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Australia Urban Legends
The pioneering Aussie folklorist Bill Scott in 1969 took early notice of urban legends in his country when he discussed local versions of “The Ready-Mix Concrete Driver” (i.e., “The Solid Cement Cadillac”) in a short article titled “Current Folk Tales” published in the magazine Australian Tradition. This led an American folklorist, Richard A. Reuss, to respond with an essay in the same magazine that identified this story and several others as international urban legends. Scott was intrigued by this revelation, and in his many following books and articles he continued to collect and publish Australian urban legends, as well as more traditional folklore from Down Under. He reprinted the original 1969 essays in his Complete Book of Australian Folk Lore (1976, pp. 359–363) and also included a chapter devoted to “Urban Folktales” in his 1985 book The Long and the Short and the Tall (pp. 223–251). The final story in the latter compilation, titled “Not Worth Going Back to Sleep,” is a version of “The Baby Train” given a distinctive Australian style.

Bill Scott’s most recent published contribution to the study of Australian urban legends was his 1996 book Pelicans and Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends. The title refers to the local version of the “Pet Nabber” story in which a small domestic animal is carried off by a large wild bird. Scott reported 14 different versions of the missing Chihuahua story. A master storyteller, author, and folksinger himself, Bill Scott maintained a wide correspondence with other folklore enthusiasts worldwide before he passed away in December 2005 at the age of 82. His neatly typewritten letters often included stories he had heard recently, some of which never found their way into one of his books.
Here is an example from a letter to me sent in March 2000:

A rich Melbourne woman decided she was getting too many wrinkles on her face and decided to have a face lift at a cosmetic surgery. The surgeon had finished half the task (not specified whether top, lower, or just one side) when the anesthetist called an emergency halt to the operation; she had suffered a heart attack and was in serious condition. So the operation was suspended while they worked on her to save her life. The condition of her heart forbade any further work on the face lift, so now she is back in circulation half young, half middle-aged!

Books by other Australian folklore collectors are titled (or subtitled) similarly to Scott’s (and my own), with reference to a favorite Australian story. Journalist Amanda Bishop in 1988 published a small collection titled The Gucci Kangaroo and Other Australian Urban Legends, referring to “The Kangaroo Thief” legend. Folklorist Graham Seal in 1995 published a somewhat larger collection titled Great Australian Urban Myths: Granny on the Roofrack and Other Tales of Modern Horror. In
2001, Seal published a revised and expanded collection of his Australian “urban myths” combining the stories from his first book with many others; his subtitle of the new book, The Cane Toad High, refers to stories about adolescents trying to get high by licking the backs of cane toads where, supposedly, a hallucinogenic agent is secreted.

Most urban legends told in Australia appear to be localized versions of modern stories that are known around the world. Legends such as “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” “The Choking Doberman,” “The Hare Dryer,” “Blackout Babies,” “The Baby Train,” and many others circulate Down Under in texts that might have been told in England or the United States, except for the overlay of Australian place-names and slang. Other legends—including “The Elevator Incident” and “The Kidney Heist”—are told about Australians traveling abroad, often to the United States, but the essentials of their plots are consistent with versions told elsewhere. As in other countries, newspapers in Australia often publish scraps of bizarre stories that seem to be nothing more than urban legends then making the rounds.

Two international urban legends have deep roots in Australian tradition, as evidenced by references to them in literary sources of the late nineteenth century. James Brunton Stephens (known as “the Queensland poet”) incorporated the old story of the eaten pet (a dog, in this instance) in his poem from about 1888 titled “My Other Chinese Cook”; in about 1899, Henry Lawson wrote “The Loaded Dog,” based on the legend (“The Animal’s Revenge”) of the dog wired with explosives that turns on its tormentors. A more recent example of Australian writing incorporating an urban legend is Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss (made into a film in 1985), which describes a circus elephant sitting on a  small red car.

Gwenda Beed Davey, in her entry on “Modern Legends” in The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore (1993, edited by Davey and Graham Seal) declares that “it is hard to identify a specifically Australian contemporary legend,” and, in fact, she demonstrates that no collector has nominated any “uniquely Australian” modern legends. Even stories like “The Kangaroo Thief,” concerning a unique Australian animal, are widely told elsewhere, both in the Australian setting or adapted to other locations; it is unlikely that the kangaroo versions are any older than those that feature, say, a North American deer, elk, or bear as the wild animal, which is presumed dead, then recovers and makes off with a person’s property (coat, passport, rifle, camera, etc.).

A few modern legends from Australia do seem to have a distinctly Down Under flavor and are not known to be told elsewhere. Amanda Bishop, for example, tells the story of “The Clever Dog,” a stockman’s dog that is sent back to camp for help after its owner is thrown from a horse and breaks his leg. The stockman sticks a note asking for help in his hatband and ties the hat to the dog’s collar. But the dog, instead of seeking help, simply jumps on the stockman’s bunk back at camp and goes to sleep. The man is rescued only when his mates follow the loose horse’s tracks back to the scene of the accident.

Other candidates for Australian originality in urban legends are certainly the stories dealing with local celebrities, not well known abroad; chief among these are the businessmen Sir Frank Packer, Kerry Packer, and Reg Ansett. Other distinctly Australian legends are told about local politicians and entertainers. Another story that Graham Seal nominated in his two collections for possibly having a distinctly Aussie flavor is “The Airline Steward’s Revenge.” After being snubbed by a snooty first-class passenger, the steward is asked by her husband, “My wife was wondering about the situation with domestic help in Australia.” Demonstrating the “rapier-sharp wit of the Aussie bloke,” as Seal puts it, the steward replies, “I’m sure madam will have no trouble at all finding a job.”

Graham Seal has suggested that Australian urban legends “relate closely to our traditions of irreverence, independence, and the colloquial.” This is well illustrated in a story he titled “Piss Off, Reg!” (The prominent Australian businessman referred to here is Sir Reginald Myles “Reg” Ansett [1909–1981], founder of Ansett Airlines and other major companies.)

An ambitious businessman was lunching with a potential client in a classy Brisbane restaurant. Anxious to impress the client in order to win his business, the businessman gave a grandiose description of his abilities and the results he could obtain. Just then he noticed that Reg Ansett had entered the restaurant and joined a group of high-flying financiers at a nearby table. This was too good an opportunity to miss. The businessman excused himself and, although not acquainted with Reg, approached his table and asked to speak with him. Reg granted him an audience, and the businessman said, “Look Reg, you don’t know me froma bar of soap, but would you mind giving a fellow businessman a leg up? All you have to do is say, ‘Hello, very pleased to meet you again’ as I go out with my client. Would you do that for me?” Reg, in a relaxed mood after a lunchtime wine, generously agreed. The businessman thanked him profusely, embarrassingly even, then returned to his table and the waiting client. They finished their drinks, the businessmen paid the bill and walked towards the door with his client. Sure enough, as they passed, Reg Ansett kept his word and hailed the man like a long-lost friend. The businessman looked down. “Piss off, Reg, can’t you see I’m busy
with an important client?”

Despite the appropriateness of the “Piss off, Reg” story to the Australian character, the anecdote has at least one variation set elsewhere. David Holt and Bill Mooney in their popular anthology The Exploding Toilet (2004, see bibliography) tell a version in which Mick Jagger is the celebrity involved while dining in a Santa Monica, California, restaurant. The punch line is “Oh, Mick, stop being such a pest! Can’t you see I’m taking an important meeting?”

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