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Sunday 17 February 2013

An urban legend from 1940

One of the strangest types of urban legend is the friend-of-a-friend or “foaf-tale”, which appears to pop up spontaneously and propagate rapidly through society by word of mouth. Person A hears the tale from Person B, and gets the impression it happened to Person C – an acquaintance of Person B. But when Person B heard it from Person C, a few hours or days earlier, they had the impression it happened at one further remove, to Person D... and so on! The secret of a successful foaf-tale is that it should be shocking and rather far-fetched, but basically credible.

Generally the origins of a particular foaf-tale are lost in the mists of time. But I came across a subclass of foaf-tales the other day which must have originated in 1940, when Britain was collectively paranoid about the threat of a German invasion. Agatha Christie’s novel N or M? was published in 1941, and is set in the previous year. At one point, the following appears:

“The conversation during the meal turned on the absorbing subject of spies. Well-known hoary chestnuts were retold. The nun with the muscular arm, the clergyman descending from his parachute and using unclergymanlike language as he landed with a bump, the Austrian cook who secreted a wireless in her bedroom chimney, and all the things that had happened or nearly happened to aunts and second cousins of those present.”

The last phrase “things that had happened or nearly happened to aunts and second cousins” clearly indicates a foaf-tale situation. It’s also interesting that the stories are described as “well-known hoary chestnuts” – an odd way of putting it, when you realise the stories would only have been a month or so old. But people must have been tired of hearing them!

Later in the novel, the subject is touched on again when a character says “There have been so may good stories going around about nuns paying their fares in buses with hairy muscular arms”. This is archetypal foaf-tale material – bizarre, horrifying and yet compellingly believable!

I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie, and I’m slowly working my way through all her books. N or M? has been on the shelf waiting to be read for some time – I was finally prompted to read it by a recent item on the Daily Telegraph website: MI5 fears and an Agatha Christie mystery over Enigma leak! One of the characters in the story, Deborah Beresford, is working at a secret location in “the coding department”, while another character is a retired army officer named Major Bletchley (the Telegraph’s assertion that the Bletchley character has “inside knowledge of the progress of the war” is a journalistic exaggeration – actually he’s a typical old duffer living in the past). At the time the novel was written, the role of Bletchley Park as the UK’s cryptographic centre was Top Secret, so it’s no wonder that Military Intelligence were worried by the appearance of the name in a book about wartime espionage. It was, of course, pure coincidence!

N or M? is a sequel to Agatha Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary, written twenty years earlier. Unusually for popular fiction, the central characters are twenty years older in the sequel than they were in the first book. And the style of N or M? is more grown-up, too – more talk and less action! The Secret Adversary is one of the great adventure novels of the 20th century, which will have readers on the edge of their seats from beginning to end. N or M?, on the other hand, is for devotees only!


Peni R. Griffin said...

Bearing in mind that brand-new things are rare in folklore, the most probable hypothesis is that Christie had heard variations on these stories first during the Great War, or even during some of the smaller military upsets of her earlier life, such as the Boer War.

It would not surprise me to find that they are descended from tales told during the Napoleonic Wars, which in turn were descended from ones dating back to the 100 Years War, and so on back as far as human conflict goes.

Andrew May said...

That hadn't occurred to me, but now you say it I think you're probably right. (This gives me a feeling of deja vu, because I'm sure I've responded to one of your previous comments with much the same words!)

Filip Graliński said...

As you probably already know, the modern incarnation of nuns with muscular arms is an old woman waiting for you at a mall car park, see

Andrew May said...

Filip - Thanks very much for mentioning this and providing the link. It was in the back of my mind when I was writing the post, but I had various other things to do this morning and I didn't have time to look it up -- so thanks for doing it for me!