By Charles Christian
We’re all familiar with the concept of urban legends and urban myths but where do they come from? You sometimes think you know the origin but then when you start digging you realize they are far older than you first imagined.
For example, when I was a kid the Insects in the Beehive Hairdo myth was in full swing. This was in the days of Dusty Springfield, Ronnie Spector & The Ronettes and Brigitte Bardot – not the subsequent beehive revivals by the B52s* or the sadly missed Amy Winehouse. The version I heard –from my mother, who heard from her hair-stylist, who had heard it for a fact from a hairdresser in another town – was that a woman kept her beehive teased-up and sprayed with lacquer for so long that eventually insects nested in her hair and began burrowing into scalp. (This is the classic Friend Of A Friend source for an urban myth – which why they are sometimes called FOAFtales or FOAFlore.)
So far so yuk, except this story seemed to emerge simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. (There’s also a variant that has men with long dreadlocks being afflicted with similar insect infestations.) However, go back a little deeper and you find the same legend cropping up throughout history whenever bouffant ‘big hair’ was in fashion, right back to Mediaeval times when “a certain lady of Eynesham in Oxfordshire (UK), who took so long over the adornment of her hair that she used to arrive at church barely before mass” one day died of fright when “the devil descended upon her head in the form of a spider” and only let go when doused in holy water.
On the other hand there are some urban legends, supposedly dating back to ancient times, that turn out to have been invented only a few years ago. Enter the Legend of the Love Lock (or love padlock or wish lock). The concept is simple enough: two lovers celebrate their everlasting devotion and commitment to each other by attaching a padlock to a bridge and then dropping the key into the waters below. Ah, cute!
Anyway love locks can be anything from a commercial padlock that has the lovers’ names felt-tipped on it, through to custom-engraved heart-shaped locks – and if you visit just about any ‘destination’ bridge anywhere in the world today, you’ll spot love locks clinging to the railings like barnacles on a ship’s arse. (You’ll also spot quite a few cycle and motorbike locks as well, though I can’t help think that symbolizes not so much healthy devotion as a possessive obsession. That or the couple is into bondage, come back Bettie Page all is forgiven.)
But, when did love locks begin?
If you look on any of the websites dedicated to love locks (better make that on websites dedicated to selling love locks) you’ll find it all started in Ancient China, when two star-crossed lovers threw themselves off a peak in the Huangshan Mountains rather than be separated by the girl’s forced marriage to an old mandarin (that’s a social rank in Imperial China rather than a small orange, we’re not into auto-erotic games here). Ever afterwards, lovers visiting the mountains would fix padlocks to the guard-chains surrounding the peak to symbolize that their love would also last for all eternity.
Except it didn’t.
Excavate deeper and you discover the first recorded incidents of love locks being padlocked to bridges go back no earlier than 2006. One moment there are no love locks on a bridge, then there are a handful, then there are hundreds and, in some instances, thousands of them attached. In Florence (Italy) the city council hacked 5500 padlocks off the Ponte Vecchio bridge in one clear up, while over in Dublin (Ireland) a spokesman for the city council commented in early 2012 that the fixing of padlocks on the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey “had only started happening in the last few months and we’re asking people not to do it because they are damaging the paintwork.”
Nothing, then in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 the press is full of stories about love locks across Europe, in Asia (even of the Great Wall of China), in South America and in North America – they are even to be found along the Wild Pacific Trail on Vancouver Island.
Enter the Italian author, screenwriter and film director Federico Moccia, whose best known book Ho voglia di te (I want you) was published in 2006 and made into a movie in 2007. As part of the plot a young man (the story’s protagonist) convinces a potential girlfriend of a legend in which lovers wrap a lock and chain around a lamp-post, located on the northside of the Ponte Milvio bridge in Rome, lock it and throw the key into the River Tiber.
“And then?” the girl asks.
And he replies “We’ll never leave each other.” (OK, well perhaps not until the morning after.)
In an interview in The New York Times in August 2007, Signor Moccia explained that he invented the whole ritual because he “liked the idea of tying locks to love”. But then the book sold over one million copies. Then the movie came out. And then life began imitating art (or what folklorists call ostension or legend tripping – the real-life imitation of elements from a well-known story) as locks and chains started appearing on, first, the Ponte Milvio but subsequently on other bridges.
In some parts of the world, local authorities are falling over themselves to remove love locks from bridges whereas in other places, such as the Most Ljubavi bridge in Vrnjacka Banja (Serbia) entire tourist industries have been created out of the love lock myth. And long may it continue although I personally prefer the version of the legend that says if two lovers write their names on cheques and send it to a writer, they will never leave each other.
• The love locks in my picture were photographed on a small bridge over the Certovka canal in Prague (Czech Republic) – this is not the better-known Charles Bridge in Prague (the one Michael Hutchence is seen walking across looking all moody in the 1988 video for the INXS track Never Tear Us Apart) but a smaller one close to the John Lennon Wall. And, if you are wondering about the little figure in the background, near to the old mill wheel, that is a statue of a pipe-smoking water sprite or vodnik called Kabourek, who is reputed to live in the canal. That is when he’s not drinking beer in the local taverns, with his legs in a bucket of water so he can soak his webbed feet. But this takes us into the realms of European folklore and that’s another story.
* Charles Christian can be found lurking at UrbanFantasist.com – talking of the B52s, here’s the author (cunningly disguised in a blue romper suit but he’s meant to be Austin Powers, with the B52s and Felicity Shagwell in Las Vegas last summer.