Hugh Baker reflects on the character of urban myth in the light of a recent Metropolitan Police inquiry and the social uses of soap operas, and finds support for traditional Christian morality

This story must be at least two years old, since it is that long since my daughter worked in Birmingham. My wife arrived home on a Friday concerned. A work colleague had told her that a friend had received a phone call from a Muslim acquaintance for whom they had once done a favour. He phoned to say that since he was a man of honour, bound to repay any kindness done him, he felt obliged to warn them not to go into the centre of Birmingham the following Monday.

Alarmed, my wife passed this tale on to our daughter, then toiling in the shadow of Brum’s Rotunda. Her unease lasted until Sunday, when she chatted to a member of our church whose family live in Banbury Her sister there had received a phone call from a friend who had a friend who had a Muslim acquaintance who, owing them a debt of gratitude, had warned them not to go into Banbury on Monday next… It became evident that this fable had been replicated all across the land: it was what sociologists have labelled an Urban Myth.

No factual truth

The urban myth conveys no factual truth, but this is not its purpose. Its function is to help us to focus our attitudes on an area of life which we are in the process of trying to understand, in the way a soap opera may. What’s your attitude to Paula Fowlers recent demise? It’ll help you to distil your thoughts about mothers who refuse to let their adult children fly the nest. This myth helped its hearers, post 9/11, to decide their attitudes to the influx of immigrants from our former Empire.

Another myth now doing its work is that of The Royal Murder, i.e. that the Royal Family bumped off Princess Diana. The Metropolitan Police Inquiry, now finished after years of work and millions of pounds of our money, has reached the unsurprising conclusion that Diana died because her driver, extremely drunk, and trying to shake off the paparazzi, crashed.

Now that the Inquiry is finally finished, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss has been wheeled out of retirement to conduct the Inquest. If (after further great expenditure of time, and our money) the Inquest reaches the same conclusion as the Inquiry, it will do nothing to change my wife’s mind: the Royal Family done it.

In the publics eye, the following evidence is proven: (i) Prince Charles went off to sea without proposing to Camilla, who consequently became Mrs Parker-Bowles; (ii) Mr Parker-Bowles turned out to be a serial philanderer; (iii) when Charles eventually married a much younger woman, Camilla should have kept off the scene. She didn’t; (iv) Charles should have told Camilla to keep off the scene. He didn’t; (v) by the time Diana began extramarital hanky-panky, Camilla’s slippers were firmly established under Charles’s bed. It is not the truth of this myth that matters, but its existence. What is the purpose, to those who hold to it, of this myth?

Coded message

A myth is a coded message that speaks to something we hold dear in the heart. The limitations of our education may determine the bounds of how well we can articulate what we are feeling: hence the popularity of soaps – we express our half-understood beliefs by our involvement in, and reaction to, the denizens of Albert Square and the truths they embody. Fiction enables us to be theologians on our own, simple, terms.

For this reason, the Royal Family (who once could have happily broken all Ten Commandments in private, sheltered from the public gaze by the discretion of both servants and media) now serve as a soap. We feel we have the right to comment and to judge; and our judgement is… We admire the Queen, but we put Charles in the same bracket as Edward VIII – well meaning, doubtless nice enough chap, but unable to put duty before sentiment, and therefore not up to the job.

Such judgement seems harsh in a time when we applaud, or at least take notice of, shallow celebrities who make a career out of being disreputable. Such two-handedness on our part, however, indicates that we do not, actually, take the celebrities seriously. They are titillating, convenient, expendable. The Royal Family is different.

We want, in reality, to look up to them, admire them, have them as an image of what Christian family life (and here, the myth reaches beyond our own self-understanding) should be. We are disturbed by the younger Royals’ divorce rate because we are disturbed by our own.

National revulsion

Recent reaction to the Jade Goody/ Shilpa Shetty affair tells us that there is a revulsion out there to what we, as a nation, are becoming. We were all supposed to be enthralled at the ‘reality’ of Jade’s (and her mother’s) outbursts that we were not meant to have the temerity to complain. Gordon Brown, touring India at the time, suffered the full force of Indian disapproval; but then, India is a country of ancient civilization and (partly because of the Hindu caste system) complex, laid down, manners. More relevantly for us, 20,000 people in this country complained about it.

The programme’s main sponsors, aware of their product’s vulnerability to negative publicity, withdrew their cash: questions were asked in Parliament about Channel Four’s remit as a public service broadcaster, and the tax that helps it stay afloat. The row refused to blow over.

All this indicates that there is still a substantial market for traditional moral Christian living. There are, undoubtedly, many Britons who, for the time being, prefer contemporary secular amorality: but it was precisely this that the early Church conquered, not by pandering to it, but by being something different. For God’s sake, and our neighbours’, let us stick to our guns.