So she puts the wet dog in the microwave . . .: Monique Roffey applies the myth detector test to some macabre but entertaining stories

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A FRIEND of a friend of mine went to see the Chippendales on their latest tour. During the act, one of the oiled hunks twirled his jockstrap over his head and catapulted it into the audience. It struck my friend's friend straight in the eye. A week later her eye started to puff up and became itchy. When she went to the doctor, he found that pubic lice had somehow laid their eggs behind her eye - and they had started to hatch.

Heard this story recently? I did, but after telling it to other friends I was disappointed to find that they had heard it, too. Except it had happened to a friend of a friend of theirs.

Of course, the story is not true (neither is it scientifically possible). It is, though, No 1 in today's Top Ten myths. Others include the one about the man at the night club who was chatted up by a beautiful woman - only to come to the next day in a phone box with one of his kidneys surgically removed.

And then there is the young woman who went to India and befriended a street dog. She grew so attached to it that she decided to smuggle it home. She got the dog past the customs, but it did not adapt well to the cold weather. When she took it to the vet he immediately put it in a cage marked 'quarantine'. 'Where did you get this animal?' he asked. 'Battersea Dogs' Home,' she replied. When he said he did not believe her, she came clean. 'I've got news for you,' he said. 'That's not a dog, it's a rat.'

Urban myths - wacky, spooky, stupid and revolting, but riveting nevertheless - have been circulating for a long time. But according to Rick Glanvill and Phil Healey, who have compiled a collection of 230 classic tales, they all have certain things in common that make them easy to spot.

'For a start, there's always a displaced acquaintance involved,' says Mr Glanvill. 'These stories always happen to a friend of a friend, or a friend's uncle or aunt, and can never be directly sourced.'

Also on the myth detector test is the tell-tale use of vague words. 'When we hear the word 'apparently' we're automatically suspicious,' says Mr Glanvill. 'It means the teller is describing something he doesn't really know about in depth himself.'

This, they explain, happens most with myths involving newfangled gadgets or technology that goes wrong. Both offer safe ground for the story-teller to ad lib, as few listeners will challenge the details - few people actually know whether a poodle's insides can be cooked by a microwave oven.

The third sign that a story is a myth is its ubiquity. A particular tale will suddenly come into circulation and become part of dinner-party and pub chat all over the country. 'If we hear the same story from more than two people within a short space of time, then we know it's definitely a myth,' says Mr Glanvill.

He and Mr Healey had been collecting and swapping myths long before they thought of compiling them for a book.

'Often we'd be out drinking together and find ourselves trying to outdo each other with ridiculous stories,' says Mr Glanvill. 'Then one day we decided to write some of them down and found we could easily recall about 30 or so off the top of our heads. The stories were attractive and had a universal appeal, and so we thought it would be viable to collect them and get them published.'

Once they had begun seriously scouting for stories, they were inundated. Almost everyone they knew had a gem to contribute, and the book lists 80 secondary 'sources', including assorted friends, relatives and bartenders. The book boasts 15 different categories, from the all-time classics (hitchhikers, baby-sitters, escaped psychopaths) to myths involving animals, medical blunders and brushes with the law.

If myths are so easy to spot and shoot down, why are they told over and over again?

'There's almost a conspiracy to believe with urban myths,' Mr Glanvill says. 'People may know a story sounds dodgy or implausible, but want to believe it anyway. And if it's qualified because it happened to a friend of a friend - or someone they vaguely know - it makes the story funnier.'

'But most of it has to do with the reflected glory the story-teller gets for recounting such a good tale,' adds Phil Healey.

Is there ever a glimmer of truth behind these myths? Having myself interviewed a retired GP who was a first-hand witness to the infamous 'couple who got stuck making love in an Austin-Healey' story (they had to be cut out by firemen), the answer is yes. Sometimes. It is just that as a story is passed on, it undergoes customisation by each teller, ending up as a mixture of truth and elaboration.

But more often than not a myth is the by-product of basic human fears, prejudices or superstitions. Often allegorical, the moral of the story is aimed at levelling anyone too big for their boots. Doctors, lawyers and bankers are frequently the protagonists of these stories, as are politicians and celebrities. (The authors decided against a celebrity section in their book for legal reasons.)

The authors are sure that the Chippendales myth has its roots in simple male jealousy, and was made up by young men who felt threatened by the troupe of thong- clad Adonises.

'If anything new appears, soon afterwards a myth usually appears, too,' says Mr Healey. 'The Chippendales story will always be told by men to women in the hope that it will put them off.'

Funnily enough, I was first told the Chippendale story by a young man. It happened to a friend of a friend of his . . .

'Urban Myths' is published by Virgin Books tomorrow at pounds 3.99.