By JAKE THACKRAY
Heard the one about the snake?
one about the family
who went camping in Portugal and took their elderly aunt with them and she died one night in the Algarve. Come on, everybody's heard this one. For the sake of any of you who live in an enclosed order in a remote monastery I'll finish the story.
The family decided to drive to the British embassy in Lisbon for advice. They couldn't put Aunty inside the car because that would spook the children so they wrapped her in the tent and lashed her to the roof rack.
They parked outside the embassy. They went in to explain. They came out again to the car. Somebody had stolen it. With Aunty on top in the tent.
There will be other versions of this but they all have two things in common: a) They are not told as jokes. They are told as true life stories. b) The person who tells it to you will swear that it is true because he heard it from Bill Pearce who actually knows a second cousin of the dead aunty's neighbour in Todmorden. There is of course option c) it is all old balderdash.
You can tell this by the amount of authenticating detail.
The truer the tale ("...oh yes, known him for years, big chap, ginger moustache, drives a yellow Cortina C reg, goes down the legion, well it's his sister's husband's boss who told him, window dresser in Dewhurst's...) the more the moonshine.
In the last century the people of the town of Cinderford in the Forest of Dean were duped by one of these daft myths and clubbed to death a travelling Italian showman's dancing bear on the whisper going round that it was the Devil Himself.
About the same time in Hartlepool the good and credulous people solemnly and publicly hung a small monkey which had been washed ashore after a French frigate had foundered outside the harbour.
It had been the pet of the French captain. But local rumour had spread that it was Napoleon Himself. So they hung it till it died.
You must have heard these stories and, like me, half believed them. The one about the greengrocer in Walsall, or was it Saffron Walden, who went to the corner shop to buy a packet of Silk Cut, or was it Rothmans, and ended up in a gaol in Istanbul, or was it the fever hospital in Scutari?
Or the famously apocryphal headline in the Flagstaff (Arizona) Beacon and Clarion : "Local man bitten by snake. Snake dies."
There are any number of them but I shall not go on because I always follow the advice and sagacity of Louise Dickinson, a former eightyear-old pupil of mine, to whom I had given the homework of writing a book about penguins.
What daft homework. But Louise was up to it: "This book told me more about penguins than I ever wanted to know."
I shall not overpenguin you but let me tell you one last one. Fr O'Mara of the parish of Our Lady, Cragwood, Rawdon, the West Riding, told me this and you have to believe what a priest says, don't you".
On a church picnic Cissy Stephenson of that parish climbed over the wall into the next field and walked up to a solitary horse and kissed it on the lips.
Smack! Afterwards she said: "I meant it when I kissed him, Father, he's lovely. If I meet him again and he asks me to go out with him I shall. I'll spend a weekend with hint in Bridlington if that's what he wants.
"But I won't tie him down. There might be somebody else in his life. He may even be married. I wouldn't want a horse to go round thinking he's got to do the right thing by me and him feeling guilty about that fling we had at the picnic.
I have always treasured this tale until last week when a Baptist minister, good friend, told me assuredly the self-same anecdote except that in his case she was a Valerie Boulton and it happened in Cricklewood in May 1973 and it was a Friesan bullock. I believed O'Mara. We do believe in the stories our priests tell us don't we? That is what they are there for. But what stories do they believe in? t