Saturday, 13 September 2008

There's a Penguin in my Duffle-Bag

Appearing soon over a cornfield near you!

I have always had a weakness for urban legends – the nicer ones, anyway. It began years ago when my mother, who was then a teacher, came home from school saying that a child at a neighbouring school had been on a trip to the zoo and taken a penguin home in his duffle-bag. His mother, the story went, had only discovered what he'd done when she heard a commotion in the bathroom as he tried to let it out into the bath. Urban legends were not in vogue then -those were the days of tank tops and shaggy dog stories- and we all believed it. Until, that is, we heard it again, told about a different child at a different school.

I don't like them when they are obvious, politically contrived attempts to spread disinformation: not least since, like conventional fiction, urban legends which crudely promote the opinions of their creators simply fail to impress. I don't like them when they create too much anxiety, like the story that did the rounds about infected needles being left sticking out of cinema seats.

But urban legends can fun. Urban legends can be creative. Oral flash fiction or, more precisely, narratives that inhabit the grey area between fiction and deception. They can describe alternative worlds in which earwigs can lay eggs in your ears and you have to think twice before you sit on an aeroplane toilet. So long as they're (more or less) harmless, they're wonderful. Even when they're not, or seem beyond the pale, they can touch a nerve – it's not for nothing that they're called myths or legends. Will future generations pick over ours like we pick over Greek ones? If they do they'll think we lived in dark, neurotic times.

Like them or hate them, they are a function of human consciousness which is at least as strange as the things we are being asked to believe in. It's a function which is responsible not only for stories, but for perpetrating untruths of all kinds: from the late 20th century crop circle craze to the medieval penchant for fake relics*. It is said that there are over 40 prepuces claimed to have come from Jesus Christ still in existence – though this, interestingly, might be a myth within a myth. Why do we keep doing it? Obviously, people like to make money,and often see perpetrating a hoax as a way to make it (The Cardiff Giant* is a good example). We like to show off, too. When people think of something plausible but untrue, they are amused to think other people might believe it. In a way, the question is just a variation on another: why do we laugh?

Most of all, perhaps, we like to have our imaginations stimulated for us. Just as we might wonder what happens to characters in a novel beyond the story we read about them (where did Ishmael end up, after he'd told the story of Ahab?), we want there to be more to this world than what we know. We'd like there to be aliens who travel light years to leave graffiti in cornfields. But if we grew up knowing about them and visited them we'd take them for granted (we might even try to eradicate them). We'd be looking around for something else.

By the way, did you know the fluid in the human eye is held under such pressure that, if you cut it open, the fluid released would fill a teacup? I doubt you did. You learn something every day.

*See Famous Hoaxes Throughout History


Anonymous said...

I think your proposition concerning the significance of urban myths is just right. I presume that their dissemination has grown in proportion to the the diminution of religious faith. It does seem that we have a need for narratives that test plausibility to the limit.

Rachel Fox said...

And where would 'QI' be without them?

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these.

Dick: I don't know. In the Middle Ages the day-to-day "myths"/hoaxes which were perpetrated were perhaps just as bizarre as modern myths, only they were steeped in religion. As religion has declined I think the religious content of them has declined. It could be (has been?)looked into.

Rachel: quite. I just love whacky factoids.

Anyone come up with "their" lunar crater?

The Weaver of Grass said...

How did you make your "urban myth" of a photograph, I ask?

Dominic Rivron said...

You just have to be in the right place at the right time:)

Seriously, I projected a slide of a sunset onto a projector screen. I stood two chairs in front of it and laid a sheet of glass across them. I then stood one of those washing powder dispenser balls on the glass. I then stuck a camera on the floor between the chairs, pointing up through the glass at the screen.

Even more seriously, I did see a UFO once. The sky was cloudless, and I could see a golden twinkling very high up. I was driving at the time, so I pulled in to take a better look and to make sure my mind wasn't playing tricks. It was definitely there. I looked into it and read somewhere that it was quite common for foil from space vehicles to create that effect, so my UFO was, strictly speaking, a far less glamorous FO!

Ken Armstrong said...

That last point is a real eye opener.

('see what I did there?)


Dominic Rivron said...

Good one. It took me a minute or two... And I'd been waiting for someone to pick up on that dubious factoid :)