Saturday, June 07, 2008

Yes, But Whose Crisp Packet Was It? ...

... or whose story in the first place?

Peter Wilson (the journalist who blew the whistle on the ... errr... fictional aspects of Ishamel's Beah's memoir) looks at Ian McEwan's moment of embarrassment (if it even amounted to that!) at the Hay Festival recently.

In The Australian he relates how McEwan read a piece from his novel in progress in which the main character is eating a packed of crisps on a train, and is shocked when a muscular young man starts eating from the same packet and staring straight at him. Only later does he realise that his own crisps are in his packet and he has been eating from the other man's packet!

When a member of the audience said that he had read the same story somewhere , McEwan explained that the passage was based on an overheard conversation, and he had no idea it had previously appeared in print.
The mix-up over the crisps had the feel of an urban myth to it, McEwan said, adding that he would be grateful for any more information about the anecdote's provenance.
David Emery on immediately obliged :
Said anecdote has indeed appeared in print before -- not once, but many times. Probably its most famous occurrence was in Douglas Adams' So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, published in 1984. Adams' protagonist, Arthur Dent, recounts the story in a fashion very similar to the above, the only significant difference being that the "purloined" snack food consists of biscuits (cookies), not crisps. Adams himself is said to have claimed that the passage was based on an incident that really happened to him, though it was known to have circulated as an urban legend well before before the book came out.

"The Packet of Biscuits" also appeared in Jan Harold Brunvand's 1984 collection The Choking Doberman: And Other "New" Urban Legends, wherein the good professor cited variants found in British media sources as far back as 1972.
as did McEwan's fans on the bulletin board of his website, among them Bronwen Kiely who says :
I immediately recognised it from a short story called '' by Jeffrey Archer from A Quiver Full of Arrows.

In this story, a public servant named Septimus Horatio Cornwallis never varies from his daily routine. On his train trip home from work he always buys the Evening Standard and a packet of 10 cigarettes, two of which he habitually smokes during the journey home as he reads his paper.

On this particular day, his routine is disrupted by a stranger on the train who grabs Septimus' newspaper and smokes his cigarettes throughout the journey.

After a tussle that lasts all the way to his stop, during which he grabs half the paper back and furiously smokes the entire packet of cigarettes, Septimus gets up to leave the train and, as he does, he bumps his briefcase which springs open.

There inside is his untouched copy of the Evening Standard and his full packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes.
Wilson suggests that that McEwan might drop the incident from his novel. I would be greatly disappointed now if he did, though he might be a bit wary after being jumped on most unkindly by the press for "plagiarising" a passage for Atonement.

If you can have, quite legitimately two novels about tigers in a lifeboat, if you can have two novels featuring a houseboy and his long-haired, book-loving master on the verge of civil war, what's wrong with a bit of misunderstanding over a packet of crisps/biscuits/fags or whatever?

What's more - this is exactly the kind of every day embarrassment that we blunder into all the time. (Or maybe you don't, but I do, being terminally uncool.)

And let's face it, because of their common currency, these urban myths belong to all of us.

It might be the only useful thing to do with the YOUMUSTREADTHIS!!!! stories that come in the email!


realitylane said...

wasn't there a local advert during Ramadhan which went about that same theme? Adibah Noor, breaking fast with someone else's food.

some myths or scenarios do have a very universal ownership. like cliches.

how many times have writers used this scene - man and woman starts talking together at the same time. 'you go.' 'no, you go.' {breaks into nervous laughter.}

mountain, molehills.

realitylane said...

oh my, do excuse my grammar.

Martin Bradley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Bradley said...

adding to the urban mythos

Way back before time began, ie in the early 1960s, I used to stay with an aunt and uncle in London.

My aunt was well known in the family for her forgetfulness and I experienced this first hand as she poured out the tea for us all, drank her cup and minutes later proceeded to drink mine as well.

My uncle explained that this was quite a regular occurrence which was strangely restricted to the drinking of tea.

Anonymous said...

Yusuf, sounds like the mad hatter's tea party.

Martin Bradley said...

My poor dear aunt has long since past on, but she was well famed for this, and visitors would be seen, me included as I grew older, jealously guarding their tea cups and saucers, just in case.

Poor woman

bibliobibuli said...

i've been known to do that too :-D

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I shall jealously guard my cup next time I'm in your presence...