An early writing tutor of mine once ran a lecture on fascinations – speaking of the way in which our obsessions can develop and take shape if we pursue them, to harness them creatively. I’ve always had a great interest in genealogy and identity, and I guess my fascination with matters of family shows itself through the stories I write today. Over the years, I’ve never missed an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? or Long Lost Family, not to mention the many documentaries charting the British workhouses and the Irish Magdalene Institutions for ‘fallen women’. I still think about the Channel 4 show 100% English, which mapped ancestral DNA across the globe and presented it back to a surprised (and in some cases defiant) sample group. I love this stuff! Many of us think we know where we come from, but can we ever be sure, completely?
I grew up in a seaside village on the south coast and I have to confess that I never really felt it was my place. I was born in London, my parents were from Dorset and Leicestershire – and within the village there was a strong sense of pride amongst those families who could boast a long history there. Some of my school friends could count endless lines of great-great-great-grandparents in the village records – to the Domesday Book, no doubt. I wasn’t even born there, so it was little wonder I felt somewhat rootless in the grand scheme of things. That said, my seaside childhood was a happy one which cultivated in me a deep connection with coastal places and a powerful desire to be near the sea. Today I still live just a few miles from the coast, and wherever I travel in the world I’m always eager to seek out the shoreline, to smell the salt and spray. It’s fair to say I’m not a fan of the city break, not unless it’s somewhere located close to the sea.
Brighton is a place of particular significance to me. As children we often found ourselves in the ‘kids’ room’ at parties there, and I think of Brighton as a place synonymous with my parents having a good time. By my late teens, it was the place to go for a hip night out – just an hour away from home, and yet so different, so full of possibilities. During my twenties I spent 12 months working in Brighton and for several years my brother lived there, providing a welcome B&B for our regular weekend jaunts. More recently I found my UK publisher Myriad Editions there, who launched my debut Glasshopper, a novel partly set in the city – and last year I held the post of Writer in Residence at the University of Brighton. It’s fair to say Brighton has played an important role in the backdrop of my life.
For a long time I have meant to explore my own family tree, particularly on my father’s side – the Ashdown side – since he died when I was a teenager, leaving no direct relatives to interview. All I knew for certain was that the family hailed from Dorset, where both he and his father were born. During my recent records search I unearthed all sorts of interesting family stories – from poverty to good fortune, from fire stokers to dental surgeons, from the big house to the workhouse. But perhaps most surprising of all, I discovered that from my great-grandfather backwards, the Ashdowns were a Brighton family, born and bred. I phoned my mum to ask her if she or my father had known – no, she said, even when she had moved from Loughborough to Brighton Art School in their early days of courting, he had no notion of his Brighton heritage. I wonder what he would have made of it; I think like me, he would have been thrilled.
The roads my ancestors lived on are names I recognise from the Preston Park area of town – Scarborough Road, Florence Road, Vere Road, Lewes Road – the list goes on. So far, I’ve traced back six generations, and we’re still firmly located in Brighton (albeit a much more rural version called Brighthelmstone). I’ve now had to park my research for a while, as I get to grips with my next writing project – but as soon as I have some time to spare, I plan to continue following the trail.
What wonderful discoveries we make when we follow our fascinations. To find out that I don’t just carry Brighton in my heart, but also in my history, is a happy thing.
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