03:05:06 pm on
Friday 19 Jul 2024

The Genealogy Pit
David Simmonds

When I was younger and slightly less sophisticated than I am now, I used to ask myself why everyone was so concerned about the population increasing. The way I figured it, I had two parents, and four grandparents. Therefore, I had eight great-grandparents and so on upwards. Surely, the world was not expanding, but contracting.

Don't forget we share great-grandparents and great-great grandparents.

Of course, I failed to account for the fact that other people would share with me not just parents, but grandparents and great-grandparents. When I twigged to that fact, I saw the numbers the other way. For instance, assuming each generation married and produced three children, fifteen of my cousins and me would share a pair of grandparents and an additional 72 more distant cousins would share a pair of great-grandparents.

So, I wasn’t completely surprised when I read in the paper the other day that Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were distant relatives. In fact, the surprise is perhaps that the connection was not found until it was traced to Cumberbatch’s 17th, and Conan Doyle’s 15th, great-grandfather; a man known as John of Gaunt, whose life dates back to the 1300s. He was the Duke of Lancaster and the fourth son of the English King Edward III. That makes the two men 16th cousins, twice removed. I didn’t work that one out for myself.

I suppose it is cute Conan Doyle, who created the great detective Sherlock Holmes, and Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes in a television series, are distant relatives. Apart from precipitating a mild frisson, the relationship doesn’t mean anything: it doesn’t make Cumberbatch a better actor; it doesn’t confirm that Conan Doyle had the acting gene and it won’t affect my enjoyment of the series, which is pretty darned terrific, if you like your Holmes as a manic genius who can’t relate to people.

Cumberbatch didn’t ask for the investigation of the connection and we can’t speak for Conan Doyle, who died in 1930. Yes, Doyle was a big believer in the ability to communicate with departed spirits; maybe we should ask. The genealogy website, ancestry.com, announced the results. The tabling happened to coincide with the airing of a new series of episodes.

Genealogy is a hot topic, today, I don't want to rain on its parade.

I don’t want to rain on genealogy’s parade. It tends to remind us that kinship is perhaps more the norm than the exception. One website goes so far as to state that, “for any two humans in history or today, it is not a question of do they have a common ancestor, it is only a question of when was the most recent one.”

Indeed, so many people are distantly related, the information could feed a whole celebrity gossip industry. Did you know, for example, that Kim Kardashian and former British Prime Minister, of Britain, David Cameron, are 13th cousins through their common ancestor Sir William Spencer? Did you know Barack Obama is a distant cousin to Dick Cheney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt? That Sarah Palin is also a distant cousin of Bill Gates, Tennessee Williams, Mitt Romney and Shirley Temple. That Justin Bieber and Ryan Gosling are 11th cousins once removed, while Bieber is also 12th cousin to Avril Lavigne and 10th cousin three times removed to Celine Dion. I found that all out with a few idle web clicks. No, I don’t have anything better to do with my time. It was research. Honest, it was research.  

I suppose I should be interested in pursuing my own genealogy in order to learn both about the identity of both my forebears and my more distant cousins. I have not done so, however, because I fear I will find out they were horse thieves or out and out scoundrels. Thank goodness, I am not a celebrity or somebody else would uncover the details for me whether or not I wanted to know.

Still, in these tumultuous, divided days, it is somehow comforting to take away the thought that the most unlikely of people may be related. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, for instance, also share the John of Gaunt ancestry: he was their 18th great-grandparent, according to MyHeritage.com. Maybe that had some softening influence on his decision not to seek to throw her in jail.


For those with no known genealogical history, their family tree is likely a stump.

For all those people who aren’t related, we can always rely on the rule that says we are no further apart from one another than “Six Degrees of Separation” which spawned a movie starring Kevin Bacon. He, it turns out, is related to Barack Obama, Richard Nixon, both George Bushes and Princess Diana.

Maybe we should be encouraging everybody to dive into the genealogy pit. It just might produce more evidence that we have more in common than meets the eye and motivate us to act accordingly.


Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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