Perhaps it is the uncertain economic situation, (actually it’s not really uncertain, is it? It is certainly bad), or perhaps it is the fact good fortune seems to play a great role in every writer’s career, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about luck and the talismans people use to draw it to them or keep it, both now and in the past.
I’m a superstitious rationalist. That means although I don’t really believe it makes any difference to my fortunes, I still find myself bowing to magpies, that I avoid seeing the new moon through glass, and that my desk is covered in joyful Buddhas. I suspect I am not alone and can tell you that all of us who are secretly delighted when finding a four-leaf clover will enjoy browsing Steve Roud’s book The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. It’s a wonderful piece of scholarship, and I have made much use of it over the last couple of years. Handle with care though, if you are superstitious by nature it can have the same effect as a hypochondriac reading a medical dictionary. Did you know, for instance, that you should be very careful of parsley? Transplanting it, or the giving or receiving of a plant is terribly dangerous. You have been warned.
It’s particularly interesting though how many of the talismans mentioned in the book are about warding off witches and / or bad luck, rather than, like my cheerful Buddahs, attracting the good. Reading the book gives the impression of a very worried nation constantly fingering their holed stones, and pouncing on horseshoes to keep off witches and their influence, while taking the occasional break to try and work out who they are going to marry. My current theory is that this emphasis on avoiding bad luck in the past, by which I mean anything up to the mid-twentieth century really, shows us an important difference between then and now. Imagine you live in a time when a minor accident could kill you, or prevent you from working, when a fever could be fatal or a bad harvest could leave your family hungry. I guess in those circumstances it is the bad luck you think about. You would be watchful against it, and take whatever precautions you could. Now imagine you are relatively comfortable, by which I mean you have access to modern healthcare and social services. Perhaps you start thinking how it would be nice to have more, you know, stuff, and you start looking about for it, and therefore buying little happy buddhas to usher it in. Now, I’m not saying that everyone up to 1946 was living in a constant state of fear, human being have always known how to have a good time when they can, but looking at these protective walls people tried to build around themselves is a reminder that it was a more dangerous world. Castles might look beautiful, but they mean you are standing on a battlefield.
Then there are the gentry level ways of warding off ill luck or preserving the good. Here we are often speaking of rare or very old items around which legends have been built. In Island of Bones I invented a talisman for the town of Keswick called the Luck of Gutherscale Hall, but though that particular item exists only in my imagination, I based its history on a number of local relics. The Luck of Eden Hall can be seen at the V & A, there’s an excellent article about its legend here. Supposedly a gift from the Fair Folk, it seems to have been made in Syria in the 13th century. Equally in Justin Pollard’s book, Secret Britain, which would make a great Christmas gift for History Girls and Boys everywhere by the way, you can read about the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, fragments of which were carried by MacLeod pilots in WWII for protection. Now when is the best time to look for four-leaved clovers again?