Smile, darn ya, smile!

If there’s one thing the Internet has revolutionised, it’s the urban legend. Time was when you’d have to work for your insane rumours. These days a good story can be invented, spread round the world and debunked by Snopes by lunchtime. How did we ever manage without it?

I was recently reminded of a London urban legend that predates the Internet – or at least, widespread use of it. It seems to have originated in the 1980s. I heard it as a schoolchild in the mid-’90s. I am speaking of the Chelsea Smilers.

Blue Transit Van. Like the one from the urban legend.The Smilers, so the story goes, were a gang of football hooligans. Depending which version of the story you hear, they would either roam the streets of South London, travel around in a blue Transit Van or – if you looked particularly easy to scare – would go door-to-door.

Details varied, but the basic essence of the story was this. The Smilers would confront you and ask you if you supported Chelsea Football Club (soccer team, for the benefit of any United Stateseans who may be reading). Possibly they would ask you a series of trivia questions to prove it. In the version I was told, they would then slice the corners of your mouth – upwards if you said yes, downwards if you said no. Then they would punch you hard, so you’d scream, thus ripping your mouth into a permanent smile or frown. Some versions would add that they would then pour something on the wound, usually vinegar, so the scars wouldn’t heal properly. I’m surprised no one suggested ink.

The Joker supports Chelsea.

There are a million variants on the story. Some say that they only cut you if you don’t support Chelsea, and then only in the form of the smile. Some say this was only practised by criminal gangs in Chelsea (presumably they march around in tailored suits, terrifying onlookers with their white-collar fraud and cold-blooded acts of insider trading). To be honest, while I don’t deny that such crimes may have happened – such scarring is known as the “Glasgow smile” and, so says the Daily Express, a case is treated every day by Scotland’s hospitals. But I’ve yet to see any real evidence that the Chelsea Smilers exist.

Still, I went to school in South-West London and it was a damn fine scary story. And that’s what’s important.

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Filed under 20th Century, Brixton, Crime, History, Lies, London, London Underground, Suburbia

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