There’s a hint of wistfulness about impressionist Rory Bremner as he explains why he wants to trace his family tree. Rory’s father “was very rarely around” and he knows “remarkably little” about his forebears. “I constantly wonder about who I am,” he says, “because, both professionally and personally, I can be any number of people.”
Born in Edinburgh in 1961, Rory is the youngest of two brothers. His late father was a professional soldier, Major Donald Bremner, who was already 53 when Rory came along. Donald met Rory’s mother, the “open and warm” Anne, when the two served in the military government in Germany after the Second World War.
It’s Anne who kept family archives that provide Rory with vital clues about his father’s life, a treasure trove that’s now in the possession of Rory’s brother, Nigel. Searching through papers and old photographs, the duo find a letter that tells of Donald’s adventures at s’Hertogenbosch, a German-occupied Dutch city that in 1944 was a key intersection of road and rail links.
In Holland, Rory hears about his father’s distinguished service with the East Lancashire Regiment. Under cover of night, Donald led the first Allied troops into heavily defended s’Hertogenbosch. Joss Acker, a Dutch medic, brings the past vividly alive as he recalls lending his shoulder as an impromptu stand for Donald’s machine gun. “You can be very, very proud of your father,” Joss tells Rory. “He was a fighter. You can consider your father as an army on his own.”
In Germany, Rory also learns about his father’s life as an administrator after conflict ended. In many respects, it’s a melancholy story. Donald, something of a lady’s man, left his first wife, Rosamund, and daughter, Boo, in England. The marriage ended in divorce. Donald died of cancer and Rory remembers him in part as a ravaged figure. Now, though, he’s caught glimpses of a vital man in the prime of life – “a much bigger human being”.
Tracing his genealogy further back, Rory’s intrigued by Donald’s maternal grandfather, John Ogilvey, a surgeon general. Was this job as important as it sounds? Records at Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons reveal that John was a military surgeon who qualified in 1853. He served in the Crimean War and, it turns out, Nigel has a portrait of John, along with campaign medals and a war diary. After finding minor fame for successfully delivering a baby in the most appalling conditions, John was posted to India.
In the east, he lived a luxurious life, yet there were dangers too. Dysentery and cholera were rife. Death records held at the British Library record that Rory’s great grandmother, Harriet, died of “dysenteric diarrhoea” shortly after giving birth to Rory’s grandmother, Evelyn. Following Harriet’s death, John returned to the UK, but soon accepted a posting in Bermuda. He left his three children in the care of a governess. Eventually, he married again and brought a second family home to England. He died in 1899. At Woking Crematorium, Rory sees the marker erected to commemorate John.
The stories of Donald and John, who in their different ways both absented themselves from family life, have had a deep effect on Rory. He finds uncomfortable parallels in how often he’s away from his own daughters because of work. “I keep thinking, ‘Well, I’ll be around when they’re older’,” he says. “But it’s not always when they’re older that counts, so it’s a reminder of the importance of family.”