A splendid collection of useful nonsense

A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud
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This splendid book is hopeless. Inspired by the entry for "book (divination with)", I duly put it into practice. Some favour the Bible or Virgil, but any book, even a dictionary of folklore, will do. Open it at random and, by reading the first words which come to the eyes, discover the short-term future.

This splendid book is hopeless. Inspired by the entry for "book (divination with)", I duly put it into practice. Some favour the Bible or Virgil, but any book, even a dictionary of folklore, will do. Open it at random and, by reading the first words which come to the eyes, discover the short-term future.

So I am to become "a prolific editor of literary-antiquarian works" - a pleasantly bufferish existence, which would mean selling the holiday home on Long Island if it were to be viable. The next attempt yielded "bird droppings". One of the baby seagulls currently nesting between a neighbour's chimney-pots could indeed soon take wing and, sated upon pizza crust, do its worst. One need not repine, for bird droppings that land upon one herald good fortune, especially on Easter Day. Paradoxically enough, in Cleveland birds will drop upon those who do not wear new clothes on Whitsunday.

A third go, and "pieces of vervain root". This is handy for preventing nightmares, providing immunity to snakebite and curing scrofula. One itches to see what these 400 elegant pages say about the luck associated with three but, meanwhile, an asterisk in "vervain" refers one to "hag-riding". That certainly sounds like a way of catching scrofula; it is in fact the sensation of being held immobile in bed by an apparent weight. This is a medical condition but, in 19th-century Dorset, it led to the less comely being attacked as the witches responsible. Those sufferers who did not want to risk a charge of assault could always fix a holed stone above the bed.

Stuff and nonsense! So one might say, and be right - and wrong. Just as pervasive logic among mankind would lumber us with fiction no more imaginative than, say, Bertrand Russell's short stories, so this collection offers abundant insight into the creative eddy and flow of the brain cells. It is a mere fork in the road that turns confusion and fancy into Yeats's later poetry rather than an old wives' tale (such as his book A Vision).

This is not the place to elaborate theories about the way in which reference books offer whimsical, zig-zagging readers the chance to perform some critical deconstruction and rebuilding of their own. Harry Potter enthusiasts will feel short-changed here by a three-sentence entry for wizards. And one can only wonder at the double whammy of PC angst if there were ever a playground revival of one Fifties custom: girls sporting a Robertson's marmalade golliwog to say "I've lost my virginity".

Sex could provide one path through the volume. That said, the entry for Percy Grainger's collecting of folk songs could have been beefed up. Such were his sado-masochistic, incestuous leanings that he would not have been content with mere games of hunt the slipper. (This volume cites Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield about that: "as it is impossible, in this case, for the lady who is up to face all the company at once, the great beauty of the play lies in hitting her a thump with the heel of the shoe on that side least capable of making a defence.")

Culinary matters are equally rewarding. Sailors and fisherman will not say "pig" at sea. What cause could they have to do so? Anyway, when they do, their equivalent of "the Scottish play" is grunter or porker. On shore, at least in Sussex, pigs are deemed lucky spirits, and some mothers still eat, rather than cut, infant fingernails.

Naturally, one informs the bees of any upheaval in the house and gives them food from the celebration or wake. Even this century, menstruating women were forbidden to handle meat, enter a dairy or a Methodist church. It turns out that the Olney pancake-race was sleight of hand by the vicar who, with an eye for publicity, "revived" it after the war. There is no record of it in the standard Thirties volumes on folklore.

Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud draw upon 300 books and articles, as well as their own research. If one detects recurrent citation of Iona Opie and Moira Tatem's Dictionary of Superstitions, that is as inevitable as Marks & Spencer's collapse. Far East dressmakers do not jump over the finished items for luck.

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