The Human Genre Project

Identity theft

In 1935 an official removed my grandfather’s citizenship, ignoring the scars inflicted at the Somme, and the medal awarded to him for bravery (he’d only been following orders, after all).

On the wall of the official’s office was a diagram that reminded my grandfather of biology lessons at school. Green peas can be bred from yellow ones, but he couldn’t remember why this was so. How can greenness (or was it yellowness?) lurk invisibly in a generation of peas before reappearing in their offspring? Now, as the official ran his finger up and down the lines connecting the black and white circles, my grandfather wished he’d paid more attention at school.

Then the official scratched my grandfather’s Mendelssohn records and scribbled on the pages of his Kafka. And he knew it was his duty to confiscate my grandfather’s complete set of Beethoven symphonies, for safekeeping.

But my grandfather could keep the theory of relativity, Communism, and that nonsense about the subconscious. So he set off for England, with Freud, Marx and Einstein to keep him company on the boat.

Long before Crick and Watson discovered the double helix structure of DNA, my grandfather could have told you about the twin strands of German and Hebrew knotted around his tongue. It was a difficult job to unpick all this and splice English words into it — words he accumulated from reading Dickens, jamjars, Orwell, army orders, ration books, newspapers, advertising hoardings, railway tickets, Joyce, laundry labels, street signs…

I never met him, but I inherited from him a dislike of Wagner, and a predisposition to diabetes. His collected works of Dickens, with German words pencilled in the margins, are all mixed up with my books on my shelves. I trace the marks he made; hoping his interpretations can be trusted when I’m on holiday in Munich, swigging back the beer at Oktoberfest.

And so it goes on. When I say ‘Aye’ in my South London accent, a Scottish friend laughs at me. It’s not my word, and anyway — why do I want it? But I’ll pick my way through your language, and like a magpie stealing shiny buttons, I’ll take what I want for my stories.

Pippa Goldschmidt