Dr William Murdoch (1805 – 1866)

This post doesn’t have much to do with the topics I normally write about. The recent (and thoroughly puzzling) furore over Richard Dawkins’ fifth great-grandfather being a slave owner is probably to blame for what follows.

In today’s episode of my quotidian procrastinations, I was going through my family tree, which was prepared by my cousin Michael Bailey. Because there’s some 142 generations, I decided to start from my name and trace up to my maternal grandmother, and then to follow the her direct paternal line as far back as I could.

My grandmother is a bit of a proto-hippy (in a good way); a semi-lapsed Catholic who believes in God, ghosts and reincarnation; she’s also fun, genuinely open-minded, and very witty; and she is practically responsible for raising me when I was going to kindergarten. (So naturally, I mean no disrespect.) She has often said that I should look into her family tree because my “great, great, great, great granddad” is where my “genes must come from.” (She used the term ‘reincarnation’ before that, but curiously changed it once I told her I was an atheist.)

So I did, and I found this ‘memoir’, written by my third great-uncle about my fourth great-grandfather Dr William Murdoch, who, if there’s anything to be said for genetic homeopathy, I’m flattered to think she was talking about this guy.

Dr Murdoch was a polymath, a polyglot, a public advocate for liberal values, and other things. That’s pretty awesome, and I’m humbled to know that four of the 128 genes in my genome – about 3.1% or so – come from him, so my grandmother deserves credit for being partially correct. I’m just hoping those genes weren’t the ones that contributed to the hemorrhagic stroke that killed him at 61.

A cleaned up version of the briefish memoir is reproduced under the fold below (simply because there’s no real reason that you should be forced to sit through something as potentially self-centred as a relatively unimportant fact about my genealogy), but I’ve endeavoured to clean it up – though I tried to leave the grammar and punctuation intact – because it looks like the product of an OCR scan of a PDF document that was scanned from really old paper. You can find the original here and elsewhere. (Naturally, the page for my name and all of my living relatives is password protected.) My immediate and extended family, as well as my Google-armed distant cousins, might find this interesting.

Before we continue, I should add that Adam and Eve would be my 106th great-grandparents; and Dr Murdoch’s sins were two generations away from being visited upon me. Which is good I suppose, because from this, I gather that he wasn’t a particularly religious man.

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In Memoriam: Hitch

Hitch

Christopher Eric Hitchens (April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011)

On paper, Christopher Hitchens was a first-rate journalist and an incisive, brilliant polemicist. In reality, he was so much more. A lot has been written on his life already, so I’ll keep it short and personal.

Hitch was one of those rare individuals who not only refused to mince words, he refused to mince facts. His opinion was always his opinion, invariably built on the most compelling facts he could unearth. His opinions on specific issues might have echoed those of figures as diverse as Leon Trotsky and George Bush Jr., but with Hitch it was always clear such overlaps were merely happenstance. He was the anti-stereotype; he never played into partisan lines.

His debating partners knew him as a staggeringly erudite, witty juggernaut. Hitch never compromised, but he rarely counted his ideological opposites among his foes. Even so, he had the unique ability to profoundly respect the individual, while vehemently declaiming whatever loathesome ideas came out of their mouth. Though he was a ferocious contrarian (despite his ironic discontent with the label) and an unrivalled rhetorician, by all accounts, he was also a gracious and affable gentleman.

I never had the privilege to meet Christopher. I knew him through his writing. Discovering his work was a pivotal thing for me. The genesis of this blog can be traced back to 2009, when reading Hitch for the first time rekindled my passion for writing, which ultimately got me out of a deep, dark hole I’d found myself in, plagued with poorly-managed depression and self-loathing. He spoke to what was left of me. Here was a writer none could categorize; who wrote passionately and selflessly, and who wrought beautiful prose. Here was someone for me to look up to; not slavishly, of course (he would have hated that), but as a mentor. And he delivered.

Listening to Hitch speak sparked a revolution in my mind. I had long considered myself an atheist and a freethinker; the former position was facile for me to adopt (‘atheism’ merely gave a name to a pre-existing conviction), but before Hitch I plainly failed at the latter; I was comfortable in my 21st century Green-voting inner-east Melbourne ideological mould. Hitch taught me to pull back the curtain, to always ask the hardest questions and to always demand answers.

Hitch also taught me that one should change one’s mind when the facts demand it. His constant struggle against the one answer, the divine plan, the totalitarian final word, is one we are obliged to continue. And most crucially, nothing he did was ever boring.

He was brave on and off the page; he once openly defacing a sign sporting fascist propaganda in Beirut. Following the subsequent assault he endured at the hands of a pack of far-right thugs, he remarked to his colleague Michael Totten: “I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone.”

There’s very little that flowed from Hitch’s pen that I didn’t find enlightening, but I particularly relished the things I disagreed with. It felt like an achievement to have independently conceived a carefully-considered position contrary to his. One couldn’t simply go to his critics, because they were too often right for the wrong reasons; it was rare that Hitch didn’t anticipate and demolish such (generally obvious) arguments head on. As such, disagreeing with Hitch was hard work.

Now I always look for a glimmer of Hitch’s daring when I assess the work of other writers. He plainly set the benchmark high, and precious few will ever make the cut. I’m not ashamed to admit I aim to cultivate Hitch’s remarkable lucidity, flare and audacity in my own prose. (It must be acknowledged that his trademark style is inimitable and all attempts to replicate it will fail, so I won’t be doing that.) I don’t feel I will ever do his influence on me justice, but I’ll sure as shit try.

Hitch had no need for a superstitious afterlife; his prodigious oeuvre had long ago cemented his immortality. I have no doubt his books will be devoured by independent thinkers for many generations to come.

Thank you Christopher. Thanks for showing me the courage to write exactly what’s on my mind. Thanks for cajoling me into standing up for what I think is right. Thanks for the laughs, the serious stuff and the life lessons. You will never be forgotten, and you are sorely missed.

Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.

—Christopher Hitchens

Click here for Slate’s compendium of Hitch’s greatest hits.