Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Belshaw’s World: The strange world of the Belshaws

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 8 July 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I was going to continue my discussion on Armidale’s future as an educational centre, but I feel the need for a break and so, probably, do you. I will hold further discussion until my next column or the one after.

I mentioned in my last column that I was just back from a week in Canada. I had planned to go for longer, my wife is still overseas, but the need to find a new place to rent limited my time to just the Vancouver leg.

I really enjoyed Vancouver. I had only been to Canada once before and then just for a few days. This time I had a longer period in one spot, aided too by the presence of family on the Belshaw side.

We Belshaws are a funny lot.

To begin with, we are a very small family. In our branch of the family there have been just twenty seven of us over what is now four generations in the longest chain. There are so few of us that everybody is simply cousin.

Then, too, the family has been divided by time and space across three continents and five countries.

Uncle Horace was born in England, cousin Cyril in New Zealand, his two children in London and Canberra, their children in Vancouver and Toronto. Dad was born in Christchurch, his two children in Armidale, my daughters in Armidale, my brother’s children in Melbourne. The eighteen surviving family members live in eleven different places in three countries.

Despite dispersion in time and space, the striking thing about the Belshaws is the way patterns have carried across generations linked by genes and a common ancestry forged in working class Lancashire of the 19th century.

The first generation saw one teacher and two university professors. The second generation included one teacher and three leading academics. This is my generation, and I fit the pattern in interests if not formal position.

The pattern continues into the third generation with more teachers and academics, although now the dispersion is becoming greater.

Teachers and academics, but also writers.

Last night my nineteen year old gave me a full copy of her latest novel to read. Called the Guardsman, it is a fantasy story. In writing, she joins others in the third generation who also write.

I am not quite sure how many books have been written across the first three generations, but there are a lot. From utopian ideas to formal works in anthropology, economics or history to the story of adoption of Rumanian babies, the range of writing slowly spreads.

Dig down a bit and the patterns become even more striking.

Dad was an economist and historian with a special interest in development studies. Described by John Maynard Keynes as the brightest student ever to come to Cambridge from the dominions, Uncle Horace too was an economist with a special interest in development studies.

In my generation, cousin Cyril combined economics and anthropology, as did cousin Michael. I combine history and economics with an interest in anthropology.

In 1939 Uncle Horace organised the Maori Young Leaders Conference. In 2009, seventy years later, I have joined a mentor program for Aboriginal public servants, Clare has chosen to study ancient history at University, one of Helen’s favourite subjects is development studies.

I think that one thing that has puzzled all of us from time to time is just how all this came about.

My Belshaw grandparents were both born in Wigan around 1867. This was the harsh industrial world that George Orwell was later to make famous in the Road to Wigan Pier. Both grandparents left school at twelve, one to work in the pits, the second in the textile mills.

How, then, did we spawn generations of academics, teachers and writers?

I think the answer here lies in the combination of two things.

The first was the strict Primitive Methodist religious code of my grandparents with its emphasis on personal responsibility, achievement and focus on education. I think that all the first generations of Belshaws are a bit driven, I know that I am. I cannot help it.

The second was the decision to migrate to New Zealand. This freed the family from the constraints and class structures of the old world, opening new opportunities.

Can all this continue? I don’t know, but I would like to think so!

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