Unlucky indoors - but why?
In this blogposting…
* Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know
* Warnings in Arabic
* Mister Magpie
Read and inwardly digest…

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…

* 13.6C - the average temperature in France last year…
* 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.

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…………………..

I surprised myself the other day by saying Good Morning to a magpie.  It flapped across the garden and I found myself greeting it deferentially and respectfully, which is what you’re supposed to do with magpies.  And seeing a solitary magpie is, of course, the most appalling bad luck, which can only be neutralised by being very nice indeed to the magpie in question.

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:  truckshunters@googlemail.com


Sid said...

Lone Magpies...I was always told to say Morning/Afternoon General, and salute the darned thing. Even now I have to glance around to see who might be watching me whilst on my way to the allotment, those darned birds seem to line up about 100 yds apart.

Vivienne said...

Hi Everyone,

Just having a moan! I'm having a frustrating week. Firstly, I missed hearing Ada's very kind birthday request on Sunday, although did catch it on 'Listen Again'... Thanks Ada, & Michael for reading out Ada's request & playing 'Cavatina.' Monday, I went out for lunch with friends and thought I'd be good and order a veggie option. My vegetable lasagna contained beef! Tuesday, I had a busy day at Gibside...mainly due to the fact there was no-one working in the kitchen, and I had to attend to a large delivery of frozen products, vegetables etc, with no space to put them in the freezers & Fridges! I had to juggle around the contents to make room for the important stuff, while my customers were waiting downstairs! Wednesday, my sister, Shirley, was supposed to be visiting me on my birthday. When I didn't hear from her at all by lunch time, I text to see if she was coming. She text back a couple of hours later to say she was house hunting near Inverness! Today, I'd arranged for Shirley & I to visit our younger sister, Carolyn, for a belated birthday party with her family....my car broke down when I left my house ON MY OWN to go there!!! Even last week The Arts' Centre Cafe was closed. Do you think I'm jinxed? I'm terrified to contemplate what will happen tomorrow!!! xxxx

Sid said...

Well Vivienne, how many superstitions have you broken lately. It is said that these things usually come in threes. Touch wood you'll be fine from now on.

Sid said...

Who Will Tell the Bees...
Telling the bees is a tradition dating back to Medieval times, where a member of a community was designated as a messenger to visit the apiaries to relay to the bees significant events in the lives of the community nearby. It is still thought by some that when a beekeeper dies someone must inform the hives of the death, and introduce the bees to their new keeper.
It is believed that failure to report the beekeepers death will cause the bees to swarm.

"Marriage, birth or burying,
News across the seas,
All your sad or marrying,
You must tell the bees"
-Celtic Wisdom.

Sid said...

Picking Dandelions would make you wet the bed......
Not strictly true of course, however the plant is a natural diuretic. Though you would have to digest the plant to achieve any bed wetting results.

Ellie said...

Sid, I remember (a long, long time ago) being told NOT to pick dandelions as I would wet the bed. I remember being terrified of them for some years afterwards. As for Mr. Magpie, I always, salute and say 'Good morning (afternoon, evening whatever is appropriate)Mr. Magpie, I hope all is well with you and yours' - if I failed to give this greeting, bad luck would follow.