Toby Young

I’m proud that my ancestor served at Trafalgar. But not too proud to sell his stuff

Toby Young on his status issues

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I experienced what the American self-help guru Dr Phil calls a ‘defining moment’ the other day. I’d just taken stock of my life and, frankly, things didn’t look good. The house I’ve bought in Acton — and which I can’t possibly afford — is already worth less than I paid for it. My wife has expressed a desire to have a fourth child. And I’ve recently been ‘let go’ as the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic.

It was time to act. I would no longer be carried along by events — I would shape my own destiny. In the words of Dr Phil, I would move my ‘self-concept away from a world-defined, fictional self towards a self-defined, authentic self’.

I decided to sell the family silver.

OK, that isn’t strictly true. My paternal grandfather, Gibson Young, was an Australian ne’er-do-well and the only silver his forebears possessed was what they were able to steal from the gentry. Nevertheless, my maternal grandfather, Raisley Moorsom, was able to pass on a few things to my mother and she, in turn, left them to my sister and me. Chief among them were the ‘Order of Sailing’ and the ‘Order of Battle’ for the Battle of Trafalgar — two documents signed by Nelson — and a presentation copy of the Lyrical Ballads, inscribed by Wordsworth himself.

I took them along to Christie’s to be valued and discovered that their combined value might just be enough to pay the mortgage for another year. Clearly, if I was to stave off bankruptcy, they would have to be sold at the soonest available opportunity. All that remained was for me to persuade my sister of the wisdom of this.

‘Over my dead body,’ she said.

She pointed out that the reason we possessed the Nelson papers was that our great, great, great grandfather, Sir Robert Moorsom, was the captain of the Revenge, a ship that played a vital part in the Battle of Trafalgar. These heirlooms were tokens of the Moorsom family’s greatest honour and it was for this reason that they’d never been sold. We weren’t the owners of these documents — what arrogance! — merely the custodians. They had been entrusted to us for safekeeping and it was our duty to pass them on to our children, just as they had been passed on to us. Anything else was unthinkable.

I then mentioned the value that Christie's had placed on them.

‘Put ’em on the block,’ she said.

I suppose I should feel guilty about this, but the absence of primogeniture means they would have been sold sooner or later. True, my sister doesn’t have any children and might, conceivably, have left her share of the heirlooms to my children, but would the four of them — I’m resigned to this — have passed them on to their children? And what about their children’s children? The chances of them remaining unsold in perpetuity are vanishing to zero.

Of course, all the cousins on my mother’s side of the family will be up in arms. My mother had two siblings and they had seven children between them and no doubt they’ll be on the phone demanding to know how I have the audacity to sell the last remnants of the Moorsom legacy. I will gently point out that the only reason my sister and I are in this position is that our mother managed to cling on to her share of the family fortune. Their parents, by contrast, sold all the other heirlooms long ago — including the family silver.

The one thing that does trouble me is that I represent a sort of end-point in the gradual decline of the Moorsom family. Each generation has dissipated the fortune my great, great, great grandfather was able to build up on the back of his military adventures until all that is left are the few paltry heirlooms I’m putting on the block next Wednesday. I’m the English equivalent of the last of the Mohicans — except, unlike Uncas, I’m not going down in a blaze of glory. On the contrary, I’m selling my birthright to what will almost certainly turn out to be ‘the Yan-kee’.

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb to the effect that family fortunes never survive more than three generations. I can take some comfort from the fact that in my family it has taken six generations to go from workaholism to alcoholism. And, who knows, if I have enough children, one of them may go on to make a fortune of his own. In the meantime, my existing offspring will have a roof over their heads — at least for another year.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.