Rattling the family skeleton


My father announced before he died that he had always believed he was the illegitimate son of a famous Glasgow politician. He left enough clues to narrow down his possible paternity to one man – a hugely respected figure in Scottish left-wing politics. If my dad’s contention was true, it means that I am the grandson of a man who, but for ill-health in his fifties, could well have become Prime Minister of Great Britain.

If the politician was my grandfather, his election to parliament in 1922 might explain one of the enduring mysteries of our family: why did my grandmother, a woman who I remember as caring and generous, desert her husband and her three older children – all under ten years old – and run away to London carrying only her youngest child – my father?

My talk is the result of five years research into my grandmother’s journey out of poverty in the Glasgow tenements. It highlights the difficulty of investigating the lives of ordinary people who left hardly any footprint in the sands of time.  It addresses key questions: Do you have an obligation to preserve family myth or gossip as ‘history’ or should it be discounted? What should you do if you look behind the public face of a famous figure and discover a darker side that history has ignored?

I had to address these questions and more when I set myself the task of recreating my grandmother’s story by layering supposition onto the skeleton of facts. The result is a novel of historical fiction called No Mean Affair.

Rattling the Family Skeleton describes my investigation into my father’s claim and how I coped with the imbalance between facts relating to my grandmother and the much richer detail about her supposed lover. It describes the dead-ends and the fruitful lines of enquiry; the frustrations and discoveries. In a parallel with the popular TV programme Who do you think you are? I confront a reinvented past and what this means to me.

Recently, I have been on the road with my publisher, Fiona Joseph each talking about our own books. Hers is Beatrice – the Cadbury heiress who gave away her fortune which is complementary to No Mean Affair in some respects. In particular, both books are about strong women who did not accept the situations into which they were born.

If you would like to invite me to talk about Rattling the Family Skeleton or would like to book the joint talk with Fiona, please click on the ‘Contact me’ tab above and leave a message. Both talks last for about forty-five minutes with a further ten minutes or so for questions.


Comments are closed.