Print the legend

I mentioned on Twitter at the weekend the inclusion of an urban legend in the form about changing school names in San Francisco.

And these sort of urban legends tend to catch on relatively quickly in historical terms. We all know city neighborhoods that are known for some event that took “everyone knows” took place - but scratch the surface and the story crumbles. Much as Jan Brunvand showed in The Vanishing Hitchhiker, his authoritative study of the nature of the urban legend. The story that always happened to a cousin’s co-worker, or your roommate’s brother’s friend.

The historical urban legend though is slightly different, in that it's not about something that happened to someone you know, it's more something that gets passed on as a form of community memory. As a historian you’ll be told these stories all the time. (I encountered a strange version of this once when I gave a talk, and someone afterwards proudly stated to me that “of course” Winston Churchill couldn't go into the House of Lords because his mother was American. I couldn’t in the instant think of where to start, untangling that bizarre claim. Churchill, as the son of a younger son, was never in line to inherit a title. Meanwhile his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, who was in the House of Lords, also had an American mother: Consuelo Vanderbilt).

But many people have these sort of odd beliefs about the past. When I first started my PhD at Cambridge, someone told me confidently that St John’s College boat club could never row under that name because they’d been involved in a fatality (they compete as the Lady Margaret Boat Club - after the college’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort). Some St John’s students, some time in the nonspecific past, had mounted a sword on the front of their boat, and in colliding with another team’s boat, killed that team’s cox. I was also told their uniform was red to mark this tragedy.

Immediately my bullshit radar was going off. It seemed too pat, and too much like an urban legend. I had enough Google-fu go to the library and look up old editions of the newspaper. The intercollegiate boat races (or “bumps”) only go back to the nineteenth century, and I felt certain an undergraduate dying in a boat race would have made the papers.

And indeed a young man did die in the bumps at Cambridge, in a boat collision. There’s no report of a sword or other weapon, and it has nothing to do with St John's College.

(from the Telegraph, February 25, 1888).

This may indeed be the origin of the legend. But the story about St John’s lingers, and is no doubt still being told to students today. And it’s worth remembering that when people speak of the past, and our shared understandings, that myths and legends make up much of the narrative.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite poems, Philip Larkin’s Dockery and Son (also a college story).

Where do these

Innate assumptions come from? Not from what   

We think truest, or most want to do:

Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style   

Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,

Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

History, or our understanding of it, hardens into all we’ve got.