8pm St David’s Day our new series on the history of Wales begins with an introductory programme. The series examines the potential of ancestral DNA to contribute towards the understanding of the past.
I have been very struck, while working on it, by a dual theme that emerges: Continuity and Change. Humanity values both of these. Continuity promotes stability, the mastering of skills, the memorialising of the past so that it can feed the future. Change calls out new skills to integrate with established ones and it means encountering people and attitudes that challenge conclusions drawn from hard-won experience.
The material in the series has made me consider the relationship between the body and what we use the body to do; between ‘the givens’ of our lives – our physical inheritance – and the choices we make about our lives – our culture and our approach to life.
I inherited a little genetic package that could have stayed dormant but I encountered a trigger that activated it (to simplify some complicated stuff!) and as a result I have spent quite a proportion of my life in medical settings. I am hugely grateful that I live where there is a national health service that handled the diagnosis and on-going management. I also value the patient-led charity that has been a major factor in enabling me to face the worst symptoms, emphasising everything that one can do oneself to live well. But the people I’ve met with for therapeutic exercise every week over more than a decade are a minority of patients. Some people make other choices.
I have an ethnic identity which emerges from an area which is, let’s say, contested. Culturally, I am not what my paternal forebears were. My paternal grandparents had a cross-cultural marriage. I grew up identified with one side of the community while having many relatives on the other. That wasn’t easy but I quickly came to regard it as a privilege. I value my cultural identity highly but I decided long ago to try to embody it with, rather than against, those who don’t share it.
Considering ancestral DNA has led me to be more sharply aware that the past – as a whole (genetics, history, geography etc) – though it may determine many of the conditions of life, need not over-rule one’s ability to take responsibility for the choices made in the present.
It’s tempting to ‘blame the ancestors’ (and, boy, some of mine got up to questionable things) for family behaviours that we’d be better off without but, once we’ve faced up to those, it’s our choice whether or not to continue them. And I think that applies to the human family as much as to my own.
So, Who are the Welsh? (one of the key questions in the series). I feel that the answer in terms of genetics will reveal a rich complexity and I hope it will encourage everyone in Wales to look ahead to consider how we want to use what life has given us, here, in this beautiful country near the western edge of Europe.