Thursday, 27 October 2011

"I'm not superstitious, but ..."

The last few blogs have been a bit intense in subject matter, so I thought I'd look at something a bit lighter - superstition.

Let's get the definition out of the way. Dictionaries define it as, "irrational beliefs, especially with regard to the unknown", or, "irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear". So fear, ignorance and the unknown can lead to irrational beliefs.

Generally, most people want to believe that they are rational beings, and would eschew all notions of superstition, but some things are hard to get rid of.

They may be heard to say, "I'm not superstitious, but ...". Being brought up in small communities in remote parts of the country tends to leave you more open to the influence of superstition. Superstitions can cover almost every aspect of our daily lives, and the interesting thing is that most of them have unknown origins.

Superstitions can be harmless (If you drop a table knife expect a male visitor); bizarre (On the first day of the month it is lucky to say "white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits", before uttering your first word of the day); worrying (walking on the cracks between paving slabs will bring bad luck). How such a person will get on where I live is anyones guess as the pavements are made up of bricks. The worrying superstitions can become a form of OCD.

I wasn't brought up in a particularly superstitious home, but dropping a knife or fork, opening an umbrella indoors, putting new shoes on the table, or passing someone on the stairs would be met with suitable comments. Mother would undoubtedly say, "I'm not superstitious, but ...".

The number 13 has been particularly problematical for the superstitious mind. I've visited a number of tower blocks that didn't have a 13th floor. They just jumped from the 12th to the 14th. I've also lived on a new private housing estate that didn't have any house number 13. I lived once at number 12, and my neighbours were number 11 and number 14. Of course Friday the 13th has brought about almost paranoia in the minds of many. An example of this is the number of films produced about the horrors attached to Friday the 13th. The range of superstitions is enormous, and covers every part of the country, but there were some people who were not prepared to let the notion of superstition go unchallenged.

London Thirteen Club 23rd March 1895
One such group of people formed themselves into the London Thirteen Club around October, 1889 (though others say it was formed in January 1881 - dates are confusing), and was said to mirror one formed in New York a number of years earlier. Originally started by a group of London journalists, it quickly attracted the attention, and membership of MP's and Peers, as well as many of the professional class such as doctors and lawyers. The club had one objective: "To educate people against their tenets and slavery to superstitious notions". I've had on my wall for many years, a framed original page from "The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News", of the 23rd March 1895, and the above sketch comes from that page. The highlight of the club was its annual dinner, and the page describes this event the week before. As I believe that superstition is a load of nonsense, I've always been particularly amused by the antics of these well-heeled 'eccentrics', who carried on their annual dinners for at least twenty four years up to January 1906.

Let me give you a flavour of one of those annual dinners. This account was put together by Paul Chambers from articles in The Times. "On Saturday the 13th January 1894, London played host to a most extraordinary event. No fewer than 169 gentlemen of eminent rank and learning assembled at the Holborn Restaurant. Each diner was wearing a green tie and, on arrival, was presented with a buttonhole that consisted of a Japanese skeleton stuck to a miniature coffin lid. In time, an undertaker arrived and, without word, led the guests through to room number 13. The dining room itself was no less unusual. Inside were 13 tables each of which was laid for 13 people. All the knives were crossed while about the table were scattered various objects such as skulls, mirrors, peacock feathers and upturned horseshoes. Salt had been scattered everywhere and the whole scene was lit by black candles placed inside model skulls and coffins. The diners sat down to their meal which consisted of 13 courses and was served by cross-eyed waiters. While eating, there was much deliberate spilling of the salt.

Their appetites sated, the assembled crowd sat back to listen to an address given by Harry Furniss who, aside from being a genuine funeral director, was also chairman of the London Thirteen Club, the entire membership of which was now assembled before him. Furniss proposed a toast: 'To the memory of many senseless superstitions killed by the London Thirteen Club'. He then went on to give a speech in which he outlined his theory concerning the Houses of Parliament and superstition. After the speech, a final toast was proposed after which the diners were encouraged to give each other knives (but not to pay for them) and to smash the many mirrors that were in the room. Wine was drunk, songs were sung, and in the early hours the sozzled rabble poured onto the pavement and dissolved into the chill London air. A good, if slightly unusual time was had by all".

I think that I could have enjoyed that evening, and helped to lay bare the nonsense of superstition. Of course, not everyone agreed with them, with one detractor calling the club, "an assembly of idiots". Membership invitations to the Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde were declined, and Wilde's letter declining the invitation was read out at the dinner in 1894. In typical Wilde fashion he wrote,

"I have to thank the members of your Club for their kind invitation, for which convey to them, I beg you, my sincere thanks. But I love superstitions. They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your Society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Do not make us too offensively sane. I love dining out, but with a Society with so wicked an object as yours, I cannot dine. I regret it. I am sure you will all be charming, but I could not come, though 13 is a lucky number".

I'm now torn. I know that superstitions are nonsense, but I also like what Wilde says about, "Leave us some unreality. Do not make us too offensively sane". Ah well, no doubt my reader will come to his own conclusions.

I finish with an appalling link to a song. I was brought up with the songs of Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group (you know, such songs as, "My old man's a dustman", and "Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?"). One of my favourites was a song called "Black Cat" (see the link?), and the version I've chosen is a big band one with Ralph Dollimore and his Orchestra. Superstitious or not, it's a great song, and a great version.

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