building a fortean library
Too Good to be True the Hierophant’s apprentice
Take for instance this one, previously unencountered. A friend of a friend (well it was a cousin and his wife actually) had a kitten that climbed up a birch tree and found it couldn’t get down again: cats lack the ability to climb downward head-first, and make a bit of a hash of going down in reverse, and this one wasn’t ready to start learning that trick. So it sat on a branch and whinged, as they do. Eventually the human keepers had a brainwave. They threw a rope around the branch, made a loop, and secured the ends to something solid. Then they hauled on the rope to bend the branch down and get the kitten within reach. It’s inches away from being grabbed when the rope breaks, the bough twangs back into place, and the little moggin sails into the sky and out of sight. O dear. A week or two later the lady of the couple meets a friend in the supermarket, and she’s taking cat food off the shelf.
“Didn’t know you had a cat,” says the former guardian of the flying kitten amiably.
“Well, we didn’t,” says her friend. “But we were sitting outside the other Sunday and suddenly this little kitten came falling out of the sky from nowhere and landed on Joe’s lap. Been with us ever since.”
The first clue to the story’s legendary nature is that the event happens to a Friend Of A Friend (or a cousin): hence another name for urban legends, ‘foaftales’. A second is that it’s just about possible, albeit unlikely, while also fitting the folk wisdom that cats have nine lives. A third is the not-quite-ending: we don’t learn who got to keep the cat. Brunvand notes that there are scads of urban legends about cats, and in most of them the cat comes to some ignominious end, or is otherwise humiliated and made to look foolish. He doesn’t dwell on why this is so, but we suspect that there are people out there who are challenged by cats’ getting away with being generally arrogant, supercilious, opinionated and ungrateful. Furthermore they are smug and ingeniously manipulative (“Dogs have owners, cats have staff”). Others adore these qualities but are intensely amused when a cat gets itself into trouble then stalks off into a corner to wash itself, back to the room, disowning any such indignity, and most especially any responsibility. So both sides of the Cat Question find it satisfying in different ways when a moggin meets its comeuppance, although our own feeling is that drying a wet cat in a microwave is perhaps a legend too far. We have yet to meet an urban legend in which the cat comes out entirely on top, survive as it may.
If the ‘flying kitten’ story expresses a certain human ambivalence toward felines, others have more obvious morals. An American example: a less than worldly elderly lady up from the sticks decides for whatever reason to indulge herself in a five-star hotel stay in the city, and takes a ride in the lift, which stops at an intermediate floor to let on some very large black men and an enormous dog. “Down, lady,” advises the dog-handler. Terrified, the visitor sinks to her knees, whereupon the dog-handler apologises while his companions silently crack up with mirth: “No, no, ma’am, everything’s okay. Lady’s just the name of the dawg.” (In some versions the hound is called ‘Whitey’.) When the (actual) lady checks out she finds her entire bill has been paid by Lionel Richie, or some such distinguished black man. Moral: don’t assume all black folks are thugs and muggers (but note the laughter in the background: there’s some glee at the misunderstanding). But there’s another one: we last heard this story retailed at our London club, and once the chuckles had subsided gently gave its history (it goes back to at least the 1940s) as a legend. “Well, if it’s not true, it bloody well ought to be,” said a member with some force. One should never distrust the wisdom of the
demos. It is the demos that produces these unsourceable stories, which like all folk art tells truths obliquely and symbolically, and are understood subliminally.
About seven years after the cherry-stone incident we heard a highly detailed version
of “The Severed Fingers” legend. Told in a rich accent by a member of the Conyer family, distinguished gunmakers of Dorset, it featured all manner of local places and names, even down to policemen. Motorist stops in Shaftesbury to fill his tank and heads out for the road to Salisbury. On the main road he spies a hitchhiker and slows down to pick him up. When he’s almost at a stop he takes a close look at the hiker, decides he looks altogether suspect, even sinister, steps on the gas and races away. In the mirror he sees the receding figure of the would-be rider screaming and waving at him. When he gets home he finds four fingers stuck in the handle of the front passenger door of his car. Brunvand has slightly different versions of the tale and notes its variation in the first Mad Max movie. One egregious clue that this is a legend is (once more) the lack of follow-up – no one reports which hospital the dedigitised hiker landed up in, for instance, or indeed what happened to the poor sod’s fingers (maybe the cat got them?). That a version crops up in an Australian movie made nearly 20 years after we first heard it shows how ubiquitous some legends can become. Brunvand offers no underlying moral to the story, but it seems to us to hover somewhere between the Law of Unintended Consequences and advice to give only leggy blondes a free ride (even if that exposes you to risks of another kind).
Other urban legends are less moral fables than a form of joke. One sometimes wonders which came first, the legend or the joke. There is the one that goes: “How do you make an Irishman burn his ear?” Answer: “Phone him up while he’s doing the ironing.” (And for the avoidance of doubt, let it be known that this joke has been told of virtually every initially despised immigrant community in America and Europe. We first heard it at the height of the late Irish troubles: people will tend to relieve tension through pointed humour – which leads us to wonder if anyone’s ever collected jokes and legends told about Germans during the Second World War.) The urban legend follows the same narrative without the ethnic dimension and lays out the daftness as a true story. And then there are the legends fashioned into a joke, but still told as true. We were shown, around 1980, a front-page Sunday red-top version of the ‘stuck couple’ story. Essentially, a couple finish fornicating in a car and then somehow can’t get themselves apart. Fire brigade has to cut the embarrassed pair out, with off-stage giggling from attendant paramedics. (How they contacted the emergency services in the era before mobile phones is not explained: clue?) Punchline: the lady, carted off with still-stuck congressional partner to an ambulance, says: “Sod him. It’s what my husband’s going to say. It’s his bloody car.” Brunvand omits, or never heard, this version but gives other punchlines, and reassures anyone prone to bonking in back seats that there is no known actual case of inextricable sexual entanglement. Which didn’t stop the story from being current among medical students in the mid-Sixties, which is when and how we first heard of the stuck couple. As either joke or straight story, the fingerwagging moral is fairly clear.
We also wondered about the relation between jokes and urban legends on reading “Dealing with ‘Mr Wise Guy’”. Man gets a speeding ticket along with photographic evidence taken from a combined camera and radar gun. Do as you would be done by: he mails back a photograph of a cheque for the fine. The police, not lacking wit themselves, mail back a photo of a pair of handcuffs. Duly chastened, the speeder coughs up the fine. There was a wartime-themed
Goon Show episode in which the enemy shot over photographs of a lavish military banquet to lower the morale of the PBI. The artillery shot back a picture of an empty plate. Different settings and rather different technology employed, but essentially the same notion.
Some urban legends revolve around excruciating embarrassment, and the underlying lesson that one shouldn’t believe everything one’s told. The version we heard was from Peter Charlesworth, who at the time was Shirley Bassey’s agent and thereby presumed to know everyone of note in show business, plus the inner workings of Swinging London, and it went thus. Tommy Steele turns up at a Hampstead mansion where he’s been invited to a party. Some showbiz luminary answers the door. “Quick, quick, Tommy, y’can’t go in like that. Get yer kit off, sharpish. There’s a bloody great orgy going on in here.” The shock-headed singer bows to authority, rapidly disrobes, and leaps eagerly and starkers into a room full of respectably attired, suitably amazed and amused guests, some of whose Camparis doubtless exited through the nostrils. Mr Charlesworth’s version was also a takedown of the rich and famous or, to put it another way, demonstrates that even the rich and famous may be as gullible as the rest of us. Which is quite ironic, since we believed the story at the time, given its source. Brunvand tells a related legend, “The Nude Bachelor”, although we have a dim memory that he has a variation on the Steele story (same plot, different stars) in one of his books. Too Good to be True collects together well over 200 urban legends and generally retails relatively recent versions of them. We’ve but scraped the surface here. If there’s a quibble, it’s that you have to go to his other books for deeper analysis and the longer history of most of these tales. (The famous “Phantom Hitchhiker”, for example, goes back centuries.) No harm done, though. Apart from its endless entertainments, the book gives you all the clues you need to tell a true story from an urban legend, and a fund of material with which to test your acquaintances’ credulity, should you need to enliven a flagging dinner party. In these trying times, come to think about it, we could do with a deal more of political urban legends. Fake news, anyone?
Jan Harold Brunvand, Too Good to be True: The Colossal Cook of Urban Legends, WW Norton & Co 2001; revised edition 2014.
“BE CAREFUL ABOUT READING HEALTH BOOKS. SOME FINE DAY YOU’LL DIE OF A MISPRINT.” MARKUS HERTZ
LEFT: Tommy Steele – now just imagine him starkers in a room full of guests.