t avoid the thought that, however enlightened I like to think I am, the pride my characters have in their Lancastrian heritage is me re-enacting Custer’s Last Stand.

Family sagas are thus often about either geographic continuity or discontinuity. The ground in between is probably not that easy to write! They are also about shared family traits and beliefs. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has two principal characters who would describe themselves as not only the first baby boomers but also the last Victorians. I think that they see this country’s near abandonment of Anglicanism as an act of treachery although even as coarse northerners they of course are too polite to express it in those terms. But I think the novel does show that their descendants sympathise with them, if only because of family loyalty. At the last trump, they’d all like to meet up on God’s golden shore.

But family is also about difference. Every new relationship is the introduction of a significant other. Every new child shares two sets of characteristics which can sit uneasily with each other. No courtship process can smooth out these differences. Nor would we want them too. Every family is a saga.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

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