Motivation and superstition

My late father, Heartbeat author Peter Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea) in his study. He used to paste rejection letters to his walls to spur him on
My Dad’s study feels very empty without him in it

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 16th August 2017)

In the cottage where I grew up, Dad had a little study where he would do all his writing. I didn’t understand why he’d pasted hundreds of letters to the walls, which turned out to be rejection letters from publishers. Instead of being discouraged every time he received one, he stuck it to the wall and used it to motivate himself on to better things. That’s why he persisted after having 13 separate novels rejected by countless publishers before his first one eventually made it to print. I’m so impressed by people who possess this unshaken self-belief in the face of countless disappointments, where others would simply give up and walk away.

I recently watched a TV programme about sprinter Usain Bolt, and what surprised me most was that he claimed to lack motivation to train, especially, after he’d won his first Olympic gold medal. Once he’d become the best in the world, where else could he go? The trigger that shook him out of his apathy was when he discovered that people thought he was not the best anymore, and that his nearest rival declared he would beat Usain at the following Olympics. As soon as he heard that, he was back training harder than ever, and as he retired after the World Championships in London in July, he remained champion in the Olympic 100m, 200m and 100m relay. Like my Dad, people telling him he couldn’t achieve something just spurred him on, and that takes a particular kind of mental strength that many of us simply don’t possess.

In his column from 13th August 1977, Dad talks about cleaning his study and having to remove pictures from the walls, which prompted him to think about the superstitions associated with them.

Apparently, if a picture falls from a wall, it foretells the death of one of the inhabitants of the house. The belief varied from place to place, with some saying it was only valid if the glass broke, whereas for others, just the picture falling was enough to prophesy a loved one’s demise. There are other variations too, such as if the picture is a portrait, then that person will die, with others saying it doesn’t matter what is in the picture for it to spell doom. A similar bad omen is associated with mirrors – if one falls unexpectedly from the wall, then a death is imminent.

This made me wonder what other signs we should be mindful of if we are to avoid an untimely death.

Black cats have long been associated with both good and bad luck, and if you hear one meowing at midnight, it means a death is coming (although at midnight, it might be hard to see what colour the cat is!). Be afraid if a black cat sits on a sick person’s bed, and if one crosses the path of a funeral procession, as that foretells another death is not far away. A similar fear is held about white rabbits crossing your path.

Birds of varying kinds are portents of doom. Seeing a single crow or magpie is bad luck, although seeing two is good. Seeing six, though, spells death. If you open your door to a magpie staring at you, then go increase your life insurance policy at once, and if a bird flies into your house, cancel any plans you’ve made for the future. I could go on, but I fear you might never again open your front door if I do!

We moved from that cottage to a new house in 1981. We brought our pet cat, Marmalade, with us and at first she hated it! She fearfully slithered between rooms on her belly until finally she settled under the desk in Dad’s new study. The reason? She’d found the only piece of carpet that had come from the old house.


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