Genealogy, as you don’t need me to tell you, is big. Big as in huge. But what happens when who do think you are turns into who do you think you aren’t?
Thanks to the BBC’s long-running TV series Who Do You Think You Are we are now used to the sight of celebrities becoming all misty-eyed when they discover the story of Great Aunt Ethel, the puppy smuggler who was sent to Dartmoor, or Great Grandpa George who fell on hard times when his illegal gin still exploded.
I’ve always watched these surprising revelations with a sense of smug superiority. I knew exactly what was lurking in the Jupp family tree: Belgians. The modern branches of the Jupp line might seem to be English, but beneath our cricket-loving exteriors beat hearts of pure Belge. In fact, better than that: we were Huguenots, kicked out of Belgium for our beliefs back in the 1500s, and forced to make our way to England.
So I decided to dig up my Belgian roots and, with the aid of a one-way ticket on a ferry across the North Sea, return to my ancestral homeland to entertain the folks. I spent a few weeks preparing. Christine Sas at University College in London gave me a crash course in Flemish. I spoke to the Belgian stand-up Lieven Schire, who shared a few sure-fire gags, guaranteed to have my Belgian fans chortling.
Then disaster. Disillusionment came in the form of the genealogist Nick Barrett, who subjected my family tree to forensic examination. “I may have some bad news for you, Miles. There are two problems with your family story. Firstly, Jupp is not a Belgian name. Secondly, there were no Huguenot expulsions from Belgium because, crucially, THERE WERE NO HUGUENOTS IN BELGIUM.”
As I listened to Nick I discovered that the branches of my family tree don’t spread that far from the roots. Six generations of Jupps did not stir from farming the land in Sussex. The rest failed to distinguish themselves too.
The nearest we could come to a famous Jupp was Harry Jupp, born 19 November 1841 in Dorking, a broad-shouldered opening batsman for Surrey who was so effective at defending his wicket that he was nicknamed “Young Stonewaller”. Harry, the retired footballer Duncan Jupp (last seen playing for Bognor Regis Town) and the 18th-century architect Richard Jupp seem to have used up the Jupp family’s 15 minutes of fame.
My family tree was a lot less Kew Gardens than Dobbie’s Garden Centre. It meant that the trip to Belgium was off. So were my dreams of meeting Belgian relatives and catching up with our shared family history over a glass of fruit beer or some moules et frites.
How could we have got our family story so badly wrong? No one in the family knew. But then it was becoming perfectly clear that not only were my family fantastically unadventurous, we were also extraordinarily incurious. In fact, it’s a wonder that we ever got out of Sussex at all.
So the Belgian trail had gone cold. And I was left with a shattered sense of identity and some unusable jokes about being Belgian written with a Flemish audience in mind. I would have to seek out some other Jupps to see if they were in the same state of confusion. As long as they were in the phone book I could find out. What they would make of my Flemish zingers only time would tell. But that was the least of my worries. I was no longer, in any sense, feeling remotely Belgian. Who would have thought that genealogy could be such a dangerous business?
Miles Jupp Is Insufficiently Belgian is on Radio 4 on Wednesday 25th March at 11.30am