... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Friday 10 June 2011


I'm not a superstitious person. I'll happily walk under a ladder (as long as it's secure and there isn't a precariously balanced tin of paint at the top) but there are a couple of superstitions I'll respect, either because they represent a nice idea or a kernel of good sense, or because of a link with tradition.

I was reminded of this by an interview in the Guardian today with Tea Obreht, the winner of the Orange prize. Among other superstitions that she grew up with in Belgrade, she mentioned one I'd not come across before:

"I learned that if you cross a threshold to go on a journey," she says, "even just to buy flowers down the street, you are not allowed to turn around and cross again until the journey's done – so if you forget your money, you're crap out of luck! You can be like, 'Please give me the money,'" she waves her arms wildly over an invisible threshold, "but my grandmother would physically hold me back."

That appeals to me; the idea that if you start a journey, whether a physical or a more metaphorical one, you should not return until you've completed it.

Other little superstitions I adhere to are that you should never give anyone a purse or wallet as a gift unless it has a token amount of money in it (also mentioned by Obreht), and also regarding gifts that if you give - or are given - a knife or scissors, or anything similar, you should always accept or give a token amount of money in return - things that can cut should not be given as gifts.

One superstition I grew up with, that I never came across anywhere else, is that if you bang your elbow, you should always bang the other one. It took me a while to grow out of that. I suspect it was a ploy on my mother's part to distract us from the pain.

Finally, a boaters' superstition mentioned in Tim Wilkinson's Hold on a Minute. His wife brushes her hair and on pulling the loose hairs out of the brush, goes to throw them in the canal. The young boy from a boating family who's crewing for them is aghast at this, and tells 'missus' that she'll go bald if she does that. As Wilkinson explains, the sense behind this is not to throw anything in the cut that could get caught round someone's blades. Instead, she is told, she should put her hair in the hedge for the birds to take for their nests. Ever since reading that, I've propitiated the fates by never throwing so much as a single hair into the canal, because I like having that link with that advice from the past.

Off to Warrior now, to start to clear our stuff out ready for its wonderful new owners.


  1. The elbow thing was common in our house too,rural Lincolnshire so there was a few traditional superstitions knocking about. Did you avoid picking up dropped spoons,leaving them lie till another person could pick them up.I finally grew out of this one aged 53 and 3/4 cos Boris got fed up and told me I was daft.Magpies give my mother the heebie jeebies but I regard them as messengers and Iam always polite to them

  2. Yes, my mum did the elbow one as well, I had actually forgotten about it until I read this. My mum also had the one about not going back but she had a way of overcoming it - you counted to ten on your way back over the threshold, I actually still do that without even thinking. Thank you for this post Sarah, I have had a nice session of nostalgia.......
    Kath (nb Herbie)

  3. My old gran would not pass a may tree when it was in blossom and as for magpies!!!
    That was rural Sussex many years past.