Friday, March 09, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

‘Are you the poet?’

It was an interesting question; especially as it was posed towards the end of an entirely unrelated conversation. Well, it was towards the end of a medical consultation to be precise. I admit that it took me a little by surprise; not least because this heretofore unknown patient somehow knew that I write poetry. However, being something of a pedant, the question immediately raised further questions, particularly in respect to how I answered my inquisitor.

For example, the obvious difficulty for me was my patient’s use of the definite article. By using the word ‘the’, the implication was that there existed only one poet, which clearly wasn’t true if the question is taken in the context of the wider world of writing. However, to my knowledge, none of my medical colleagues in the surgery writes poetry, so the answer could be in the affirmative if that was the intended focus of the question.

The second conundrum was based on the concept of when is a person one thing as compared to another? For example, I think of myself as a doctor regardless of whether I am seeing patients or not. But am I a writer when I am not writing; or a poet when I am not physically writing poetry? Furthermore, can I be a doctor, a writer and a poet all at the same time? In our society, we tend to define ourselves and others by the person’s employment. So, for example, once a baker retires, he becomes ‘retired’; he is no longer a ‘baker’, and very rarely a ‘retired baker’. The fact that he is no longer baking tends (rightly or wrongly) to render the skill redundant when it comes to describing the person. So you can now see how such a small question can inadvertently lead me into a minefield of indecision in respect to giving a truthful answer.

Another question which now stumps me is ‘Where are you from?’ Until a few months ago, I would assume that the question was an enquiry into where I started life, in which case I would instantly reply that I am a Kentish Man. However, thanks to a research unit based in Cambridge University, I now have difficulty in answering even that seemingly innocuous question.

It is all Dr Peter Foster’s fault. He is the director of a research programme called Roots for Real (, which analyses a person’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosomal patterns and correlates the findings to a database linking modern-day man to the earliest of humans stepping out of Africa and, more specifically when, on their subsequent journey, their DNA mutated to its present-day form. The science is complex but fascinating, and I will leave you to read more on the website should you so wish. However, the upshot is that my Y-chromosomes (inherited through my father) originated 10,000 years ago from an area now known as northern Italy, at about the time of the last ice-age. As for my mtDNA (inherited through my mother’s maternal line), that is firmly centred on Crete and dates back some 40,000 years ago (yes, one of my great great etc. grandmothers knew Neanderthal Man). Furthermore, the same mtDNA has been identified in the remains purported to be those of the disciple, St Luke; thus making him a distant relative. St Luke, of course, was also a physician. So, when someone asks why I became a doctor, at least I can now honestly say that it is ‘in my genes’. However, it brings a whole new meaning to the question ‘who do you think you are?’ To answer honestly, I now need to know whether to take my reference from 52 years, 10,000 years or 40,000 years ago; for I now seem to be a Kentish Greco-Italian of an indeterminate age.

As for the original question, ‘are you the poet?’ I admit that I took the easy route. After a moment’s deliberation, I smiled and simply said ‘yes’.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 9th February 2012)

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