Who would have thought a visa application for Saudi Arabia could upset me quite that way. It wasn't me filling it out, it was my husband. He got halfway through the form and couldn't answer a question.

He needed to name a person he'd never met and didn't know much about at all. That person was his great-grandfather. That's a problem easily solved. Just steal a common family name — assuming you even know that much about your family — stick it in front of your surname and magic up a forebear.

But that question made me quite sad. It occurred to me that my great-grandparents — all eight of them — are about to be forgotten.

Lucky then, that — a couple of weeks later — I'm kicking around on holiday with my granny. She can blame that one question in the visitor visa for the interrogation she has faced for seven days.


It's funny the things you discover when you start asking questions. Turns out my elegant, church-going granny once had a love affair with a knight of the realm. Only kissing, she says, but lots of it. These old people always make you feel so naughty, meanwhile hiding mischief of their own. I knew my granny's first husband was the love of her life. My grandfather — the dark-haired civil engineer — was the most charming gentleman she'd had the pleasure to meet.

It must have been the case, because she chose him above the other suitors.

She was quite a looker in her day.

She has always told us stories about my grandfather. He became the man we measured all others by. But I now know none could have matched him, because he wasn't real. At least, that version wasn't real.

Unless I'd asked, I would never have known he was easily irritated — if he didn't get coffee when he wanted it, or at the sound of loud chewing.

His father died of a heart attack at a young age, something I now know my brothers should watch out for. My granny's mum went a bit doolally at the end. She was well into her 80s and still going strong when she broke her femur. That sent her to her grave, just as it did her mum. Something for me to watch out for.

It's more than just their names we stand to lose. It's their experiences of the times they lived through — the Depression of the 30s, the smell in the cabins of steam trains, the novelty of the first water tap inside the family home. We find ourselves in doctors' rooms unable to say if there's a history of cancer in the family.

We end up making the same mistakes in our marriages that our grandparents could've warned us they'd made.


It's said it only takes three generations to lose oral histories, and, therefore, any memory of the people who spun those yarns around a dinner table for the first time.

If we don't remember these people, it's as if they never existed. Give it 90 years — for some of us far less — and we'll be forgotten, too.

Our great-grandchildren may one day be able to pull our names and pictures from the archives of Facebook, but they won't know why we ran away from home at 9 years old, or why we fell in love.

I don't want to be forgotten, so I'll do my bit not to forget. And if I ever have to fill out that Saudi Arabian visa form I'll know the answer to that question. I never knew Ignatius was a family name.