By ALAN BRIEN
HAD intended this week to write about the legend of Don Juan—a folk-tale fantasy hero if ever there was one—but I have re- ceived so many letters from
• readers elaborating, con- demning, and even defend- ing the underground anec- dotes I swore to root out last week. I feel the subject deserves another airing. What am I to reply to the man who writes from Sketty, Swansea. describing 'an unnerving experi- ence I had a short while ago'? I must in all honesty report that an uncle of mine, twenty years ago, bored us all into catalepsy with a very similar tale. Yet Mr. Gerald R. Macpherson swears to it in 1965.
His story runs: 'I had just completed the task of laying some new linoleum in one of our bed- rooms when I noticed the fact that my cigarettes appeared to have fallen out of my trouser pocket. Doubting this, I continued to search through my other pockets, to no avail. Suddenly, I noticed a suspicious lump underneath my new linoleum, right in the middle of the floor and quite in- accessible. Rather than spend more tedious hours pulling up the linoleum, retrieving the cigarettes and then nailing it all back in position again, I decided to jump on the cigarettes and thereby re- move the somewhat suspicious bulge. I then went downstairs and immediately noticed my cigarettes on the mantlepiece! A few hours later, an anxious neighbour came knocking at the door wanting to know if I had seen her pet budgy which had escaped at about the time I was laying
my lino . . !'
In my uncle's version, the missing animal was a pet mouse. Coincidences do coincide. Nature does imitate art. Yet if my uncle had seen this happening in a dream and confided it to his diary, Mr. J. B. Priestley would have stapled it into his dossier as a well-authenticated instance of pre- cognition.
One story I had not room for in my first article has come to me in several different versions of the same basic plot. Mr. Anthony Fingland of London, SE19, reports that it was told to him as 'the gospel truth.' Mr. D. E. Lloyd Jones of London, W)4, was assured it was 'authentic.' Mr. Fingland's version runs like this : 'Two bachelor brothers took their aged mother on holiday, in a car, to Spain. While driving in the high Pyrenees, the mother had a heart attack and died. The brothers, thinking there might be some difficulty extracting the cadaver from Spain, put their mother in the boot of their car, and drove it across the border into France. Thinking that such an achievement deserved a drink, they went into a nearby café. On coming out they found that the car had been stolen, body and all, and I was told that neither was ever seen again.' Mr. Lloyd Jones's motoring family are also in Spain. They wrap the body in a sheet and tic it to the luggage rack. It is while reporting Grandma's death at the local police station that the temporary hearse is stolen and lost without trace. Mr. C. H. Wood of Royston in Hertfordshire has a variant iti which the travellers are two nieces with their rich old aunty. As a final twist, it appears that they are her sole heirs but they cannot inherit until aunty is officially proved dead.
Miss Jancy Buchan of Glasgow regrets that 'no one—academically speaking—is at all in- terested in the modern folk-tale.' Personally, I have always regarded this column as a kind of unofficial academy for investigating and publicis- ing the short and simple annals of the poor. I shall be greatly disappointed if some prodnose does not get a PhD thesis out of these pages in 2065. Miss Buchan contributes a much-improved edition of my anecdote about the woman whose dead cat in a handbag is pinched by a sneak thief. In Scotland, she records, the preferred version concerns a pregnant woman taking a specimen of her urine to the hospital in a whiskey bottle. The most favoured time for this theft is New Year's Eve. From Carrigohane in County Cork, Miss Jean Healey confirms what appears to be the Celtic treatment. It was told to her by a friend who spoke to the robbed woman in the Grafton Street Woolworth's in Dublin. Later in Cork, Miss Healey repeated it to her doctor. 'A year or two later,' she goes on, 'when I had to return to him again, he regaled me with the story as having happened "to one of my patients." Now every doctor in Cork has a proprietary interest in it.'
Few of these stories, as I heard them, had any sexual associations, at least or the sur- face. But my correspondents arc filling in the gap.
Miss Buchan tells of the girl standing on a packed Glasgow bus: 'She has one white glove on and another in her hand. She realises after a few minutes that she is towering over a drunk, sleep- ing man who is slouched in the scat with his fly open. The bus comes to a screeching halt, she drops the looSe glove and almost falls on the man. He wakens, looks down at his disarray in horror, takes the white glove, shoves it inside his pant, and promptly zips them up.'
Another new tale comes from Mr. J. F. H. Dwyer in Pontefract who beseeches me to root out the following which has been told to him 'five times by people who say that it happened to their relations/ friends/acquaintances last %% cek / last month/last year.' It runs like this: 'A I riend was driving home fairly late at night in a Continental- type car with grill at the hack. He stopped at the traffic lights, only to find his car surrounded by drunken hooligans who began to rock it from side to side. He took the precaution of locking himself in and then prepared for a quick getaway as soon as the lights changed. In this he was successful and arrived safely home. The car in the garage, he decided to examine it to see if there had been any damage done. He found three fingers stuck in the grill at the back. These he wrapped in a handkerchief and took to the police.'
But the fruitiest and fullest monograph on modern folk-tales was contributed by the novelist and playwright, Mrs. Doris Lessing, who rebukes me for attempting to suppress 'such marvellous stuff.' She supplies several examples of 'creative cannibalism': notably in the myth of the gallant RAF boy, bringing home the ashes of his dearest comrade to sorcowing parents, who took his tipple in a crowded war-time bar, short of glasses, from the handy metal container. And woke next morn- ing to groan : 'My God, I've drunk the ashes of my best friend.' To prove that real people also eat the ones they love, she recalls meeting a sophisti- cated, newly-widowed TV executive who had just scattered her husband's ashes in the garden. 'On the roses? No, I put him on the vegetable garden, he always was a practical man. On the cabbages, He likes cabbages.' Mrs. Lessing also has a friend, an old partisan leader, who regularly halves a tin of PAL dog meat with his faithful tuitind. 'Why, it's better food than we partisans had to eat in the mountains, many and many a time, isn't it, Hero, old friend?'
She may even have been in at the birth of another folk-tale when she overheard a mother and daughter in a department store exchanging these lines of dialogue in lugubrious voices.
D. But, Mon, I wanted it.
M. But I didn't know that when I did it, did I?
D. But you did know that's what I wanted.
M. I must have given it to Dad in the middle of the night.
D. I wish you would think, Mom, I keep telling you, if you thought sometimes . . .
NI. Yes, that's what it must have been. I simply gave it to Dad in the night.
Which reminds me, in its mysterious, frustrating reverberations, of the charwoman's confession allegedly made , to a friend of mine. She was divorcing her husband, she said, because she came home early in the afternoon to find him with the woman next door 'doing something which only doctors are allowed to do.' And she refused to add another word.
Mrs. Lessing warns that I may be in danger of helping to abolish sexual fantasy. My answer is that I don't care what anybody wants to imagine, I object to being taken for such a mug that I will swallow it as fact. As I was explaining to Miss Brigid Brophy, in this annexe only the other week, I cast myself continually in the cinema of my mind as a combination of Lenin, Hazlitt, Casanova, Mr. Universe, Sir Laurence Olivier and the Wandering Jew. But even I do not believe it all. If it were a true picture, I would not have to tell them, they would be telling me. A man's re:ich should exceed his grasp—or what's a novelist I or?