STEPHEN Fry is accustomed to being treated as the quintessential Englishman, as though his ancestors were composed "largely of tweed". This, despite an entire career spent furthering the impression, isn't quite the case. He called genealogy "a benign form of astrology". For some of his family, the horrible truth was that his forebears had failed to notice ill omens.
In one half of his lineage Fry is, at least by descent, an east European Jew, hailing from what is now Slovakia. His mother did not know what became of her aunt, uncle and three cousins in the little town of Surany, but even a guess was superfluous. Tracing his family tree, Fry began with the knowledge that he would find some of the roots dismembered. Holocaust awaited.
Who Do You Think You Are? is currently the best factual programme the BBC produces, less because of the celebrities hunting their antecedents - though each has approached the task with seriousness - than because the central idea has a universal currency. As Fry said, towards the end: "I realise how unlikely it is that any of us exists."
That's a big idea in a solipsistic world. You may be wrapped up in your own thoughts and your own life. You may have neither knowledge of, nor interest in, your ancestry. But vast numbers of choices, accidents, strokes of fortune and historical events have gone into the making of you, me, Stephen Fry and anyone who happened to be watching him on his journey.
There was some comedy along the way. Fry was happy to risk discovering that he, like most of us, was "just another ruddy peasant". He was unprepared for the ancestors of Ella Pring, his maternal grandmother. His father couldn't help. "Her side of the family was never spoken of, " he said. A mystery beckoned.
Discovering a "master hairdresser"was one thing. Female forebears named Mabel and Flo appealed to Fry's sense of humour. But then there was great-great grandfather Henry Pring, "pauper inmate" of Lewisham Union Workhouse. There was Henry's brother, Ernest, turning up in Knutsford Gaol. "I'm beginning to wonder, " said Fry, "how much further down the social scale my family's going to tumble."
His point was that barely a century elapsed between Henry's death and his own graduation from Cambridge. Was that merely luck, as understood by the British class system, or something more profound? Grandfather Neumann, his mother's father, found a job in a Bury St Edmunds sugar works a few years before Hitler came to power. Back home, the rest of the family perished. Fry, struggling with tears, scanned records that ended abruptly in 1943: "That f**king word, Auschwitz."
Only one Jew lived on in Surany where once 1000 lived.
In a dilapidated, forgotten cemetery Fry found the grave of his great-grandfather Leopold, mercifully dead in 1929 before the horror descended. "I cannot imagine who I would be, " said the quintessential Englishman, "if I had lived the kind of life that would end up here." Precisely.
I think I probably still have the book they gave me as a primary school Burns prize. If the sticker inside doesn't say "Awarded for the Best Junior Mangling of Great Verse" it certainly should. Burns, in those circumstances, was a chore, not a joy, a bit like reviewing the usual Burns night programmes.
This year, we struck lucky: just one bit of TV to mark the occasion, and it was a delight. Forget all the stuff about Edinburgh's Wester Hailes being "one of the toughest areas in the country". It's just a place, with people, and at Clovenstone Primary they evidently possess teachers dedicated to bringing out the best in their charges.
The brief was simple yet challenging, even for adults. Primary seven would treat grown-ups to a Burns supper. They would cook, recite, play: the lot. They had some help, but in the week in which some buffoon decreed that a haggis has no more nutritional value than a Turkey Twizzler, watching the children set about a sheep's insides was great fun.