What do the Olympic Games, World War One Tanks, Henry VIII and opium have in common? The answer is that they make for a fascinating journey for Matthew Pinsent as he delves into his family's heritage, uncovering the unexpected at every turn.
Matthew sets out upon his journey by following the trail of his three great uncles who died during World War One. All three attended Winchester College, and Matthew begins his research there by reading their obituaries in the alumni records. But a discovery on a database of war dead brings an unexpected turn - Matthew's great uncle, George McPherson, committed suicide during one of the first great tank battles of the war, the Somme. What happened? And how can Matthew find out more?
Intrigued and disconcerted, Matthew visits the Tank Museum in Dorset and tracks down a historian who has written a book about this era, some of it based upon the memoirs of a friend of George McPherson. Thus Matthew learns the wretched - and honourable - truth of what happened on the day George died: the distraught young man shot himself after the failure of his assault - whether because he had been forced to retreat, or because of the horror of what he had seen, Matthew will probably never know.
Switching to his mother's side of the family, Matthew wants to uncover more about his great grandfather, David Landale, who worked for the firm of Jardine-Matheson in Shanghai. He visits the School of Oriental and African Studies to learn more about the business, and it doesn't take long for Matthew to uncover some surprising truths: the business was heavily involved in the opium trade, and thus Matthew learns about the opium wars and the part the firm had to play. On a visit to Shanghai, he discovers surviving documents of the municipal council, revealing the awkward spot in which his great grandfather, David Landale, found himself when he was asked to start closing opium houses.
Tracing his maternal line further back, Matthew becomes aware that the family is rather more eminent than he had suspected. They begin to appear in Burke's Peerage, and he is able to follow the line back to Lord William Howard, the uncle of Catherine Howard, the unfortunate fifth wife of Henry VIII. William's scheming ended with his imprisonment in the Tower, and Matthew is able to locate a cell in which he might have been kept. But there is more to come at the College of Arms. A pedigree traces the family all the way back to Edward I, and thus to William the Conqueror. There is even a roll which traces this royal line back to Adam and Eve - and thence to God! He has discovered a fabulous piece of medieval propaganda - but is pleased with it all the same.
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