The internet is full of information of dubious quality, and I have recently spent quite a bit of time trawling a particular subsection of this by trying to trace family information. I have found many lists of names, and I appear to be lucky that my maternal side seems to have been recorded doing things (been born, married, and buried in the main) for quite a long while. There is a frisson of expectation when climbing the family tree, hoping to find an interesting branch or two and praying not to find any thorns or rotten fruit. Certainly the most interesting character I have found so far was a bloke named Richard, and his story is one that stirs up something confusing to me.
Richard Peyton Bailey
You see, Richard Bailey – my seventh or so great grandfather – was born in Lancashire around 1740. One story says he was a carpenter, and he made the long voyage across the Atlantic as a young man to seek his fortune in Virginia. Nothing I have seen even hints at the motivation for this travel, but several of his family made the journey as well: his father and possibly even grandfather made the same journey. For whatever reason, he settled in a place that I remember visiting as a child, a part of the world which would later become West Virginia. He and his family were pioneers of Western Virginia, long before the time that would split the West from the rest of Virginia.
He seemed to have lived a vivid and dangerous life. He defended his family and friends from Indian attacks, and built a structure called “the fort” that seemed to have been a long-lasting local landmark. His family settled and set-up and set about creating the kind of America that I learned about in my school lessons in US history. His was an archetype of American life: so much so, it almost feels that but for a twist of fate, we could all have learned about Richard Peyton Bailey instead of Daniel Boone. When we sang “Land where my fathers died…” it never struck me at the time just how many of my fathers had done their perishing in America.
It was another story that was most exciting. A single line from a document stored on a genealogical site:
“He served in the Virginia Militia as a spy during the Revolutionary War between 1776 and 1783.”
If this is true, Richard Peyton Bailey, my great grandfather fought in The American war in the very regiment commanded by a certain George Washington, Godfather of all American symbol-folk and the fellow on quarters and dollar bills.
There is no way of knowing whether Richard was a man who fought for a cause or a creed. He could have been a mercenary, or a conscript (though I have some doubts that a commander would trust a draftee as a spy). I cannot ask him whether he believed in a land of freedom (from monarchy) and bravery (in the face of tyranny), or whether he approved of using Boston Harbour as a teapot. But his life is symbol enough. He was to leave the old country of England, and build a wildly independent life with his own two carpenter’s hands. He would defend it by all means, even against the forces of the land of his birth. He would leave his family an inheritance of freedom.
But I’m not a Republican
For me, Lancashire is now a couple hours up the M6. It is the county of my wife’s family, and I’ve spent time visiting her relatives less than 20 miles from where my 7th 8th and 9th great grandfathers-Bailey were born, Christened and sometimes married. My wife was born there.
I shall be publishing this piece on a day that I wonder how Richard would have celebrated: a British Royal Wedding. I imagine him issuing me a rebuke in a heavy Lancastrian accent, refusing to lift his glass with me in toast. He is far removed from me in time, but his symbolic life is at the heart of a mindset opposed to Monarchy. That is part of my heritage: leaving kingdoms to join a republic, build a new life, and to defend it.
But I’m not a Republican. At least, I have no particular aversion to the British form of monarchy. I am instinctively drawn to its sense of stability, and its wholly different symbolic tradition. I do not find the idea of living under an autocratic regime appealing, of course. And I have no doubt that it was the powerful grinding away of the royal office over centuries that we are left with the polished and relatively non-offensive institution of the current monarchy. There is, however, something stable in the idea that the head of state has been raised and trained to office from childhood. In a time of short-term professional politics, the heritage and context of political and symbolic positions being woven into family encourages me.
This, then, leaves me in a bit of a bind. I am drawn to the stability and heritage of British royalty but I am equally repelled by its seemingly mindless adoration from arch-conservatives and the cultural baggage that comes with it. The benign symbols to which I am drawn become something hideous in the publications of the nationalists and bigots. They become something, in the unlikely hands of the American “Tea Party”, that is altogether reprehensible.
I also think about this event in more human terms. There are strong elements of the intrusive, the voyeuristic, and imperfect catharsis in the ubiquitous Royal coverage. Everything is recorded, broadcast and consumed. From my relatively sequestered channel of social media, I have read about the dress, the carriage, the cost, the Queen and the bride’s family. The papers publish every detail, and their commentaries are full of criticism on grounds of cost, taste, politics, and seemingly whim. From people minutely dissecting every possible aspect of what otherwise should be a celebration of a day.
It is a wedding, and I was not invited. What right have I to see and comment and titter and snarl.
As disturbing as the adoration of bigots may be, and as much as any may have a political stance against monarchy, or a justifiable complaint, you demean yourself by being… by being simply rude.
To be Upstanding
So, today will not be watching the Royal Wedding. Partly this is due to my not having a TV, but mostly because I would feel like I were gatecrashing an event to which I was not invited. On balance, however, and in light of the official and public nature of the occasion, I will be lifting my glass and throwing a party. I shall wish my best to the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I shall pray for their wisdom, and for their future reign. I shall pray that they make it safely through the mindless criticism of the rude reformer and the unwanted baggage from the unwanted fanatics. I shall bear in mind my own inheritance of equality and think on the past reigns of less welcome monarchs, and hope for the balance of stability they might, in their official role, bring to the world.