Outwardly the children in the back streets and around the housing estate appear to belong to the twentieth century, but ancient apprehensions, even if only half believed in, continue to infiltrate their minds; warning them that moonlight shining on a person’s face when he is asleep will make him go mad, that vinegar stops a person growing no matter how young he is, that a bleeding wart never stops bleeding and the person will bleed to death. They confide to each other that a stone-chip picked up off a grave brings a curse upon him who takes it; that a nose which is too long may be shortened by rubbing it with wet grass on the night of a new moon; and that if a photograph in a frame is dropped and the glass breaks, a painful accident will befall the subject of the photograph. ‘I shudder if I break a mirror, fearing seven years’ bad luck’, says a 14-year-old Yorkshire girl; and a Radnorshire lad affirms, ‘If you break a mirror they say seven years’ bad luck to you. This is true in my family.’ With simple faith they accept beliefs which have not changed since Shakespeare’s day: that if a dog howls outside a house or scratches at the floor someone is going to die in that house; that if owls screech at night it is a sign of death; that if a person hears of two deaths he will assuredly hear of a third; and in evening places where children meet the telling of each dark precept is supported with gruesome instances. [Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer comes to mind here.] They begin to share the awe felt by Mole in The Wind in the Willows when Ratty warned him of the hundred things an animal had first to understand before entering the Wild Wood:
Passwords, and signs, and sayings which have power and effect, and plants you carry in your pocket, and verses you repeat, and dodges and tricks you practise; all simple enough when you know them, but they’ve got to be known if you’re small, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.
It is such dark thoughts which cause children at Brierley Hill in south Staffordshire to hide their little fingers when an ambulance goes by for fear that their finger-nails will drop out; which induce children in the Gower Peninsula to spit when they see a dead animal and cry: