TOM UTLEY: How did we reach the point where people have more faith in lucky underpants than God? (And I'm one of them!)

Hardened cynics to a man, how my fellow regulars in the pub mocked me at lunchtime yesterday, when I admitted that for as long as I can remember I’ve had a pair of lucky underpants.

Before I go any further, I should stress that those I wear to bring me good fortune these days are not the same pair I reserved for important exams or job interviews in my childhood and early youth.?

These disintegrated many decades ago, to be followed by a succession of others — washed after every outing, I hasten to say — with an average lifespan of perhaps five or six years each.

Hardened cynics to a man, how my fellow regulars in the pub mocked me at lunchtime yesterday, when I admitted that for as long as I can remember I’ve had a pair of lucky underpants. (File photo)

Hardened cynics to a man, how my fellow regulars in the pub mocked me at lunchtime yesterday, when I admitted that for as long as I can remember I’ve had a pair of lucky underpants. (File photo)

But at every stage of my life, my underwear drawer has always contained one pair of pants I’ve singled out as special, to be worn on big occasions when I’ve felt in need of a helping hand from fate.

Perhaps I should also make clear that there has never been anything outwardly remarkable about the pair in question. My current lucky pants, if this is not too much information, are standard cotton boxer shorts from Marks & Sparks, with a discreet tartan design.

Indeed, before I blabbed to my drinking companions, and now to the rest of the world, only I knew they were imbued with magical, confidence-boosting properties.

Yes, I know that at my advanced age — 64 next week, and soon to be a grandfather — I ought to know better than to entertain such foolish thoughts. But I was emboldened to make my confession by research this week, which finds that I am very far from alone.

According to a survey of 2,000 adults in the UK by Wink Slots, an online gambling site, almost a quarter of us (24 per cent) have a pair of lucky pants. Among millennials aged 18-30, this figure soars to 65 per cent — of whom two-thirds wear theirs at sporting events, to bring good fortune to a favourite team.

Yet when I conducted my own straw poll in the pub, asking the half-dozen or so friends in our little group whether any of them also possessed lucky pants, they all laughed at me incredulously.

How, they wanted to know, could a supposedly educated man like me believe a pair of M&S boxers could bring good fortune? Wasn’t the age of superstition long dead?

But hang on a moment: were my sophisticated friends really telling me they are free of all superstitions?

Had they never broken a mirror, without experiencing a twinge of unease over the time-honoured fear that this might bring them seven years’ bad luck?

Did they open umbrellas indoors, or walk under ladders, without the faintest hint of wariness? Did they approach Friday the 13th like any other day? When they spilled the salt, had they never thrown a pinch of it over their left shoulder?

Had they never said ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezed; or touched wood, in the hope that it would bring them good luck?

One by one, they began to own up. Yes, of course they’d said ‘bless you’. It was only polite. As for touching wood, they’d all done it at one time or another — though none of my friends could explain why this was any more sensible than wearing lucky underpants.

A fellow smoker in our group admitted he felt uncomfortable to accept the third light from a single match, fearing that it would bring bad luck.?

This was because of an old superstition born in the trenches of the Great War (the first light in the darkness alerted the German sniper, at the second he took aim — and at the third he pulled the trigger).

A little sheepishly, another friend admitted he always wore a signet ring to bring his children luck when they sat exams. Another confessed he would never give anyone the present of a knife, without asking for a token payment (it’s bad luck to give knives, but fine to sell them).

At this point, we were joined by a woman colleague who was a veritable encyclopaedia of superstitions. I should never give loved ones shoes or gloves, she informed me — a new one on me.

Give them shoes, she said, and they’ll walk away. Give them gloves and they’ll wave goodbye. Turning to her own love life, she explained the reason she remained single was that many years ago, she had momentarily put a ring on her wedding finger, thereby condemning herself to a lifetime of spinsterhood.

Were my sophisticated friends really telling me they are free of all superstitions? Had they never broken a mirror, without experiencing a twinge of unease over the time-honoured fear that this might bring them seven years’ bad luck? (File photo)

Were my sophisticated friends really telling me they are free of all superstitions? Had they never broken a mirror, without experiencing a twinge of unease over the time-honoured fear that this might bring them seven years’ bad luck? (File photo)

Next, we got on to the proper way to ward off ill fortune if we were unlucky enough to see a lone magpie (‘One for sorrow, two for joy…’).

A variety of theories emerged. Some of our company believed we should salute and say ‘good morning’. Others took the view that we should spit over our left shoulder and cry out: ‘Devil, I defy thee.’

As for myself, I was able to pass on the wisdom handed down to me years ago by the late, venerable Bill Deedes — peer of the realm, former cabinet minister and newspaper editor, with whom I had the honour of sharing a desk.

He instructed me that the correct procedure was to salute three times and make the following speech: ‘Good afternoon, Mr Magpie, give my regards to your wife and fine children.’

I’ve adopted his advice ever since — though if there are other people around, I salute surreptitiously and deliver my greetings to the magpie under my breath. I commend his late lordship’s method to readers, since from that day to this, the sight of a lone magpie has never brought me bad luck. Touch wood.

But then I reckon just about all of us, no matter how sophisticated, respect one superstition or another, even those of us who realise how foolish we are to do so.

Certainly, hosts of famous people go through thoroughly unscientific rituals before facing big challenges. Among my fellow owners of lucky pants, for example, are the racing driver David Coulthard and the actor Colin Farrell.

Coulthard confesses he wore his pair, bought for him by his Auntie Elaine, to the point of destruction.

‘When I had an accident and they cut my overalls away,’ he says, ‘I had these pale blue boxer shorts on — or what was left of them — and I was sticking out all over the place.’

Perhaps not so lucky, then.

As for Farrell, he admits he has worn the same pair of shamrock shorts on the first day of filming of about seven movies so far. But, of course, actors are notorious for being superstitious. Before going on stage, it’s bad luck for them to wish each other ‘good luck’.

Instead, they say ‘break a leg’. And woe to the thespian who whistles in the theatre, accepts flowers before a performance or utters the taboo word ‘Macbeth’. If they must refer to the tragedy, it’s strictly ‘the Scottish play’.

This is not to mention that consummate actor-politician, Tony Blair, who admits he wore the same pair of brogues at Prime Minister’s Questions for 18 years, in government and opposition, to bring him luck. ‘I know it’s ridiculous,’ he says.

Indeed, I reckon a belief in the supernatural fills a fundamental need in human nature. Which brings me to a final, pious thought for the approaching season.

Among today’s generation of 18 to 30-year-olds, only a small and dwindling proportion would call themselves religious. Yet if 65 per cent of them think wearing lucky pants will help their team to victory in a football match, why do they find it so impossible to believe that God sent his son at Christmas to save mankind?

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