Thursday, 30 July 2015

Yes, I know you don’t give a hoot about my genetic inheritance – but I’m beginning to

I’m a bit of a mess, genes-wise. The best guess is that I’m 25% Finn, 25% Norwegian, 37.5% Scottish (of one sort or another) and 12.5% Irish (Ulster). There may also be some Swede in there as well. I suspect that’s as close as I’m ever going to get to an understanding of my origins, and it’s probably massively wrong. I could get one of those £99 DNA tests – but they sound far too cheap to be accurate: I think I’ll just carry on enjoying the uncertainty.

Physically, I suppose I look slightly more Scandinavian than anything else. From personal observation, I probably look more Danish than Swedish or Norwegian, but I’ve more often been mistaken for German, and a Danish girl once told me I didn’t look in the least Danish (but she might just have been trying to brush me off). I tend to blend in when visiting the inter-coastal parts of America, until I open my mouth – but given the genetic variety enjoyed by Americans, that doesn’t mean much.  A female friend once made me feel oddly proud by saying she’d always imagined me as the captain of a Norwegian fishing boat – I’d happily settle for that.

Whatever the mixture, I’m definitely a Northern European mongrel.

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the assumption of Finnishness derives from a business trip my brother made many years ago to Helsinki, where, leafing through the city telephone directory (as you do) he discovered a whole slew of Grönmarks (the umlaut in Swedish and Finnish performs the same function as the line through the “o” in Norwegian and Danish, although “ø” is a separate letter of the alphabet, while the umlaut is just an accent indicator – if you’re still awake). As far as we were aware at the time, we were the only Grønmarks in Norway, which is odd, because it roughly translates as the rather prosaic-sounding “Greenfield”.  A quick trawl of the internet seems to confirm that it is, indeed, a Finnish name.

So how did a family with a Finnish surname end up in Norway (I didn’t hear you ask).  There have been two main periods of Finnish migration to the country of my birth. The first lasted from the late 16th to the mid-17th Century, and involved the so-called Forest Finns of both Sweden and Norway, who were entirely assimilated into the local cultures many moons ago. The 18th and 19th centuries saw two waves of fresh migration by Finnish peasants and fishermen to Troms and Finnmark in Northern Norway, where they were known as Kvens (for reasons I needn’t go into.) This was an extension of a general migration of Finns into the Sami territories of Finland and Sweden . The second wave was partly due to a boom in the Norwegian fishing industry, and partly due to the fact that it was easier to migrate to America from Norway than from Finland.

Although initially welcomed by the Norwegian government, the Kvens (along with the Sami) became the target of a 19th Century cultural assimilation policy known as Norwegianisation – strangely, both groups were considered a security risk and were monitored by the security police right up until the 1970s, schools were forbidden to teach Finnish, the sale of land to people with non-Norwegian surnames was prohibited, and, in 1870, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence demanded that all Finnish/Kven names be removed from maps.

Now, in our more touchy-feely, inclusive age, the Kvens are recognised as a national minority, and, since 2005, their language and culture have been officially protected. Depending on which definition of Kven is applied, there are between 10,000 and 60,000 of them – most of whom don’t speak Finnish and consider themselves to be either fully Norwegian or Sami.

As the Grønmarks were ensconced in a wood-milling town in the far south of the country, just a few miles from the Swedish border, we can assume they never migrated to Northern Norway, but they might have entered the country (along with many other 19th Century Finns) with an eye to emigrating to America at some stage – only they got stuck in Norway for a while.

As far as we know, my father was the only Grønmark to make the trip across the Atlantic. According to official records, ten males emigrated from Kristiania (now Oslo) to North America in November 1926. One of them was Olai Julius Grønmark, who was 18 at the time. He described himself as a “cellulose worker”, had 300 Kroner to his name (roughly £30 now – no idea what it was worth then) and sailed for Canada on the Raffell Line ship, Blenheim. (I am indebted to my brother for all this fairly recently-unearthed information.) It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for a boy of 18 (albeit a pretty damned hefty one) who didn’t speak a word of English – let alone French - to leave everything he’d known behind in order to travel thousands of miles in winter to a vast, alien country just as cold as the one he’d left behind.  According to his emigration form, our father was leaving “in hope of a better life”. What with all the lumberjacking and mining in the great, frozen Canadian hinterland, it was certainly a more expansive existence than the one he forsook - and it's unlikely he'd have ended up as a WWII RAF bomber pilot or marrying a Scot had he stayed behind.

As I said, I have no intention of getting a DNA test – but, should I ever recover from this annoying fatigue thing, I’ll be heading straight for Finland: we were planning a trip there (my wife went a few years’ ago) when I fell ill. If, upon arriving, I burst into tears, fall to the ground and kiss the tarmac, I’ll know with certainty that I’m at least a bit of a Finn (I’m not sure that swooning to Sibelius counts as sufficient proof).

I’ll end this rambling post by pointing out that my son has not only inherited my genes, but has a bit of extra Scots,  some Saxon, probably some Norman and possibly a bit of Huguenot as well. A rich enough mixture for anyone, I’d have thought.


  1. in the world of plant and animal breeding it's called hybrid vigour and much sought after.
    Your genetic smogasbord is in direct contrast to my known origins. I was born in Liverpool, I know that because it says so on my birth certificate and was adopted as a babe in arms. I know there are ways of seeking out the blood lines but I see little point. I'm often referred to as a bastard, one cannot argue with the facts, and I am quite happy to think wistfully of my birth mother as being the tantalising maid in a grand house and being covered by the renegade son of the Duke of Bowland.

    1. In his first volume of autobiography, the Telegraph’s Peter Simple – Michael Wharton – described how his mother, who was from Bradford, would brood romantically about her ancestry: ‘A shadowy greatness gathered. She hinted at connections with the Whartons of Wharton Hall in Westmorland ... She even hinted at a Missing Will. I listened and pondered.’ Later, Wharton (who eventually ditched his father’s surname name in favour of his mother’s) also liked to imagine dicovering himself to be the heir to a vast, ancient, run-down country estate: he entitled his autobiography (which is brilliant) “The Missing Will” (the second volume was “A Dubious Codicil”). It’s hard to imagine Wharton – who was a melancholic introvert – as a country gentleman, but I can easily picture you as the owner of a large country estate, Riley.

      When did you learn that you had been adopted, did it come as a shock, and did you mind? (Sorry – being nosey.) It’s notable how attitudes to illegitimacy have changed in our lifetime. I was always surprised at how HUGELY important it was to the authoress, Catherine Cookson, who talked about the profound effect on her life of being born out of wedlock (in 1906, mind you) in practically every interview. I remember seeing a 1961 film, “Spare the Rod”, starring Max Bygraves (!) as a London teacher about ten years after it was released, on TV. The headmaster (Donald Pleasance) warns him on his first day not to call the children “bastards” because, as he says, in what was no doubt a chilling line in 1961, “some of them are.” By the early ‘70s, it sounded hilariously dated, and made me – and the people I was watching it with – laugh out loud. And now – well, it’s par for the course (I became aware of this decades ago at the BBC, where my colleagues were always having children without being married – even the Catholics!)

      Sorry - I'm not in any way trying to make light of your origins. They're just... fascinating. Prepare for a barrage of questions when we next meet, and I'll be prepared to be told to mind my own business.

      I once visited a graveyard in Michaelstow, in Cornwall, which, according to the grave-stones, was full of dead Bastards, many of whom were no doubt married. Odd.

  2. Actually, I found this fascinating. I have a lot of Scandinavian friends and for all the friendly differences over their respective national characteristics between the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, they are united in their view that the Finns are the toughest stock on earth, have miserableness as their defining characteristic and are to a man completely bonkers. In evidence, they cite superhuman drinking exploits and battles in which 200 Finns take on and defeat a battalion of Russians while armed only with pick-axe handles. Does any of this start to connect with your own experience?

    I never really thought of you as anything other than British at school but I remember that Frank Miles used to enjoy the occasional extravagant pronunciation of your name along the lines of Gruuurrnmark, probably on the rare occasions when you had handed in a less than impressive essay..

    1. I am not physically brave, I became allergic to alcohol at the age of 33, and while prone to occasional moodiness, I am boringly sane - so, disappointingly, I don't fit the profile (which, by the way, chimes with everything I've ever been told about Finns, who apparently do drink like fish, enjoy knife-fights and have a truly appalling sucide rate.)

      The only times I was made to feel un-British at school were when one teacher pointed out that I pronounced orange "oarnge" (Candadian-style) and another sniffily told me not to refer to "our" colonies, because it simply wasn't done, and because, in case, I wasn't British. I think Frank quite enjoyed having a foreigner in his class (he apparently once referred to me as "a morose fur-trapper"). I don't remember any boy at school ever referring in any way to my origins - or being in the least bit interested in them, come to that. I wonder if it would have made a difference had I had a pronounced foreign accent. I doubt it, somehow, but you never know.

  3. A Social Commentator writes2 August 2015 at 20:02

    Perhaps your female friend got you confused with Captain Birdsøy? Oddly, the actors James Cagney and Robert Mitchum both claimed that their grand-fathers were Norwegian sea captains.

    Lutheranism takes a jaundiced view of males mincing around singing show-tunes and discussing soft furnishings and fabrics at same-sex gatherings so as the established religion of Norway they gave " the Raving Old Kvens" a hard time. The Kvens introduced the name "Bent" into Norway and this is now a very popular forename.

    As far as the Sami people are concerned [or "Lapps" as they were happy to be called when I was a child] read Budd Schulberg's seminal work "What makes Sami Run?".

  4. I think we can safely assume that James Cagney and Robert Mitchum's grandfathers were not, in fact, the same Norwegian sea captain.

    If I discover I have an ancestor called Bent Kven, I will definitely keep it to myself. In any case, I'm not absolutely convinced by your theory that God-fearing heterosexual Norwegians suppressed the Finns because of the latter's predilection for bum-banditry. What are your sources for this assertion?

    I presume the Lapps became Sami for the same reason that Eskimos became Innuits - i.e. some twat of a left-wing politics lecturer in some academic backwater decided to make a name for himself by indulging in a bout of virtue-signalling on behalf of people who couldn't have cared less what the the hell they were called as long as they didn't run out of fish and reindeer.