Superstitions everywhere

It's not just Manchester United, writes Graham Ball
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The Independent Online
Was it poor visibility or superstition that made Manchester United's players recently abandon their new grey strip for away games in the middle of a Premiership match?

"The players couldn't pick each other out", manager, Alex Ferguson told reporters during the grim post mortem after their 3-1 beating by Southampton. "It was nothing to do with superstition. They said it was difficult to see their team mates at a distance." But his protest failed to mention that on the five occasions the grey strip had been worn, the championship leaders had failed to win.

Unlucky shirts, or what? Many modern psychologists would readily believe that was the players' belief. They confirm that superstition is as alive and well as ever in modern Britain, fuelled by two phenomena - the national craze for playing the lottery and the traditional dread of the approaching millennium.

"The lottery is a huge source of new superstitions", said Dr Richard Wiseman, a psy-chologist at Hertfordshire University. "It has been observed that people are extremely reluctant to disclose the numbers they choose, and if two individuals have tickets with random numbers chosen for them, they're unlikely to swap them with the next man even though logic dictates it would make no difference. That is one of the curious aspects of superstition, we are all quite capable of holding superstitious beliefs while at the same time admitting that they are nonsense."

Dr Wiseman says United's players may have succumbed to the power of superstition without even realising it.

"I might argue that the players may have unconsciously noticed that when they do certain things, one of which might well involve the wearing of red shirts, they are successful."

Dr Wiseman drew a parallel with research into stock market speculators. Like gamblers they swore that certain days were lucky for them."Eventually it was shown that the successful market speculators were unconsciously picking up on numerous indicators and were shadowing market trends but were unable to explain how they did it.

"Superstition plays a part whenever people are not certain what it is they do to make for a good performance and people who have to perform to order are particularly vulnerable. It is as if the imagination steps into the gap in the dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious mind."

Most superstitions have deep roots that delve into pre-Christian culture. Moira Tatem helped edit the 1,500 entries in the Oxford University Press, Dictionary of Superstitions.

"People today observe superstitions without knowing why and they'd probably be surprised to discover their origins. I was puzzled to discover why mail vans were deemed to be lucky. Children often say it and Churchill was always said to have touched one for luck whenever he saw one in the street.

"The reason for this superstition resides in some of our earliest history when it was believed that Kings and Queens had the ability to cure by touch.

"Monarchs, naturally enough, grew fed up with being constantly touched and at some point trailed a ribbon with a gold medal or coin out of the door of their coach when travelling and people touched that instead. Mail vans of course carry the Crown symbol on the side and touching the van is a direct throwback to that earlier belief."

Actors, are the most notorious victims of the affliction. The Royal Shakespeare Company's David Troughton admits that he upholds the tradition with a near religious zeal.

"I won't have anyone mention the name Macbeth in my dressing room. If they do, I insist they go out, turn around three times, knock on the door, come back in and swear. It's just one of those things. Of course I don't actually believe it makes any real difference; it is a habit really. However I always have to recite a little rhyme whenever I see a magpie."

Where established stage superstitions are ignored, actors tend to make up their own rituals.

Lucy Whybrow who opens in next week's RSC production of Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican, has invented her own routine to ward off ill fortune.

"Just before we go on I always go up to a member of the cast and we shake hands and wish each other luck and then just as I step onto the stage I always turn to the right," she said.

Cricketers are another group known for their superstition. David Gower never wore white socks and England Captain Mike Atherton will never shave on the morning of a match if he was not out overnight.

International cello soloist Ralph Kirshbaum actively confronts the forces of superstition. "Musicians are extremely prone to rituals, I know string players who wont wash their hands on the day of a recital and others who won't eat for eight hours prior to a performance. I wash my hands and have broken the taboo about eating My only vice is to insist that people leave and give me two minutes complete silence in the dressing room before going on"

Best selling novelist Jilly Cooper whose new book `Apassionata' is racing up the best seller lists, relies on superstitious ritual to help her start a new work.

"When ever I start a new book I put a tansy, which is a small foul smelling yellow wildflower, in my shoe for good luck. It's a gypsy superstition, and when I finish a book I blow dandelion clocks like mad and look for rainbows.

"You ask yourself the question `will it be good will it be bad' alternately each time you blow the dandelion and I cheat like crazy. If I see a rainbow I know it's going to be a number one best seller."