CRAZY APOCRYPHAL STORIES
There is a basic distinction between ‘tall’ tales, which are obviously well on the edge of mature credibility, and what are frequently referred to as ‘apocryphal’ tales, which are more than likely to be untrue, yet have the satisfying ring of truth about them, and do after all make a damn good story. I cite one of them as epigraph to my 1993 novel Radio Activity-A Cumbrian Tale in 5 Emissions, which is among other things ‘a tall tale within a tall tale within a tall tale’. Ford Madox Ford in a fine set of memoirs called Ancient Lights (1911) cites ‘an excellent and touching anecdote’ which he knew to be untrue, namely a Pre-Raphaelite bohemian who was so absent-minded, that he would when reading his friend’s valuable books at the friend’s breakfast table, mark his place with a slice of bacon. A poet pal of mine, the late great William Scammell (1939-2000), who was also that incredibly rare thing, a truthful and honest fiction critic, when I told him about this, said there was something similar and equally apocryphal recounted about the reading habits of Messrs Wordsworth and Coleridge, where the latter would use his Cumbrian host’s breadknife smeared with butter as a handy bookmark. It never happened, but it makes a good belly laugh, doesn’t it? As parenthesis, the rock musician Van Morrison in one of his 1980s albums, gives his contribution to Lake Poets scholarship by conflating everything with opium-loving de Quincy, and in one line has ‘they was smoking up in Kendal ’. Kendal? I doubt whether Wordsworth had ever been there more than once, much less smoked there… and for that matter whether Belfast born Van Morrison (born 1945, and now Sir Van) would know his way round the former county town of Westmorland either.
Apropos yesterday’s discussion of Adults Only rudeness, Dmitri the scooter hire man from Loutra who had asked me what ‘cock off’ meant, in a British film set in the 1950s, also asked me what the word ‘booger’ meant, in the abusive phrase ‘booger off’. I explained that it was a now dated and pejorative word for a gay/male homosexual, and the verb ‘to bugger’ indicated what in Greece in a heterosexual context is genially termed ‘Storming the Castle’. I then to his amusement, retailed what I regard as a controversial explanation of the etymology of the same word. In the French royal courts of long ago, the ‘troubadours’ who were male poet/minstrels, spent their time courting the queen as symbolic chaste and platonic lovers, and were accepted as such by an otherwise jealous and infinitely possessive king. Cynics in the court assumed the troubadours were only thus, because they were gay, and as a large number of them came from what is now Bulgaria, and the archaic French for a Bulgarian was ‘bougre’, Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt, so to speak.
That story came as fact rather than fanciful, in a 1954 book by G Rattray Taylor called Sex in History, which for the record, I purchased strictly in the spirit of scientific enquiry in Valkenburg, Holland in 1967, when, aged 16, I was on a Five Countries Tour with the now sadly defunct travel firm of Southbound. It was a very bold title to publish in 1954, when almost everything was taboo in the UK and it also had a story about a certain mediaeval Irish king, Cuchullain (often known and probably quite accurately as Cuchullain The Impure), which I know to be definitely untrue and for one very good reason.
Thus the queen of Ulster and all the ladies of the court, to the number of 610, came to meet Cuchullain naked above the waist, and raising their skirts so as to expose their private parts, by which they showed how greatly they honoured him.
I can hear some of you protesting that they have been doing that in West Cumbrian Working Men’s Clubs since 1927, but no, that is as unreliable as the Irish story. The Irish story is especially unscholarly and absurd, as Rattray Taylor omits to tell us that Cuchullain was a mythological figure, not a real king! Apart from anything else, who was there conscientiously counting the quantity of pudenda-flashing courtly ladies, and thereby establishing precisely that they were 610? That alone, that loony number, would tell you that this is as fabular as the Greek myths or the latest manifesto of UKIP or of the Tories, or of the much more beguiling and far more credible Hindu Puranas.
Rattray Taylor(1911-1981) made his name with his prophetic 1968 treatise The Biological Time Bomb, which forecast such things as organ transplants, the controlling of moods by psychiatric medication, and artificial insemination. This was around the time that everyone’s favourite telly viewing was Tomorrow’s World with Raymond Baxter (whose son by a fluke was at University College, Oxford the same time as me) and I wonder if these days, anyone apart from say Richard Branson, and the entire staff of BBC Radio 4 give a damn about our precise technological future? Apropos which my favourite title of Rattray Taylor’s many works was his 1978 How To Avoid the Future. Also and very aptly, given his prescience if not clairvoyance, he was a member of The Society for Psychical Research, from 1976-1981.
The real experts when it comes to far-fetched stories are those geniuses who deliberately make them up, in order to make powerful amounts of money out of them, most obviously in the UK downmarket tabloids and scandal sheets. About 15 years ago I watched a TV documentary about the UK Daily Sport, where to my amazement the editor was a posh young woman in a costly suit, who was busy telling a wizened and weary bloke in a leather jacket, viz. a journalist, to go away and make something up. Was it about the guy from Dover who had had an unflagging erection for 5 years, or was it the young lady from Esher with an anomalous one and a half backsides, i.e. 3 anatomical buttocks, or was it the very old vicar in a hamlet in predictably randy old Dorset, who had banged all of his middle-aged and married female choir? It didn’t matter what it was or who it was, as long as it sold the papers…
These days if you google ‘Daily Sport’, it tells you that the website is not available. You do however get a fascinating first line taster of what you could read, if you could get at the elusive entity.
Your Daily Sport has been reading with interest the phenomenon sweeping China, of strippers at funerals
I ask you, do you really believe rubbish like that?