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.

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