Unlucky indoors - but why?
In this blogposting…* Mister Magpie
* Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know
* Warnings in Arabic
* Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know
* Warnings in Arabic
Read and inwardly digest…
THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW - FRENCH STYLE
Travellers on France’s TGVs are given a free magazine to while away the few short hours of their journeys. With inspiration bordering on pure Gallic genius, the magazine is called TGV Magazine and is about as boring as these things almost always are - full of adverts for fitted kitchens and memory-foam mattresses or cod interviews with obscure, third-rate actors or authors.
The only thing that held my attention in this month’s dreary edition was a page of Did You Knows. We would have called it This Month In Figures; they called it Les insolites du mois en chiffres - and it gives an interesting insight into the kind of things that French magazine producers think will fascinate their readers. Thus….
* 2.5km - the distance travelled by bike by every Danish person every day…
* 125 - the number of portions of beef eaten in the world every second…
* 5,126 euros - the price of a lump of turf sold at auction by a Bosnian supporter after a football match between Bosnia Herzegovina and Portugal…
* 20 tonnes - the weight of a boulder (below) deposited by the Mayor of Quebec outside the home of his ex-wife after an acrimonious divorce…
* 210 million - the number of cinema tickets sold in France last year…
* 2.5 kilos - the amount of Brazilian cocaine found by police at Rome airport hidden in the prosthetic breasts and buttocks of a 23-year old model…
* 10 years - the prison sentence handed down to a Californian man for sexually abusing a chihuahua dog…
So now you know what engrosses French travellers as they hurtle through the countryside at 180mph.
***WARNINGS IN ARABIC
This frankly unbelievable picture and back-story were emailed to me recently. Worth it for the joke, though…
A new fuel tanker arrives on location somewhere in the Middle East. . . . . .
The Health and Safety manager tells the fleet supervisor to ensure that the tanker is clearly labelled Diesel Fuel and No Smoking in Arabic.
This is what he got…………………..
The custom is more widespread than I thought and its intensity varies, too. A friend who was with me at the time, and who comes from Buckinghamshire, berated me for not being deferential enough. Where he comes from, you have to say ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie - how’s the wife and kids?’
Folklorists have suggested that the ill-omens attached to solitary magpies exist because they mate for life; thus, to see a lone magpie is a sign of sorrow and ill-fortune. This also goes some way to explaining the first line of the magpie nursery-rhyme - you know the one…
One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told…
As far as I know, though, no-one who interests themselves in such things has come up with an explanation for three, four, five, six or seven.
A Blue Bus listener once called with a continuation of the rhyme up to ten, but I’ve forgotten what she said. If you were paying more attention than me and know the chant beyond seven, please get in touch.
In other cultures, far and wide, the magpie’s reputation is as a thief. Indeed, Rossini wrote an opera with that very title: La gazza ladra - The Thieving Magpie. I reckon it’s about time this unfortunate bird was rehabilitated. I’ve always quite liked them. It’s just a shame that, locally, everyone thinks you’re talking about a football team. That really is bad luck.
It’s not just magpies, of course. Many other creatures make their way through the world unknowingly bearing the burden of human superstition - humans being what they are.
From my own misspent youth I can remember the awful significance attached to cats. Except that my memories seem to be at odds with everyone else’s. In my great scheme of things, black cats were good luck and white cats, bad. Most people’s recollections put them the other way round.
Not that I had much of a chance of testing the superstition; I can’t recall ever knowing anyone who actually owned a cat when I was young. People just didn’t have them.
Bees - like magpies - also had to be treated with respect. Many folk kept a hive and, when a beekeeper died, it was absolutely essential to formally tell the bees of his death. If you didn’t, they would abandon the hive forever.
My Nana could remember visiting a house where someone had just died and being told that his wife was out ‘telling the bees’.
How superstitions arise and persist, in all the various forms they take worldwide, is a subject worthy of a university degree. At truckshunter level, though, I’m just happy that they do.
In fact, I’m now racking my brains to think of as many as I can from my misspent - and ill-informed - youth.
Was it hawthorn blossom that should never be brought into the house?
Was it rowan (below) that was effective against ill-will or the ‘evil eye’?
Was it lilies that should never be given in a bouquet?
Ah yes. They’re flooding back now.
Never cross your knife and fork on the plate.
Always get out of bed onto your right foot.
If you spill salt, pick it up and throw it over your left shoulder.
Never put shoes on the table, and remember that new shoes always creak until they are paid for.
The question that arises with all these wayward beliefs is - why? What is (or was) it about hawthorn that made it so unlucky indoors? Why the no-shoes-on-the-table rule?
The superstition that strikes me as the most mysterious and inexplicable of all, though, is collar-touching.
If a funeral passed by, it was necessary to touch your collar. In fact, you had to hold your collar between thumb and forefinger until you saw a four-legged animal. What would happen to you if you didn’t wasn’t even worth contemplating.
Looking at it now, with all the supercilious wisdom and cynicism of maturity, I find the bizarre complexity of this superstition utterly unfathomable. I can think of no folkloric explanation for it and the few people I’ve mentioned it to tend to look at me with a mixture of sympathy and fear.
But I know I’m not imagining it because I still do it. No funeral cortege glides past me without my holding onto my collar as if my life depended on it (which it may well do, for all I know) and scanning the street for a dog or a cat.
So, if I’m touching my collar when you see me, just point me in the direction of a four-legged animal as quickly as you can.
Writing this blog about childish beliefs and superstitions has given me a great deal of pleasure - of the ‘glowing, warm memories’ kind. If you can think of any superstitions I haven’t mentioned - and there must be dozens - please get in touch.
Post comments on this blog or email me: email@example.com