Tuesday 3 July 2018

Haunted City: How Folklore & Urban Legends Differ

What exactly is the difference between folklore and urban legends?

Scott Wood of the London Fortean Society introduced a day of talks called The Haunted City: Modern Monsters and Urban Myths by explaining exactly that.

He said: "Urban legends are part of our lives as city dwellers. They are not a hidden culture that you need to talk to the oldest person in the pub to find out about.

"Stories about large boulders in the countryside being rocks that were thrown by the Devil, but missed their target, are folklore. The story that the Elephant and Castle shopping centre was built to conceal a secret Cold War government complex is an urban legend."

He went on the say that folklore is generally rooted in much older tales than urban legends. If you believe in Devil, you say a big stone thrown by him interacts with your landscape. If you are scared of nuclear war, you think your local shopping centre is on top of a nuclear bunker.

The title of Scott's talk was The Hidden Insult, and his subject matter covered both modern legends and a tale relating to devils. He explained that in the past few decades there have several tales of rude messages hidden inside items belonging to famous people.

The famous fashion designer Alexander McQueen, when he was still a cheeky young tailor, was rumoured to have left a chalked insult inside a jacket he made for Prince Charles. This story has since been disproved. Other hidden insults included one in a mixing desk owned by the band Oasis and one in a wedding suit made for footballer Joe Cole.

Scott then went on to talk about one of my favourite London legends - that of the Devils of Cornhill. The story goes that an architect who was building offices next to the church of St Peter's Cornhill had a disagreement with the vicar, who said his plans encroached on church land. He was forced to redraw his designs, but got his own back by placing three devils on the roof, staring at the church.

The devils in question are made of terracotta and are designed by William Neatby, who was a talented Arts and Crafts style ceramics sculptor. He created grotesque decorations for other buildings, as well as more traditional Art Nouveau designs.

Scott went through St Peter's Cornhill's records. He discovered there was a dispute at the time, but it was ended amicably. However, the drawings of the building at the Society of Architects had originally placed a dragon on the top. That wasn’t accepted, so the devils might have been put there instead of that, rather than to spite the vicar.

Nevertheless, the theme of people mocking others with hidden insults in items is a theme often found in urban legends.

You can find out about The London Fortean Society's events at  http://forteanlondon.blogspot.com/

Scott Wood is the author of London Urban Legends, which you can view on Amazon.

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