Lost tribes

There is a humble dry-cleaning business in the heart of Kensington frequented by the rich and famous. Norman Lamont, David Beckham, Idris Elba and Simon Cowell pop in from time to time, to have their fine garments restored and pressed. These well-to-do probably don’t think much of the presumed immigrants that serve them. But if there’s anything that we can learn from the fascinating family history of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, it is that the intermingling of cultures has long reached even into the very heart of the establishment.

Unknown to the wealthy customers of that dry-cleaner in Kensington, the proprietor’s great grandmother was one of Queen Victoria’s many cousins. Her son served as Postmaster General to India during the British Raj, where to the horror of his family, he converted to Islam and married a local woman. His children and grand-children are very proud of their heritage, but alas there is no reciprocity on the part of the noble elites to which they are linked. Whereas the proprietor’s father may have been identifiably half-European, to customers the folk behind the till are merely brown people, presumed foreign, alien and poor. How peculiar that we judge belonging on the basis of the quantity of melanin in the epidermis.

Some years ago, the proprietor enthusiastically retraced his roots, establishing his family tree, naively believing he might be embraced as a long-lost cousin, to be absorbed into the diverse tapestry of the imperial clan. Instead, those very very important people reminded him how very important they were, and how very powerful too, advising him in no uncertain terms to disappear, lest strings be pulled that resulted in undesirable and unfortunate consequences. Perhaps they were worried that he had his eyes of the family silverware, or perhaps it was plain old snobbery. Either way, the proprietor decided to drop the prestigious double-barrelled name from his passport, replacing it with the South Asian equivalent of Smith instead.

So it was that he gave up any claim to his lineage amongst the last vestiges of his tribe. A family tradition, perhaps, for his disgraced great grandmother did the same years earlier, preferring to marry the man of her choosing, rather than do as she was told. Had it not been for that decision, her son might have made Viceroy instead of Postmaster General. Well, all of history might have been different too.

As it is, the great great grandson of Queen Victoria’s cousin and great grandson of an English aristocrat works for his now-retired uncle in a dry-cleaning shop in Kensington, serving old elites and the nouveau riche with smiles and courteous conversation, impregnating daily the finest Savile Row suits in London with sweet perchloroethylene. There’s nothing strange about that. The next Prime Minister might just be the great grandson of the Ottoman journalist, newspaper editor and poet, Ali Kemal, who once worked in the government of Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire itself.

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