Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Hairdressers and contemporary legends

A trip to the barber this morning set me thinking about some of my earliest exposure to contemporary legends, long before I got interested in folklore. (Barbers' are still a good place to hear contemporary legends: my 2001 documentation of 'The Grateful Terrorist', submitted for a class paper at Sheffield, came back with a gleeful supervisor's comment that 'My hairdresser told me this one!').

When I was around 12-13 one of my closest schoolfriends, Billy, told me a story related to him by his older sister Tessa. One of Tessa's friends worked in a hairdresser's salon. She'd been cutting a man's hair, and had noticed suspicion movements under his gown at about crotch level. These continued, she put two and two together, and slapped the filthy masturbating swine in outrage. He looked completely baffled, and as the gown fell away it revealed him hard at work polishing his glasses ...

Billy told this as a true story. He was a very funny storyteller (as was Tessa, I must say) with a seamless string of true-sounding narratives and jokes. I've no doubt now that if I'd probed the reported experience I'd have found that it didn't actually happen to Tessa's friend, it was something she'd heard from someone else, who probably also had told it as a true story although its source was still somewhat vague.

Billy also reported a story from Tessa's husband Nick, who was a teacher. After taking a class on a day trip to the zoo Nick had been suspicious of the quiet on the coach on the way back. When he went to see what was happening one of the pupils unzipped a holdall, and out jumped a penguin ...

Again, Billy told this as an experience of Nick's. Again, I suspect that probing it would quickly have revealed a much less certain chain of narratives. (Both stories remain excellent, I must say). The age difference between Billy and Tessa was probably an additional factor in the transmission - these were sophisticated, rather adult, tales to our aspirant adolescent ears, which is another reason they remain so memorable. They probably added to the accumulating material that eventually led to me getting interested in folklore.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Prone burials in popular culture (again)

I've written before on prone burial - burying someone face down to prevent their return after death - and its occurrence in popular literature.

The most recent documented historical occurrence of this happened in 1916, although I noted before that it is the sort of event that might be too sensitive to be shared with fieldworkers. I was reminded of the practice then by its appearance in a late nineteenth-century story by Ambrose Bierce.

Listening the other day to a Jake Thackray compilation I came across a much more recent popular reference to the motif. The song 'The Jolly Captain' features a long-suffering old salt who is plagued by his cantankerous wife. (This is fairly typical of Thackray's representations of marital relations). First off the wife threatens to haunt the Captain if he remarries:

'From her deathbed she said "If you marry when I die
I'll crawl from my coffin to haunt you vexatiously".'

I'd come across such threats before, although not always attached to this rather misogynistic domination. Yeats noted it as having been 'a common threat' (1) in Irish folklore, and it turns up in the repertoire of that fine Irish Traveller singer Tom McCarthy. In the song 'Don't Be Beguiling' it is the abused lover who threatens to haunt the woman who has tormented him while alive. (Sadly this song isn't on Tom's first CD Round Top Wagon, but that only points to the need for him to record more!).

Even more striking than this motif in Thackray's song is the last stanza, where the Captain promises she'll 'stay in her place':

'No she won't come to haunt me and taunt me, I know,
'Cause I buried her face downward, she's a long way to go.'

Jake Thackray

Thackray was born in 1938, and this song was first released in 1972. Thackray's use of the motif doesn't presuppose widespread familiarity with it, although it doesn't treat it as unusual and unexpected. (This is similar to Bierce's sly presentation of it: the narrator does not see the implications of the burial, but the reader feels an unpleasant lurch of recognition). This suggests that prone burial may still have been known or mentioned somewhere in Thackray's own background, which points to a continuation of the idea more recently than the evidence of the practice might indicate.

* * * * * * * * *

1: W.B. Yeats, ed., Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland (London: Pan, 1979), p. 117.