When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

When Grandpa Was a Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

A Popular History of the 20th Century

Ghostly Music

1910: On 11 December, the German steamship Palermo ran aground off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Its cargo included accordions, and their music was said to have wafted ashore from the stricken vessel, although that’s a story that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Source: Rafael Lema Mouzo, Catálogo de Naufragios: Costa da Morte – Galicia (2014), p. 27

Never Give Up

Robert Peary, photographed in 1909 by Benjamin B. Hampton

1909: Did Robert Peary lead the first expedition to reach the North Pole? Did he really get there?

Many believed Peary’s claim that he and a party of five reached the Pole on 6 April, but others were sceptical. Doubters pointed out that Peary’s expedition notes were scanty and slapdash; none of his companions during the final attempt on the Pole was capable of making navigational observations; and some of the distances Peary claimed to have covered across the Arctic pack ice were frankly incredible.

Continue reading

Reger’s Retort

German composer and pianist Max Reger

1906: Writing in the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten on 7 February, music critic Rudolf Louis panned Max Reger’s Sinfonietta for “conjuring up the illusion of significance by a thousand contrapuntal tricks”.

Reger bristled. “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house,” he wrote in reply. “I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” (“Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nachsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein.”)

Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 139

Forcibly Ejected

1905: Richard Creedon was employed as a “sandhog” – one of the labourers who constructed the tunnels for New York’s subway system. On 27 March, while he was working in a pressurised air chamber beneath the bed of the East River, the roof of the chamber sprang a leak. Creedon attempted to plug the hole, but it suddenly widened into a blowout, and the pressurised air forced him through the hole, like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Creedon was propelled through 8 metres of silt and water, flung high into the air, then dumped in the river. Although dazed, he was unhurt, and claimed, with a touch of bravado: “I was flying through the air, and before I comes down I had a fine view of the city.”

Source: New York History, January 1999

Sign Of Maturity

Edith Sitwell, painted by Roger Fry in 1915

1904: Writing home from Paris, where she had been sent to finish her education, 17-year-old Edith Sitwell described the changes to her pubescent body: “I am growing eyebrows. One can see them distinctly.”

Source: Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius (2011), p. 48

Tiger At The Raffles

1902: Staff at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore were scared out of their wits one night when a tiger peered into the billiard room. Like many buildings in Southeast Asia, the billiard room was raised off the ground to protect against flooding. Next morning the tiger was discovered hiding beneath the room. A marksman was summoned, and the animal was shot and killed. The tiger, it transpired, was absent without leave from a nearby circus. Over the coming years, various accounts embroidered the story of the tiger, the last to be shot in Singapore. Instead of being shot under the billiard room, it was shot in the billiard room under the billiard table.

Source: Ilsa Sharp, There Is Only One Raffles: The Story of a Grand Hotel (1981), pp. 35–7

Death In Balangiga

1901: Uncle Sam arrived in the Philippines as a liberator and stayed on as a coloniser. Filipinos resisted, of course, but they were no match for the U.S. Army. One of the few Filipino successes was at Balangiga, on the island of Samar. On 28 September, armed only with machetes, guerrillas surprised the American garrison at breakfast, killing 54 and wounding 20 out of 78. American retribution was brutal. General Jacob Smith promised to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” and ordered his troops to kill all islanders aged 10 or over.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Balangiga_massacre

Mailed Fist

1900: Angered by tram workers on strike in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II dispatched a tetchy telegram to the commander of the Guards Corps: “I expect at least five hundred people to be shot when the troops intervene.”

Source: John C.G. Röhl, Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile 1900–1941 (2014), p. 139

Clinging On

1999: New York City hospitals recorded 1,791 deaths in the first week of 2000, an increase of 50.9 per cent from the 1,187 deaths during the corresponding period of January 1999 and 46.1 per cent more than the figure of 1,226 for the final week of December 1999. In the absence of bitterly cold weather, an influenza epidemic or some other explanatory factor, experts on ageing surmised that very sick people had simply clung on to life so that they could see in the new millennium.

Source: The New York Times, 15 January 2003

Political Novices

Tony Blair, photographed by Jing Ulrich in 2011

1997: The Labour Party returned to power after 18 years in opposition; not since the middle of the 19th century had an incoming Cabinet possessed so little experience of government. When the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock congratulated Tony Blair on his election victory, the prime minister replied, “OK, wise guy. What do we do now?”

Source: Andrew Rawnsley, Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour (2000), p. 17

“Cows In Sheds”

1996: In Afghanistan, Taliban prohibitions on music, dancing, television, videos, films, keeping pigeons and flying kites applied to both sexes.

Other restrictions applied solely to women: no work outside the home, no school, no university, no leaving home without a male relative, no travelling on the same bus as men, no treatment by male doctors, no brightly coloured clothes, no loud laughter, no cosmetics, no noisy shoes, no white socks.

“Life for women under the Taliban,” complained a woman from Herat, “was no more than being cows in sheds.”

Sources: Rosemarie Skaine, The Women of Afghanistan under the Taliban (2002), pp. 156–60; Christina Lamb, Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World (2015), p. 414

Possible Crime Scene

1995: Crime writer P.D. James’s first novel wasn’t published until she was 42, but she admitted that death had interested her from an early age. “It fascinated me,” she said. “When I heard, ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,’ I thought, ‘Did he fall or was he pushed?’ ”

Source: The Paris Review, Summer 1995

Warriors In Tights

1994: During the prolonged conflicts in Chechnya, Russian soldiers believed implicitly that their Chechen adversaries were receiving assistance from an unlikely quarter: snipers from the newly independent Baltic states. Female snipers. The women, motivated by love of money and hatred of Russians, were alleged to be members of a biathlon team and could be identified by the white tights they wore.

Source: Questions de Recherche, March 2011

Cool Chronicles

1993: The Black Bible Chronicles translated the scriptures into the language of contemporary black America. “You shouldn’t diss the Almighty’s name,” because, “It ain’t cool and payback’s a monster.” That was the Commandment warning against taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Thou shalt not kill,” became, in the idiom of Detroit and Harlem, “Don’t waste nobody,” and, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” became, “Don’t mess around with someone else’s ol’ man or ol’ lady.”

Source: P.K. McCary, Black Bible Chronicles: Book One: From Genesis to the Promised Land (1993)

Snakes And Ladders

Václav Havel, photographed by Jiří Jiroutek

1990: Caught up in the snakes-and-ladders existence of the East European political dissident, the playwright Václav Havel began 1989 with a prison sentence and ended the year as president of Czechoslovakia. Asked a few months later how he felt to be propelled from prisoner of the state to head of state, Havel said: “If that door over there opened and they came to take me away I would not be at all surprised.”

Source: Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life (2014), p. 379

Difficult To Sleep

1989: Where would you hear “The Electric Spanking of War Babies”, by Funkadelic, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, and “Heaven’s on Fire”, by Kiss, played at maximum volume, 24 hours a day? At the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City.

When the deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega fled to the safety of the Apostolic Nunciature, American forces brought in loudspeakers and bombarded him and the hapless papal nuncio with non-stop hard rock and heavy metal.

Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 126

Reckless Driving

1988: The tradition whereby the victor in French presidential elections granted an amnesty for recent traffic offences led inadvertently to motorists driving with particular abandon in the months immediately before voting. Greater recklessness meant more road accidents; more road accidents meant more casualties. This was particularly noticeable before the presidential election of April and May 1988. In the last seven months of 1987 and 1988 the number of deaths on France’s roads were almost identical – 6,436 and 6,400 – but the figures for the first five months of each year were 3,425 and 4,077 – an increase of 652 deaths, almost one-fifth, during election year.

Source: Claude Got, La Violence Routière: Les Mensonges Qui Tuent (2008), pp. 57–64

Propitious Moment For Signing

Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan sign a missile treaty in the East Room of the White House on 8 December 1987

1987: The high point of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Washington was the signing, with his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, of a treaty on intermediate-range missiles. The ceremony took place on 8 December, at quarter to two in the afternoon. The White House was strangely insistent about the timing; it transpired that a Californian astrologer had advised Nancy Reagan (star sign Cancer) of the precise time that her husband (Aquarius) and Gorbachev (Pisces) should sign the agreement.

Source: Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (1995), p. 498

Almost Unbeatable

1986: Between 1980 and his retirement from the sport in 1993, Jahangir Khan dominated squash. The Pakistani player won approximately 825 professional matches and lost 29; he won the British Open 10 times and the World Open six times. His defeat in the final of the World Open in November 1986 was the first time he had lost a match for 5½ years.

Source: Rod Gilmour and Alan Thatcher, Jahangir Khan 555: The Untold Story behind Squash’s Invincible Champion and Sport’s Greatest Unbeaten Run (2016), chap. 9

Nasty New Meaning

1985: In South African townships, the word “necklace” took on a nasty new meaning. No longer referring exclusively to an item of women’s jewellery, from 1985 onwards it also began to mean a rubber tyre forced over the head and shoulders of a collaborator, an informer or a policeman, doused in petrol, and set on fire, resulting in a slow and painful death.

Source: Violence in South Africa: A Variety of Perspectives, ed. Elirea Bornman, René van Eeden and Marie Wentzel (1998), chap. 6

Instead Of A Tip

1984: Phyllis Penzo had worked at Sal’s Pizzeria, in the Yonkers suburb of New York, for 24 years. Since the late 1970s, police detective Robert Cunningham had been a regular customer. They were good friends.

One night, after his usual meal of linguine with clam sauce, Cunningham got Penzo to help him pick the numbers for a $1 state lottery ticket. Instead of tipping the waitress, Cunningham promised her half the prize money if they won.

When the lottery was drawn on 31 March, theirs were the only winning numbers: 7, 9, 21, 28, 29 and 43, with 35 as a supplementary number.

Penzo’s “tip” turned out to be worth $3 million.

Source: The New York Times, 3 April 1984

No Exceptions

American writer William Saroyan

1981: Despite doubting the veracity of “last sayings”, which he regarded as mostly “inventions of the survivors, members of the family, exploiters of truth and falsity”, the American author William Saroyan offered his own contribution shortly before prostate cancer killed him: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

Source: Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography (1984), p. 307