Late in the 1990s my name started appearing in the newspapers, in big letters, on the sports pages: Flintoff the brave, Flintoff boosts hopes, and Dire England need Flintoff.
It’s an unusual name (not Russian, as many presume, but a corruption of flintcroft, meaning stonehouse) and I’d come to think of it as more or less the exclusive property of my immediate family, along with the inevitable spelling mistakes: Slimtoss, Funtoff, even, on an official-looking letter to my mother, Fartoff.
In recent years, what with all those cricketing headlines, I’ve not had to spell it out quite so often. This summer, after four Tests in the most exciting Ashes series for a couple of decades, even people with no interest in the game have started to ask if I’m related to the cricketer whom one of them described as “the greatest living Englishman”.
As a rule, I’ve told people that I am, on the flimsy basis that the cricketer comes from the same place as my father: Preston in Lancashire. But last week I decided to find out for certain. It was soon clear that trying to find out whether you are related to someone famous is a popular pastime. Participants on WeddingChannel.com offered up distant relationships with the most obscure “famous” people imaginable: “Leon Klinghoffer, my dad’s second cousin, was killed by terrorists”; “My godparents are the aunt and uncle of Kurt Cobain (the rock singer who killed himself)”.
But I took courage from reading somewhere else that we are often related to the most unlikely people. Did you know, for instance, that former American presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon were sixth cousins?
I turned to Ancestry.co.uk, tracing back Andrew Flintoff’s family and, at the same time, my own family tree. I phoned my father for advice. He had tried to do the same once at Somerset House, but gave up because there were too many Thomases.
That did indeed prove tricky. Andrew’s great-grandfather, a stoker on a steam train and married to a cotton weaver with five children, was one Thomas. And both my grand- father and great-grandfather were Thomases.
After eliminating a few Thomases from other parts of Lancashire I achieved what felt like the genealogical equivalent of completing a century by hitting a six: I found a pair of brothers, Thomas and Joseph, born in the village of Woodplumpton, north of Preston. These were the founders of the two divergent Flintoff lines; their parents belonged to us both.
After counting up the generations, I was able to conclude that Andrew Flintoff’s father is my fourth cousin. We’re family.
I found a phone number for the cricketer’s grandparents and called at once to introduce myself. Colin Flintoff handed the phone to his wife Elsie, who seemed delighted to hear from me. Afterwards I posted her a copy of what I’d found and, though I didn’t know it at the time, she passed it around among her relatives, last Sunday, at the christening of Andrew’s daughter Holly.
It was time to visit Preston. With only a day to go before the crucial fifth Test Andrew was in London, and so were his parents. But Colin and Elsie had stayed at home.
My long-lost relations could not have made me more welcome at their semi detached house. Elsie laid on tea and cakes and dug out an assortment of press cuttings about Andrew, along with one of his England caps and pictures from his wedding.
“He’s a lovely lad,” she said.
Colin added: “I have watched him come down the pavilion steps and the crowd absolutely loves him. Oh, I’m proud as punch about him. I like the fact that he comes here and says how much he is enjoying it. I say, ‘You remember that, and keep enjoying it,’ because it’s a short life, is a cricketer’s.”
They also told me stories about Andrew’s brother Christopher and their -my! – many talented and good-looking cousins. And they seemed genuinely delighted by pictures showing my wife and daughter. I was even more pleased to discover that Andrew’s side of the family was aware of mine, too.
In fact, my grandfather – a prominent citizen with a street named after him in Preston – had once canvassed Colin and Elsie for votes in a local election. “He came to the door and said, ‘You must be a distant relative. I’m councillor Flintoff. Can I rely on your support as Flintoffs?’” (He could. Their votes helped to re-elect him.)
They didn’t know at the time that the great councillor was Colin’s second cousin.
But we know it now.
And two generations down the line, I’m in a position to return the favour. I hereby promise my support as a Flintoff to my cousin Freddie.
Family Photos on a Kitchen Wall.