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CRAIG BROWN: How to make a date with Mr Magpie! Following a tip from our late Queen


Here in Suffolk, there are more magpies about than ever before, and they are hard to ignore, as they announce their presence with a noisy ‘clack-clack-clack’.

This makes it a tricky time for superstitious souls who believe in the batty old adage, ‘One for sorrow, two for joy’. Whenever my wife spots a single magpie, she looks anxiously around for another. If she can’t see one, she makes a point of saying, ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie’ in the hope of warding off the bad luck.

In a recent Saturday column, Boris Johnson revealed that the late Queen shared this magpie superstition, though the remedy she offered was more complicated. ‘It’s easy’ she told Boris, ‘What you do is say, ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, today is…’ and then you give the right day and the right date. That does the trick.’ 

You might have thought that the greater the number of magpies around, the more likely you are to find good news: two for joy, for instance, or six for gold. But magpies are solitary types, who prefer to hang out by themselves. This means there is sadness around every corner. The rhyme was clearly devised by a pessimist.

Recently, walking in the countryside has become a taxing business, unless, of course, you bend the rules to include an extra magpie you sighted a few minutes later, so that you can convince yourself it’s two for joy.

Here in Suffolk, there are more magpies about than ever before, and they are hard to ignore, as they announce their presence with a noisy 'clack-clack-clack', writes Craig Brown

Here in Suffolk, there are more magpies about than ever before, and they are hard to ignore, as they announce their presence with a noisy ‘clack-clack-clack’, writes Craig Brown 

Better by far to ignore all old wives’ tales. At the age of seven, on my first day at my new school I heard that my school number was to be 13.

There and then, I had to decide whether to be anxious for the next five years or just to ignore it. I chose the latter course, and five years later emerged from the school unscathed.

From then on, I disregarded all superstitions, and sometimes even flouted them. Whenever Friday the 13th comes round, I now feel a strange sense of security.

For a time, if ever I saw a ladder I would make a point of walking under it. It was only when my shoulder glanced a ladder and it toppled over on me that I came to realise that some superstitions are grounded in common sense.

Of course, avoiding ladders is much easier than avoiding magpies. It’s even easier to hang a horseshoe the right way up, or not hang one up at all. If you are going to entertain superstitions, it’s best to pick those that cause least trouble. It’s simple to throw salt over your left shoulder if you’ve just dropped some, and if you’ve just made a wish, there’s always a bit of wood around to touch.

It’s much more difficult to avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement, particularly if you’re a grown-up and want to maintain your dignity.

For a time, if ever I saw a ladder I would make a point of walking under it. It was only when my shoulder glanced a ladder and it toppled over on me that I came to realise that some superstitions are grounded in common sense, writes Craig Brown (pictured)

For a time, if ever I saw a ladder I would make a point of walking under it. It was only when my shoulder glanced a ladder and it toppled over on me that I came to realise that some superstitions are grounded in common sense, writes Craig Brown (pictured) 

‘Step on a crack, break your mother’s back’ runs the cruel rhyme. If it were true, our streets would be full of mothers reeling around in agony, and children looking embarrassed.

It’s not often you break a mirror, so that’s good news. But, then again, seven years of bad luck seems an unduly severe sentence: who would want to be a mirror delivery man? Some superstitions must have been devised by hard-headed pragmatists. To avoid wet carpets, they put it about that it was bad luck to have an umbrella open indoors.

When a production of Macbeth was heading for box-office disaster, a wily impresario convinced his cast that they only had themselves to blame: if only they’d called it The Scottish play, they’d have had a winner on their hands.

Boris Johnson believes that the Queen’s remedy for a single magpie was grounded in common sense: in the time it takes to puzzle out the right day and date, you forget your troubles. ‘Your mind moves on. The solitary magpie is forgotten.’

Its even more sensible, though, to ignore the daft superstition.

What happened if the Queen glimpsed a solitary magpie just as she was greeting a line of guests at a Palace garden party? Did she say: ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie…’ regardless of whose hand she happened to be shaking?

And did she say similar when-ever she sighted Boris? Or was she just grateful there weren’t two of him?



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