build­ing a fortean li­brary

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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.

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