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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mother Country – Revisiting Arthur, Lydia and D.H. Lawrence


Any attempt on my part to explore the cord that links motherhood and manhood is bound to recall the emotional landscape of my youth, South Cheshire in the 1950s – and its literary distant cousin the South Nottinghamshire of the 1890s.

Like David Lawrence, I caught sparks under the skies from weathered, good-humoured callous-handed sons of toil, only to be nagged to take off my boots when I came inside, hang up my cap and let glow turn grey among the respectability of tea cups, cakes and doilies in the front parlour or, in our case, the ‘Green Room’.

Any inner life it seemed was feminine.

D.H. Lawrence’s "country of my heart" was a mosaic of mining villages and farmland. He would walk out of Eastwood to visit Hagg's Farm, where he developed a friendship with the farmer’s daughter Jessie Chambers.

I was a farmer’s boy (or rather farmer’s step son) who sometimes went to the open market the nearby salt town Winsford, and who attended the delivery of a Christmas chicken to an impoverished but artistic great aunt in the back street terraces of industrial Crewe.

Lawrence attended Beauvale Board School from 1891 until 1898, becoming the first local pupil to win a County Council scholarship to Nottingham High School . He left in 1901. I attended Calveley County Primary School from 1949 until 1955, becoming the first pupil to pass the ’11 Plus’ and win a place at the King’s School, Chester.

Reading Lawrence, I can easily find my way around his landscapes – they are family familiar.

As for pairing off:

Needles and pins
Needles and pins
When a Man marries
His Trouble begins.

Young miner - young farmer, beware the falling latch because it’s a smart lad as can take the sugar but slip the bridle:

‘I, the man with the red scarf,
Will give thee what I have, this last week's earnings.
Take them, and buy thee a silver ring
And wed me, to ease my yearnings.

For the rest, when thou art wedded
I'll wet my brow for thee
With sweat, I'll enter a house for thy sake,
Thou shalt shut doors on me’.


Lawrence’s father, Arthur is found in the 1851 Census as the John Arthur, (3) the eldest son of a tailor, John Lawrence, who had been born in Birmingham around 1817. Lawrence’s grandmother Louisa (33) had been born in Hinckley, Leicestershire. The family lived in the village of Old Brinsley, Greasley, Nottinghamshire and can be traced there in successive censuses, with John retaining his trade as a tailor. Both Arthur John (as he is better known) and his younger brother James became coalminers.

Arthur married Lydia in late 1875. In the 1881 Census, they are recorded under the name ‘Laurence’ living at Sutton in Ashfield. Arthur (33) is recorded as a coalminer and at that point Lydia was the mother of two sons, George (4) and William (2).
By 1891, the Lawrence family is shown established in Eastwood / Greasley, with George having already flown the coop.

The children remaining at home were then William (15), Emily (9), David H. (5) and Lettie (2). It is interesting that William was still being supported as a student at the age of 15, unlike many of his peers who would have already ‘gone down the pit’.

Clearly the values of an independent artisan tailor are not necessarily those of the institutionalized working class aristocracy of the miners, so there may well have been some tension between D.H.L’s father Arthur and his grandfather John. Maybe Arthur played up his rough, local image a bit, as the son of a newcomer to Nottinghamshire who practised a fairly genteel trade.

So Arthur was likely desperate to be seen as a real man – and to all accounts he succeeded. Honest, hardworking and a good companion, he was much liked among his peers, though prone to heavy drinking and the odd bout of fisticuffs. But, having taken up the local masculine culture, he occasionally also stood up against and even locked out his hard to please a strident wife who claimed that she had married below her rightful expectations.

In an early version of Sons and Lovers, under the working title ‘Paul Morel’, Lawrence gives his father his due as a story-teller, prankster and well-regarded workman.

For example, he is shown making the family rock with laughter by imitating the snuffling of a pit pony for tobacco in the miners’ pockets.

And he delights the children by bringing them a wild baby rabbit which he has found on his way home across the fields; and he gently contradicts his wife when she protests that it will simply pine and die.

‘At tea-time and breakfast it became the custom to have ‘Adolphus’ on the table. Mrs Morel objected, but Paul persuaded her.

“Well, mother, don't you want to see him, how pretty he is? Just look!”

'Adolphus, the friskiest atom, would give a wild start at the jam, turn, dart six inches, then reconsider himself. He climbed with his fore-feet on the rim of the sugar basin, and helped himself to a lump...’

But it was to be decades before Lawrence could break away from refinement and again portray a gentle but playful full-grown man who whispered into the same sweet spot both natural creatures and women.

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there is a scene that illustrates this maturity. Mellors, as part of his game-keeping duties is brooding pheasant chicks under domestic hens and Connie is drawn to the coops at his cottage, by the hatchlings and his husbandry:

‘It was late, and she fled across the park like one who fears to be called back. The sun was setting rosy as she entered the wood, but she pressed on among the flowers. The light would last long overhead.

‘She arrived at the clearing flushed and semi-conscious. The keeper was there, in his shirt-sleeves, just closing up the coops for the night, so the little occupants would be safe. But still one little trio was pattering about on tiny feet, alert drab mites, under the straw shelter, refusing to be called in by the anxious mother.

“I had to come and see the chickens!” she said, panting, glancing shyly at the keeper, almost unaware of him. “Are there any more?”

“Thurty-six so far!” he said. “Not bad!”

‘He too took a curious pleasure in watching the young things come out.

‘Connie crouched in front of the last coop. The three chicks had run in. But still their cheeky heads came poking sharply through the yellow feathers, then withdrawing, then only one beady little head eyeing forth from the vast mother-body.

“I'd love to touch them,” she said, putting her lingers gingerly through the bars of the coop. But the mother-hen pecked at her hand fiercely, and Connie drew back startled and frightened.

“How she pecks at me! She hates me!” she said in a wondering voice. “But I wouldn't hurt them!”

The man standing above her laughed, and crouched down beside her, knees apart, and put his hand with quiet confidence slowly into the coop. The old hen pecked at him, but not so savagely. And slowly, softly, with sure gentle lingers, he felt among the old bird's feathers and drew out a faintly-peeping chick in his closed hand.

“There!” he said, holding out his hand to her. She took the little drab thing between her hands, and there it stood, on its impossible little stalks of legs, its atom of balancing life trembling through its almost weightless feet into Connie's hands.

But it lifted its handsome, clean-shaped little head boldly, and looked sharply round, and gave a little `peep'. “So adorable! So cheeky!” she said softly.’


The conventional assessments still credit Lawrence’s mother Lydia for his gifts and drive:

‘Lydia was the second daughter of Robert Beardsall and his wife, Lydia Newton of Sneinton. Originally lower middle-class, the Beardsalls had suffered financial disaster in the 1860s and Lydia, in spite of attempts to work as a pupil teacher, had, like her sisters, been forced into employment as a sweated home worker in the lace industry.

But she had had more education than her husband, and passed on to her children an enduring love of books, a religious faith, and a commitment to self-improvement, as well as a profound desire to move out of the working class in which she felt herself trapped.’

This appears to confirm that Lydia’s family were indeed a cut above the Lawrences, though the census records are more ambiguous.

In the 1861 census, Lydia appears as a 9 year old, living with her father George Beardsall (36) and her mother an elder Lydia (32) in Sheerness, on the NE Kent Coalfield. The younger Lydia was the second of four daughters and there was also a one year old son George. As the head of household, George had been born in Nottinghamshire but had moved to Kent to become a better remunerated colliery ‘Engine Smith’.

By 1871, the family was back in Nottinghamshire, Lydia was 19 years old and the eldest daughter Emma had left home. However, there were still 7 children in the family house, with the youngest being one month old Herbert. As for George, he is described as an ‘Engine Fitter (superannuated)’.

One assumes then that he had met with an accident at work, leaving his family of nine dependent on a small pension. To help with the now straightened finances, Lawrence’s mother Lydia had taken up employment as a Lace Drawer.

So Lydia’s disappointments in life began at an early age when her father was laid off sick. Not surprisingly, she resented risky dependence on male earnings and having to become, as a young girl, a breadwinner for a large family of siblings. Marrying a relatively high earning young miner as a 24 year old provided an out.

Ever pining for a better life, she took on her sons as protégées, gradually working her way down from the oldest to the youngest. And the youngest provided the best ground to till.

Scrawny and prone to illness, David preferred the company of girls to boys at school and he was bullied wimp. No doubt, he would have been described locally as a ‘mardy custard’ or sissy - what we in New Zealand would now call a ‘girl’s blouse’.

It got worse. A contemporary George Neville recalled that, in his first job, as a tidily-dressed and stuck-up young clerk at Haywood’s Surgical Appliance Factory in Nottingham, D.H. had been cornered in a basement storeroom by ‘devilish coarse, strange wild creatures’ of the feminine variety, who took him down a peg by checking his credentials. Apparently this led to a severe bout of pneumonia so it must have got down to basics.

This was even more fertile soil for suffocating mother love. Not surprisingly, as a writer Lawrence is generally seen as sex-obsessed and neurotic – a sort of worked example of oedipal drives and homoerotic tendencies.

To me though, he’s largely a lad who needed some travel and a few accommodating girl friends to steer him away from the shoals on the dark side of his relationship with his mother.


Clearly, Lydia Lawrence and I would have not had that much in common – given her preference to ‘sit perfectly at peace, in a quiet room, taking tea with people all of refined manners’.

More to the point, she appears to have shared with my own mother the notion that, having given birth to a male child, she owned its life.

Her personal drama was rekindled in her son’s birth:

‘Mrs. Morel leaned on the garden gate, looking out, and she lost herself awhile. She did not know what she thought. Except for a slight feeling of sickness, and her consciousness in the child, herself melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air.

After a time the child, too, melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon.’

Assuming a similar coincidence between parent and offspring, my mother would inquire in the wake of my defeats and or the face of my disasters, ‘Why is this happening to me - what have I bred?’

So mixed and melted or not, I could never write as Lawrence did when Lydia was dying:

‘There has been this kind of bond between me and my mother... We knew each other by instinct... We have been like one, so sensitive to each other that we never needed words. It has been rather terrible and has made me, in some respects, abnormal.’

But as stressed by commentators like Anouchka Grose [No More Silly Love Songs: A Realist’s Guide to Romance (2010)], it is one thing to flag an oedipal footnote to a chapter of one’s life and quite another to assume that it explains the book cover to cover. [And social attitudes change. Doesn’t Jocasta now have to share some responsibility - as a cougar?.

‘The elementary understanding being that “You have to stop trying to be everything for your primary carer, and get on with being something for the rest of the world”.

I believe that myself and that Lawrence came to the same view.

In the words of the novelist Ethel Mannin:

"D. H. Lawrence turned his back in disgust on civilization as we know it and attempted to find uncorrupted life in the Mexican wildernesses. Since his death various little people have written patronizing little articles about him pointing to his limitations, regardless of the fact that in his limitations he was infinitely greater than any of them in their fulfilments.

His preoccupation with sex was a preoccupation with life."

While I too spent a good deal of time at my mother’s death bed, I can confidently claim that our relationship was nowhere near as straightforward as that of Lydia and David.

Quite apart from the added complexities of widowhood, posthumous birth, and remarriage, our differences were a tawdry and bitter affair and our affinities were only recognizable in distortion. I would have loved a memorable moment in final resolution but it never came.

That I too was abnormal as a boy, I never doubted. I was quite literally the mother’s boy of a dead father in another man’s house. And best matriarchal efforts were made to divide and rule, by separating the practical outdoor world of my stepfather from the more bookish world of my own father.

I was under threat, walking a thin line of acceptable masculinity drawn by an unstable woman.

I just had to get away.

So in early 1967, I boarded a train at Crewe Railway Station for Southampton, accompanied by my mother. She was travelling with me to farewell me on my departure for the voyage to Australia. My stepfather had driven us from the farm, appearing unusually taciturn and grim.

As I the train began to pull away, I stood at the carriage window and watched him standing half way up the wide staircase that led down to the platform. Suddenly and totally unexpectedly, he burst into sobbing tears.

Perhaps that is what became so unforgivable to my mother.

Arthur Lawrence died on the 10th September 1924, aged 77. In March, 1924, his son David had left England to establish a community of the like-minded at Taos, New Mexico. My stepfather Horace Darlington died on the 4th August 1968, while I was sleeping under the stars undertaking research in the Northern Territory of Australia. Neither man had their son at hand at the end.

I like to think though that they both would have had few regrets, having done what good fathers can do so well - set their sons on the road to independence.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Exploring the Other Side of Mum


As we all know, men are largely mute brutes – the stuff of unresolved feelings, edgy longings and unsatisfactory declarations of commitment. While we have much to say about the exterior world and exalt in action, our inner lives are a mess that is embellished by beer, sport and half-suppressed desires for the last girl who got on the bus.

And that is only the part we can begin to talk about.

Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails after sugar and spice and all things nice.

Well, that’s pretty much what I was brought up to believe during my childhood in the 1950s – by my mother.

She was also fond of quoting the Fifth Commandment: ‘Honour thy father and mother that thy days shall be long in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee’.

But as she viewed herself effectively as a solo parent, the saying provided her with an unchallengeable mandate.

And if that wasn’t enough, she was capable of imposing considerable psychological duress. Let me quote a relatively uncomplicated example – involving her claim to be able to foretell and even influence the future.

Irked by one of my misdemeanors, she once prophesied my demise in my early 50s. Fortunately, I have survived 15 years beyond this send back date. However, I do not recommend modern parents to predict the deaths of their children – it can cause resentment.

At least some men are prepared to embark on voyages around their fathers but I wouldn’t know where to source sufficient emotional victuals to up anchor and successfully circumnavigate my mum.

But some of the terra incognita that nurtured her can be sketched in using maps drawn by the descendants of the original feminist conquisatadoras.

So I was fascinated to read Stephanie Coontz’s article in the New York Times ‘When we hated Mom’. While Stephanie sees things from a feminist viewpoint, men can re-orientate the chart to get some readings.

Stephanie argues that mothers were held in great esteem 150 years ago, with society putting them on a pedestal and popular culture being filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue.

She quotes Sophia the wife of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who told her mother that she did not share her concerns about improving the rights of women, because wives already exerted “a power which no king or conqueror can cope with.”

That sounds like a good place to start.


But, says Coontz:

‘In the early 20th century, under the influence of Freudianism, Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love” as unmanly and redefine what used to be called “uplifting encouragement” as nagging.

'By the 1940s, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of mothers; in their view, women should stop seeing themselves as guardians of societal and familial morality and content themselves with being, in the self-deprecating words of so many 1960s homemakers, “just a housewife.”

‘Stay-at-home mothers were often portrayed as an even bigger menace to society than career women. In 1942, in his best-selling “Generation of Vipers,” Philip Wylie coined the term “momism” to describe what he claimed was an epidemic of mothers who kept their sons tied to their apron strings, boasted incessantly of their worth and demanded that politicians heed their moralizing.

‘Momism became seen as a threat to the moral fibre of America on a par with communism. In 1945, the psychiatrist Edward Strecher argued that the 2.5 million men rejected or discharged from the Army as unfit during World War II were the product of overly protective mothers.

‘According to the 1947 best seller “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex,” two-thirds of Americans were neurotic, most of them made so by their mothers.

‘Typical of the invective against homemakers in the 1950s and 1960s was a 1957 best seller, “The Crack in the Picture Window,” which described suburban America as a “matriarchal society,” with the average husband “a woman-bossed, inadequate, money-terrified neuter” and the average wife a “nagging slob.”

‘Anti-mom rhetoric was so pervasive that even Friedan recycled some of this ideology in “The Feminine Mystique” — including the repellent and now-discredited notion that overly devoted mothers turned their sons into homosexuals’.

Coontz then goes on to argue that Post-War men retaliated by walling off their wives in suburban Stepfords - bereft of company, help and opportunity.

To deepen the treachery, the boys who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s lost respect for their mothers because the stay-at-home mums of the day were in a state of constant exhaustion, as a result of fathers doing little to help.

Consequently, the Post-War mums were as cranky as rattlesnakes on a barbecue or maritime explorers spiked on a sandbank.


One problem for women with all this is that men are now sailing some of these seas, having rounded Cape Horn - like it or not.

Some of us men are now honorary mums – also prone to late dressing, rapid tidying before the spouse comes home, and not immune from crankiness about mud on the carpet - we are the stay-at-home dads.

My brother-in-law Dene Allen who looks after 4 kids (with another on the way) is a second case in point.

This year Dene was a finalist in the NZ ‘Freshly Squeezed Talent’ competition screened on New Year’s Eve TV. He‘s a great singer and was one of four Southlanders who made the finals. But he blotted his copy book a bit with his mother-in-law by blurting out on camera that it ‘only took him an hour or so in the morning to tidy up and do the housework after the kids had gone to school’.

I think that a lot of the criticism that he faced from the females in the family came less from horror at his slap-dashery and more from his lack of solidarity in giving the game away.

So, in the light of contemporary male exposure to the dishes, did the Post-War mums really have it so bad at the hands of their husbands and sons?

I suspect not. After all, there were relatively few kids to look after anyway and labour saving devices were rapidly proliferating.

Unless you aspire to be a domestic goddess or godlet, and as long as you are prepared to put in the time training the kids (and sometimes the spouse), a man can knock off a lot of the basics pretty quickly – though I would be the first to admit that Nigella Lawson or Martha Stewart would make a better job of it, with better grace (at least in front of the TV cameras).

So could there be an alternative explanation for the preponderance of ‘nagging slobs’ and ‘overly protective mothers’ in the period 1910 to 1980, before women rose from their beauty sleep?

Perhaps they were bored but only partly stirred – as simple as that. And their unwillingness to cough out the apple bite and lift the thin glass ceiling of their protective mausoleum awaited the kiss of commerce.

That’s part of it at least. By the 1980s the economies of Western Countries had become much more feminine-friendly – and with many more jobs available in the service sectors in warm, well-lit offices a middle class girl could feel at home as well as pull in a sizeable pay packet.


I realize that I have probably raised the ire of my mother’s spectre at this point – along with that of some contemporary harpies, so I’ll let Stephanie Coontz back into the argument:

‘Contrary to myth, “The Feminine Mystique” and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and “working conditions” for her.

‘Domestic violence rates have fallen sharply for all wives, employed or not. As late as 1980, approximately 30 percent of wives said their husbands did no housework at all. By 2000, only 16 percent of wives made that statement and almost one-third said their husbands did half of all housework, child care or both.

‘Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.

‘From 1975 to 1998 men married to full-time homemakers increased their contributions to housework as much, proportionally, as men whose wives were employed. And from 1965 to 1995, homemakers decreased their own housework hours more than did wives in dual-earner families. As a result, most stay-at-home mothers now have shorter total workweeks than their husbands.

‘There also seems to have been a significant shift in the relationship between depression and homemaking. Stay-at-home mothers still recount more feelings of loneliness than working mothers.

'But in a new Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper, the sociologists Margaret Usdansky and Rachel A. Gordon report that among mothers of young children, those who were not working and preferred not to have a job had a relatively low risk of depression — about as low as mothers who chose to work and were able to attain high-quality jobs.

‘These findings suggest that it is time to stop arguing over who has things worse or who does things better, stay-at-home mothers or employed mothers. Instead, we should pay attention to women’s preferences and options.

‘Feminism has also fostered increased respect for men’s ability and desire to be involved parents. So we should also pay attention to expanding men’s ability to choose greater involvement in family life, just as we have expanded women’s ability to choose greater involvement in meaningful work.

‘While stay-at-home mothers may not have the aura of saintliness with which they were endowed in the 19th century, it’s indisputable that their status and lives have improved since their supposed heyday in the 1950s’.


Just a few comments here from me to round things off.

First, as the UK Open University explains, with respect to England, in the period 1775 to 1850, this was an era of hazardous family building during which there was only a slight improvement in child survival. Throughout this period, families averaged at least five live births – but only half of these children survived to the age of 25. And women were dreadfully at risk from childbirth.

It is hardly surprising then that ‘society put them on a pedestal and that popular culture was filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue’.

Secondly, I somewhat resent the comment that ‘feminism has fostered increased respect for men’s ability and desire to choose greater involvement in family life’. An alternative view is that the rabbits have become bolder now that the foxes have left for work.

Third, I have to wonder briefly how far stay-at-home blokes, like Dene and I, are now eligible to earn potential sainthood serving wafers in the Convent of the Mum?

I don’t think that we should hold our breath for canonization by the feminists.

There is no doubt in my mind that males are the dumber of the two genders but having said that we also try our best to shore up our inadequacies with straightforward inanity and a devil-may-care attitude.

Better that we just take any opportunity that offers to slope off for a pint, chat about the Rugby and ogle the barmaid – halo be damned.

As for my own mother perhaps she was a throw-back to an earlier era – though I find it more likely that she was just a twentieth century manifestation of the more “general power which no king or conqueror can cope with.”

Let’s face it, things haven’t changed that much. It’s about the survival of the fittest – and if a man says a woman looks fit, it just shows that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Peppered Past


Like Margaret Drabble who recently published an assessment of the matrilineal genes and memes that she inherited from the family of her mother, Kathleen Marie Bloor, I have come to feel an affinity with a moth.

Ms Drabble has titled her semi-fictional exploration of family history and the cascading intergenerational quirks of its female members, ‘The Peppered Moth’ – presumably because a moth is a moth and a Bloor is a Bloor, even though both may seek to change their spots to fit in.

The novel deals with difficult relationships - between parents and offspring, and between family and a sense of place. Away from the grime and gloom of South Yorkshire, the youngest in the line of ‘Cudworth’ women, Chrissie (Margaret’s self representation), comes to life in a perverse, wicked, rebellious streak, drawn to "lust, adultery and alcohol".

But fighting off the family curse of depression which has darkened the lives of her womenfolk, the fourth generation narrator finds it difficult to avoid a harsh, dismissive, censorious tone in assessing her forbears. In fact, she finds it hard to avoid sounding like her mother. And left to settle in Sheffield once more, no doubt the darkness would come to predominate in adjusting to nature.

So moths and mothers make an interesting counterpoint.

Let’s start by talking about the moths. The Peppered Moth (Biston betularia) is a dowdy, night-flying moth that used to haunt woodland trees in a greyish-white that blended well with lichen-covered bark.

When the early 19th century collectors first identified it, it was a predominantly light-winged with black speckles. But in 1848, a black variant was identified in Manchester that blended in much more effectively with the increasingly soot-stained trees of industrial Northern England.

By 1895, 95% of the Lancashire peppered moths were black – and this dark form then spread across Britain until the lighter form began a resurgence following the 1956 Clean Air Act.

The shift in hues in response to camouflaging and predation was seen by evolutionists as a clear vindication of the theory of natural selection, though disputes arose on the validity of the science and creationists seized the opportunity to argue that, as their had always been lighter and darker forms, proportionality was the only issue.

But Mike Majerus, Professor of Evolution at Cambridge University recently spent seven years repeating the earlier studies on the predation of the peppered moth. He compiled enough visual sightings of birds eating peppered moths to show that, in rural Cambridgeshire, the black form was significantly more likely to be eaten than the peppered now that air pollution had declined.

“The peppered moth story is easy to understand,” he explained, “because it involves things that we are familiar with: vision and predation and birds and moths and pollution and camouflage and lunch and death. That is why the anti-evolution lobby attacks the peppered moth story. They are frightened that too many people will be able to understand.”

Adding: “If the rise and fall of the peppered moth is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action, it should be taught. After all, it provides the proof of evolution.”

And more recent research by Ilik Saccheri, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, and his colleagues has shown that show one mutation from a single ancestor causes increased dark pigment, called melanism, in the typically light-coloured moth.

Saccheri's team used a genetic technique called linkage mapping to search for the gene responsible. A linkage map puts traits in groups according to how often they are passed on to the next generation together, which indicates how close together they sit on a chromosome. The closer the traits are in the genetic sequence, the less likely it is that they will be separated during sex-cell division, and the more likely it is that they will be passed on together.

To make the map, Saccheri and his colleagues twice crossed a dark male moth with a light-coloured female; the result was 132 offspring with varying traits. The traits most often inherited alongside dark coloration were matched up with genes of the silkworm (Bombyx mori) — a closely related moth species with a sequenced genome.

The locations of the genes for the traits pointed to a narrow region on chromosome 17, where the scientists say that a single gene variant is probably responsible for the peppered moth's melanism, although they don't yet know exactly which one it is.

Once the chromosome region was identified, the researchers examined moth samples collected all over Britain between 1925 and 2009. The same group of gene variants huddled in the chromosome region closest to the mutation in the dark moths, providing strong evidence that natural selection had acted recently on an advantageous mutation from one individual. If a mutation had been in the population for a longer time, or had come from multiple individuals, the selection of traits that were inherited together would vary more widely.

"It's not just the one mutation that has been swept through the population, it's that whole chunk of chromosome that has hitch-hiked," says Saccheri.

"It's a big breakthrough as far as peppered moths' industrial melanism is concerned," says Laurence Cook, a retired population geneticist from the University of Manchester, UK. He has been studying the peppered moth since the 1960s. "We've been going on for an awfully long time knowing just the classical Mendelian genetics."


Like Margaret Drabble, I have Northern English ancestors and a somewhat quarrelsome relationship with my family’s matriarchy. As my mother used to say ‘You can’t kill squitch’ (i.e. invasive couch grass). As if anyone would dare try?

But in my case it is the male-line ydna rather than the female-line mitochondrial dna that is of most interest from a genetic and behavioural point of view. I never knew my father as he was killed in the RAF in 1943 before I was born and, as my mother pretty much turned her back on his family, I grew up knowing very little about the ‘Johnsons’.

But as with the Peppered Moth, genetic techniques have uncovered a story about evolution – the evolution of my Johnsons from the Shorrocks family of Salford. In a similar effort to avoid being conspicuous – my grandfather changed his name when he left the North around 1905 (though oral history confirms that he could not divest himself of his cloth cap and pipe). Regardless, he could not change the genetic signature that he passed on to succeeding generations.

So we can match the darkening of the moth over the 19th century with the history of my family – though in our case, the change of hue and spots was much more abrupt.

As recounted by Derek Antrobus, pre-industrial Salford was ‘a pretty town with orchards, market gardens and homes of quite prosperous people arranged around a street called Greengate where the market square was to be found’. In 1773, its population was less than 5,000 – but this modest, historic town was already growing and my paternal ancestors who moved there from Blackburn were among the early immigrants.

In 1764 William ‘Sharrock’ married Sarah Rix at Prestwich, and a 1797 Trade Directory record William as a Calico-glazier, living Wood Street, Salford. William and Sarah had two sons, Richard (b 1788) and James (b 1793).

By 1801 the population of Salford had reached 29,495 and it was over 40,000 when James married Elizabeth Butterworth in 1815 (as James Shorrocks). The marriage certificate records James as a Brushmanufacturer, and Pigot’s 1821 Trade Directory shows that James and his brother Richard were joint owners of a workshop at 22 New Bailey Street, Salford.

By this time, Salford had become one of the first sparks off the anvil of the Industrial Revolution. Following the opening of the Bridgewater Canal in 1761, which halved the price of coal, and the development of the steam engine and textile machinery, urban growth caught fire, engulfing the old town. As described by a contemporary of James:

‘Houses have now displaced the verdure in all directions, and the pellucid character of the river has been destroyed by chemical refuse, and although the old localities still retain their favourite names – names suggestive of ‘Flora and the countrie green’ – they form so odd an amalgamation with the new streets to which they are wedded that the contrast raises our mirth along with our melancholy.

Wheat Hill has not an ear of corn to bless itself withal; Springfield has lost every trace of the vernal season; Garden Lane, Posy Street, Blossom Street and the Old Orchard lead to anything rather than fruit and flowers. Even Paradise [Vale] and Paradise Hill are shorn of their primeval attractions; and as to the Green Gate that once guarded Salford’s pastures – where shall we look for that?’

Later, by the time my great, great grandfather Walter Shorrocks was recorded as a 15 year old in the 1841 Census, the population of Salford had reached 91,361. And when my great grandfather Robert Edwin Shorrocks was recorded as a 7 year old in the 1861 Census, the population was 148,740 – with Walter living with his wife Ann (nee Collinge) and their three sons at 21 Islington Street, Salford, employing 2 workmen in the brush manufacturing workshop attached to the dwelling.

As contemporary photographs and the comments of Friedrich Engels make it all too clear, by the mid-1800s, the pleasant town known to William and James had become overcrowded and squalid in many areas. New rail connections in 1841 and 1881 and the opening of Salford Quays on the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 accentuated the process.

By the time my grandfather Harry Shorrocks was recorded a 2 year old in the 1881 Census, (living with his father Robert who managed the brush stocks as a warehouseman and mother Fanny Eliza [nee Mallinson]) the population of Salford had reached 228,822.

It was over 300,000 in the Dirty Old Town when, as a young man Harry turned his back on Salford forever, settling in South London under his new alias Harry ‘Johnson’.


There are many young people who run away and start afresh. But going further and changing one’s surname is an act that has repercussions beyond the immediate and personal. It affects all those who come later.

It raises possible limitations to our rights of reinvention.

Coming to the end of his life, Harry must have mused that no harm had been done. His three sons had produced what looked like a final total of four grand-daughters and it would have looked as though the Shorrocks name and ancestry were safely moribund. Then I popped up as a posthumous child, just a year before he died in June 1945.

But as the grandson who was cut free from his family history, I take exception to the fact that my father and his brothers and I were forced to fly, so to speak, under false colours.

Then there are the many, many hours of family history research that I spent dredging through the Johnsons in the Censuses looking for brush manufacturers. And the subsequent loss of my adopted brush manufacturing Johnson family of West Ham – and the embarrassing illegitimacy of my relationship with some of their lovely descendants the Bosleys.

So what drove Harry to turn his back on all that he knew and seek anonymity in London? We’ll never know – but we do know that he died as overweight and probably alcohol dependent. And that he had a reputation within my mother’s family as someone who became animated and inappropriate at any Bit of a Do, trying too hard to impress the ladies.

Or another way of putting it is that, like Chrissie the Margaret Drabble self-insert, he had a ‘wicked, rebellious streak, and was drawn to lust, adultery and alcohol’. Come to think of it, that covers some episodes in my own life.

So an independent streak to the caterpillar can be seen later as selfishness and self-indulgence in the post-pupated moth.

Getting back to my mother, on bad days she saw my grandfather rather than my father born again in me – particularly if I was going through a stouter or more exuberant spell. ‘You are just like your grandfather Johnson’ was sure to bring me to heel.

But like so many of the participants in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ series, I have found a sense of resolution and affinity in re-establishing my more distant family links. Looking back, something always seemed to be calling me from the past.

And what of my younger boys – are they, like the Peppered Moth, in the process of returning to ancestral type?

This is a hard question. As with any empirical work in the social sciences, it is difficult to avoid the observer intruding on the experiment.

In fact my own role in the story is now centre stage. Looking back over the last 200 years or so from the marriage of James and Elizabeth Shorrocks in 1815 to the present, you have a neat division between a Shorrocks century and a Johnson century – and I have been around for a third of the overall total.

I would like to think that my boys have inherited Shorrocks virtues and avoided Shorrocks vices but the likelihood is that they will see their lives much more in terms of the present day – focussing on reinvention in the light of the genes that I exhibit and the memes that I have spun.

But the family home is now called ‘Shorrocks Hey’ and my younger boys and I sometimes sing a little song going to school in the car based on a Bob Marley classic - ‘I shot the Shorrocks - but I did not shoot the deputy’. And Sam my eight year old has expressed dissatisfaction at being given his mother’s surname and flagged some interest in renaming himself Sam Shorrocks when he gets older.

As for the thirty and twenty-eight year old sons, they have, for the time being, rejected their father’s mutation into a Kiwi and dissolved back into the life of London - perfectly camouflaged.