The Cockroach Infested Beehive, the Bill for the Lilo, and the Flying Standard Nine

From Classic Car Catalogue.
Back in the 1970s, when I was studying for a Masters degree in something called Folk Life Studies at Leeds University, I spent a happy and reasonably lucrative week during the Easter vacation, travelling to Wakefield by bus every day, settling myself in the library and going through issues of the local newspaper from the late 1930s. I had been commissioned by my head of department, the late Scottish folklorist Stewart Forson Sanderson, to hunt among the small ads, for somebody advertising a Flying Standard Nine for sale for the bargain price of £5.

I found all kinds of fascinating things in those old newspapers that came bound in big volumes. This was long before the days of the internet and these weren't even on microfiche. I managed to get a feature article out of it, since I had already started on a writing career back then. And Stewart was paying for my transport, plus a daily rate for my work.

The story that supposedly went with the ad was this. A married man had run off with his girlfriend and sent a telegram home to his wife, saying 'sell car and send money.'  She had advertised the car for a fiver. The car was reputed to be a Flying Standard Nine, which at that time retailed at upwards of £165 - a lot of money in those days. I spent a dedicated week reading a million small ads but, predictably, found no Flying Standard Nines at bargain prices.  Stewart told me that, as with all urban legends, which is what this story was, he had been 'reliably informed' that the story had a basis in truth, that it had happened in Wakefield, and that the ad had been in the local paper. If it had been a story in the newspaper, it wouldn't have confirmed anything, but an ad in the 'for sale' columns might have indicated some foundation for the tale.

It wasn't there.

I was reminded of my Wakefield trip when, this morning on Twitter, up popped a piece in the Independent about parents billing the RNLI for £7 for a punctured lilo after rescuing their child from the sea and subsequently being hit with a bill for the rescue helicopter. There was the usual Twitter pile in, full of righteous anger and outrage about 'entitled parents'. Later, the story spread far and wide. I notice that they've qualified it as happening 'decades ago' - naturally!

I first heard this, told as gospel truth, about 25 years ago. But it has all the qualities of an urban legend: credible but outrageous. And often reported in newspapers as true. There will always be somebody who vows that it is a true story, like the person who told Stewart that he had definitely come across the ad in Wakefield. Except that nobody ever seems able to provide the actual documentation, as opposed to the story. 'It happened to my friend, or my granny, or my aunty's cousin' does not constitute documentation, however credible the witnesses may seem.

Into this category fall a million other wonderful tales: the bride who requested the theme from Robin Hood at her wedding, only to find herself galloping down the aisle to Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Riding Through the Glen. The extraordinary iron toothed Gorbals Vampire. And, back in the fifties, the endless stories of women with beehive hairdos that were found to be infested with cockroaches when taken apart. I don't doubt that some beehives were infested with headlice, but the nests of cockroaches were a nice urban legendary addition to the tale. Jan Harold Brunvand introduced the term Urban Legend in a series of popular books published from 1981 onwards, but folklorists were using it long before that - viz Stewart Sanderson and Tony Green at Leeds University, in the 1970s.

Urban legends are not always urban and there are many subcategories, for example the myriad tales told about soldiers coming home from the wars. Many of these seem to be about returning husbands who turn out to be somebody else altogether; some are more in the nature of ghost stories: the returning solder who turns out to have died. Most of them have cropped up as 'true stories' in successive newspapers and magazines or on television documentaries over many decades. Conflict, for obvious reasons, seems to attract these kind of legends, witness this fascinating list of War History Legends and the similarities with other traditional stories, worldwide.

It's interesting to compare these stories, essentially folk tales, with the current vogue for false news deliberately implanted for political ends. They are two different things, and I don't think we should be throwing out the folk tale baby with the sordid political bathwater.  I suppose the key difference lies in the intent behind the tales. People relating urban legends sincerely believe they're true and the stories used to be mostly harmless, although given the way in which social media magnifies everything, this may no longer be the case.

On the other hand, politicians propagating nonsense tales don't really believe a word of them. Our current PM, Boris Johnson, freely admits that he made up urban myths about the EU, tales that were 'told as true' in once reputable newspapers like the Telegraph, and for which he was handsomely remunerated. 

They're not urban legends so much as propaganda of the most pernicious sort.