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

Final Breath

1977: The novelist Vladimir Nabokov died in a Swiss hospital (window carelessly left open, bronchitis) at the age of 78. Véra, his wife, and Dmitri, his son, were in the room. With his last breath, said Dmitri, his father emitted “a triple moan of descending pitch”.

Source: The Observer, 25 October 2009

Lady Killer

1976: The Sex Pistols weren’t all spittle and swear words. Nils Stevenson, their tour manager, recalled that Johnny Rotten “was incredibly charming with landladies; he really did have a way with older women”.

Source: John Robb, Punk Rock: An Oral History (2006), p. 227

Global Cooling

1975: “There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production,” warned a science story in Newsweek. “The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” What evidence? A shorter growing season in Britain, drought near the equator, lots of tornadoes in the United States. “The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down.”

Source: Newsweek, 28 April 1975

V For Victory

Richard Nixon signals V for victory as he leaves the White House, photographed by Ollie Atkins

1974: Faced with impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States. Even in utter disgrace, Nixon managed a final act of bravado. As he climbed aboard the helicopter that would whisk him away from the White House, he lifted both arms and stuck out his fingers in a V sign – V for victory.

Source: Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973–1990 (1991), p. 445

Forcible Removal

1973: In certain parts of medieval Switzerland it was the practice to cut an ear off any loitering gypsies. The message from the sedentary population was clear: go away and stay away.

In 20th-century Switzerland the charity Pro Juventute separated the children of Jenisch travelling people from their parents and placed them in orphanages or with foster parents among the wider community, so as to “improve” the children through education. In time, it was hoped, the supposed scourge of nomadism would be removed and the Jenisch way of life would fade away.

Between 1926 and 1973 the Kinder der Landstrasse (“Children of the Open Road”) project systematically and often forcibly removed over 700 Jenisch children from their parents, until a Swiss magazine exposed what was happening, and public outrage forced it to end.

Source: Mitya New, Switzerland Unwrapped: Exposing the Myths (1997), pp. 108–9

“Clinical Material”

1972: For 40 years, black men in Alabama were the unwitting participants in a Public Health Service study of the effects of untreated syphilis. From 1932 until 1972, when The Associated Press broke the story, the Tuskegee Study followed the progress of the disease in a group of 399 men. No effort was made to cure the men. When penicillin became available for the treatment of syphilis, it was deliberately withheld from them, since its use would interfere with the experiment. By the time the study was terminated, at least 28 and possibly as many as 100 of the participants had died from complications caused by the disease. “They were subjects, not patients;” James H. Jones observed in Bad Blood, “clinical material, not sick people.”

Source: James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1993), pp. 1–2, 179

War By Numbers

1969: In 1968 and 1969, the United States dropped on South Vietnam one and a half times the tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany by all the Allies during the Second World War.

By 1969, the explosive force of the bombs dropped on North Vietnam each month was equivalent to two atomic bombs.

Up to the end of 1971, the United States had dropped 6.3 million tons of bombs on Indochina – more than three times the amount it dropped in all theatres during the Second World War.

In South Vietnam alone, there were 21 million bomb craters.

Source: Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young and H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: A Documented History (1985), p. 461

Legacy Of Empire

1967: The British imperial presence in Aden ended on 29 November. Sir Richard Turnbull, the last-but-one high commissioner, had remarked that when the British Empire finally disappeared it would leave behind only two monuments: “one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’ ”.

Source: Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), p. 358

“Black Wave Of Muck”

1966: Just after nine on the morning of Friday, 21 October, one of the colliery waste tips that loomed over the Welsh mining village of Aberfan collapsed. A wave of mining slag and loose rock slipped down the mountainside, burying Pantglas Junior School and 20 houses in the village. Altogether, 144 people died; 116 of them were children.

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Let Stalk Strine

1965: Let Stalk Strine offered Poms, Yanks and others a glimpse of Strine – English with an Australian twang. A few examples:
share: shower, either the bathroom or meteorological sort, as in a “cole share” or “scadded shares and thunnerstorms”
egg jelly: in fact, really
air fridge: ordinary, not extreme, as in “the air fridge person”
tea nature: adolescent
baked necks: a popular breakfast dish
rise up lides: used by men for shiving
split nair dyke: continuous and severe pain in the head
londger ray: women’s underclothing
ebb tide: hunger, desire for food (“I dono watser matter, I jess got no ebb tide these dyes.”)
nerve sprike tan: mental collapse caused by stress, anxiety, etc. (“He never let sarp, marm. He’ll ever nerve sprike tan the waze goane.”)

Source: Afferbeck Lauder, Let Stalk Strine: A Lexicon of Modern Strine Usage (1965)

Clever Housewife

1964: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to British scientist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin for her “determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”, notably penicillin and vitamin B12. The Daily Mail’s headline: “Nobel prize for British wife”.

Source: Daily Mail, 30 October 1964

Literal Line

1963: The Green Line in Cyprus, separating the fractious Greek and Turkish communities, originated literally as a green line on a map. An upsurge of violence in December subsided after Britain’s Major-General Peter Young persuaded representatives of the two sides to accept a dividing line in Nicosia, the island’s capital. “Time and time again his green chinagraph pencil retraced the line across the talc of his field map, only to be rubbed out and changed in direction to suit the requirements of one side or the other. At last the pencil wavered no more – and the Green Line was finally and irrevocably drawn.”

Source: Michael Harbottle, The Impartial Soldier (1970), p. 67

Teething Troubles

1962: America’s first space mission to another planet came to a very premature end. The Mariner 1 spacecraft was supposed to fly past Venus, but the rocket carrying the spacecraft began to behave erratically soon after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, forcing NASA to blow it up five minutes into the flight. A post-mortem attributed the failure to a missing symbol in the guidance program. Dubbed “the most expensive hyphen in history”, the omission of the symbol (actually an overline rather than a hyphen) allowed incorrect guidance signals to throw the rocket wildly off course.

Source: Paul E. Ceruzzi, Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age (1989), pp. 202–3

Lift-off of the rocket carrying the ill-fated Mariner 1 spacecraft

Surgeon And Patient

1961: When Leonid Rogozov, a member of the Soviet team at the Novolazarevskaya base in Antarctica, fell ill with nausea, a high temperature and abdominal pains, the diagnosis was straightforward: acute appendicitis. Evacuation by sea or air, in the middle of the polar winter, was out of the question; Rogozov would have to be operated on at the base. And since Rogozov was the team doctor, that meant he would have to operate on himself.

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Menace Of Measles

1960: Before the discovery of a vaccine, most children in the United States had to endure a bout of measles; it was part of growing up. Many suffered nothing worse than three or four days in bed with a rash, a temperature and a cough, but complications and fatalities could and did occur.

Between 1912 and 1916 measles-related deaths averaged 5,300 a year – 26 deaths for every 1,000 reported cases. By the late 1950s the mortality rate had declined to less than one death for every 1,000 cases, but with an average of 542,000 cases of measles annually between 1956 and 1960, this still amounted to a significant number of deaths: 530 in 1956, 389 in 1957, 552 in 1958, 385 in 1959 and 380 in 1960.

Source: The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 1 May 2004

Effing Remarks

1959: Kenneth Tynan’s effing remark on a late-night satire show on BBC television in 1965 had many viewers foaming at the mouth (moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse suggested Tynan should have his bottom smacked).

In contrast, similar language during a teatime magazine programme on Ulster Television six years earlier attracted little response. Perhaps the viewers of Roundabout were paying more attention to their tea than to the telly. Live on air, the man who painted the railings alongside the River Lagan in Belfast was asked whether he got bored doing the same job all year round. His reply: “Of course it’s fucking boring.”

Source: Joe Moran, Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV (2013), pp. 6–8

Humane Chains

1958: Western Australia’s deputy commissioner of police defended the use of ankle chains on Aboriginal prisoners at Hall’s Creek. In fact, according to Hugh McLernon, chaining had a humane purpose: it left the prisoners’ hands free to brush off insects.

Source: The Herald, 20 March 1958

Drastic Diet

Maria Callas, as she appeared in a CBS television talk show in 1958

1957: Magazines and newspapers marvelled when Maria Callas managed to shed 28 kilograms in 11 months; they carried before-and-after photographs of her transformation from a frumpy 92 kilos to a slender 64.

Callas lost weight by strict adherence to a diet of one meal a day, small servings of fresh fruit and raw meat, no pasta, no bread and no alcohol. But when the opera singer later became infested with a tapeworm (probably consumed with the raw meat), gossip columnists gleefully suggested that she had deliberately swallowed it as part of a diet regimen.

Source: Anne Edwards, Callas: Her Life, Her Loves, Her Music (2001), pp. 115, 116, 160, 161

Shabby End To Career

Nina Hamnett, portrayed by Roger Fry in 1917

1956: In the 1920s, Nina Hamnett was a promising artist, but by the 1930s and ’40s she had become a shabby figure who spent too little time in the studio and far too much time in the pubs and clubs of London’s Fitzrovia and Soho. “She was dirty, smelt of stale bar-rooms, and very pathetic.” At the York Minster pub, she made her favourite seat indelibly hers by urinating on it; sometimes she would be sick into her handbag before staggering home at night. On 13 December 1956 she fell from the window of her upstairs flat in Paddington and was impaled on the railings below. She died a few days later.

Source: Denise Hooker, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia (1986), pp. 184, 242, 250, 258

Blake Versus Parks

Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background, photographed in about 1955

1955: Driver Jim Blake must have thought he was simply enforcing regulations when he ordered four black passengers on his bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to give up their seats for a white man. Instead, Blake’s action on the afternoon of 1 December provoked the Montgomery bus boycott, a milestone in the American civil rights movement.

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Speed Readers

1954: Jack and Bobby Kennedy attended a speed reading course in Baltimore, but Jack’s later claim to be able to read 1,200 words a minute – three or four times the average – was probably exaggerated.

Source: James P. Pfiffner, The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents (2004), p. 28

Sensitive Stomach

1952: A severe case of amoebic dysentery earlier in his career meant that Sir Evelyn Baring, the new governor of Kenya, suffered from indifferent health. He was prone to bouts of exhaustion and debilitating intestinal pain and his stomach was “so sensitive that he would pick out the small slivers of orange peel from his marmalade before spreading it on his morning toast”.

Source: Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (2005), pp. 34, 381

Bump In The Road

1951: The National Safety Council reckoned that towards the end of the year the total number of deaths from traffic accidents in the United States since the advent of the automobile would reach 1 million. In December, the millionth death was reached and passed, like a bump in the road.

Source: The New York Times, 24 December 1951

Slugs And Shaws

George Bernard Shaw, photographed in 1925

1950: The playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw died on 2 November. Three weeks later, in accordance with the terms of his will, his ashes were mingled with those of his wife, who had died in 1943, and scattered in the garden of their village home.

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Christie Lends A Hand

1949: Agatha Christie joined her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, at Nimrud, in Iraq. Christie lent a hand, cleaning ivories recovered from the excavations. She discovered that a very fine knitting needle and her face cream were “more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices”. She used so much cream that within a couple of weeks “there was nothing left for my poor old face”.

Source: Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (1977), pp. 456–7