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

Racehorse And Writer

Eric Blair, alias George Orwell, from a 1943 photograph

1932: An easy victory in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket ensured that Orwell was firm favourite to win the Derby in June. Punters bet heavily on the colt, but he lacked the staying power needed for the longer Epsom race, and finished a long way down the field. At Doncaster, three months later, he had the chance to redeem himself in the St. Leger, but again ran poorly. Win or lose, though, the name Orwell appeared prominently and repeatedly in the sports pages.

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Solomon And Sheba

1931: The new Ethiopian constitution declared that the country’s emperor, “His Majesty Hailè Sellassié”, was a direct descendant of “King Solomon of Jerusalem and of the Queen of Ethiopia, known as the Queen of Sheba”.

Source: Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia 1931 (1941), p. 13

“Paisley Snail”

1928: May Donoghue worked as a shop assistant in Glasgow. She was 30 years old. On the evening of 26 August, she visited the Wellmeadow Café in nearby Paisley with a friend, who treated her to an ice-cream float. The café owner brought a tumbler of ice cream and a bottle of ginger beer, which he poured over the ice cream. (Important detail: the bottle was made of dark, opaque glass.) Donoghue consumed some of the float. When her friend refilled the tumbler, a decomposed snail slid out of the bottle. Donoghue felt unwell.

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Charged As Freight

1927: After gold was discovered in the New Guinea province of Morobe, Cecil Levien set up Guinea Airways to link the remote inland goldfields to the coast. “Passenger fares,” it was announced, “will be A£25 for Europeans. Natives will be charged as freight.”

Source: Anthony Sampson, Empires of the Sky: The Politics, Contests and Cartels of World Airlines (1984), pp. 115–16

Retarded Youngsters

1926: Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Florence Goodenough established a rough correlation between the amount of English spoken in immigrant households in the United States, and the intelligence of children from those households. Correlation and causation are not the same thing, however, and Goodenough cast doubt on the possibility that “the use of a foreign language in the home” might be “one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation as measured by intelligence tests”.

Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology, October 1926

Licking Like Dogs

1925: Shortly after immigrating to the United States, Inagaki Etsu witnessed something she had never seen in Japan – a man kissing a woman. In A Daughter of the Samurai, she described how her train had come to a halt, and a man had rushed on board, thrown his arms around a passenger and kissed her several times. “And she did not mind it, but blushed and laughed, and they went off together.” The young Japanese traveller, nonplussed, had recalled her mother’s words: “I have heard, my daughter, that it is the custom for foreign people to lick each other as dogs do.”

Source: Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai (1933), p. 184

Blue With Cold

1924: Nguyen Ai Quoc was in Moscow when Lenin died in January. Nguyen had changed his name from Nguyen Tat Thanh; later he would change it again, to Ho Chi Minh. Nguyen still hadn’t fully adapted to European winters. He went to pay homage to the dead Soviet leader dressed only in light clothing. When he returned to his room after hours in the bitter Moscow cold, his “face was blue, and the ears, nose, and fingers on the hands were blue, too”.

Source: William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life (2000), pp. 96–7

Schoolgirl Jibe

1923: Sitting in the autumn sun in Berlin’s Botanical Garden, Franz Kafka was distracted from his Kafkaesque thoughts by a bunch of passing schoolgirls. One of them – blond, leggy, boyish – gave Kafka “a coquettish smile, turning up the corners of her little mouth and calling out something” to him. Kafka didn’t quite catch what she said. He smiled back at her. The pretty girl and her friends stared at him. Then he realised what she had said: “Jew.”

Source: Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Years of Insight (2013), pp. 544–5

Bathtub Gin

1922: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s recipe for bathtub gin: in a large container, mix two parts alcohol to three parts distilled water; in a second container, mix 80 drops of juniper berry oil, 40 drops of coriander oil and three drops of aniseed oil; place five drops of the oil mixture in 23 ounces of the alcohol–water mixture; add an ounce of sweetening – liquid rock candy syrup is best.

Source: Sarah Churchwell, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013), p. 148

Abortifacient

1921: The author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, took her surname from her mother’s second husband. Mary’s first marriage had lasted only a year and a half; Patricia was born nine days after her parents divorced. Halfway through the pregnancy, Mary had tried unsuccessfully to induce a miscarriage. Years later, she remarked to her daughter, “It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine” – funny because that was what she had drunk to abort the foetus.

Source: Andrew Wilson, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2010), pp. 20–2

Prince Charming

1920: At a small railway station on the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia, aborigines put on a display of dancing and throwing spears and boomerangs for the visiting Prince of Wales. The prince, the future Edward VIII, was not amused. He wrote to his friend Freda Dudley Ward that the display was a “native stunt”, which he loathed, and that the aborigines were the “lowest known form of human beings & are the nearest thing to monkeys I’ve ever seen”. Prince Charming!

Source: Edward, Prince of Wales, Letters from a Prince: Edward, Prince of Wales to Mrs Freda Dudley Ward March 1918–January 1921, ed. Rupert Godfrey (1998), p. 348

“Basket Case”

1919: “Basket case”, in its original sense, referred not to an economy gone to pot, but was American military slang for a soldier who had lost all four limbs on the battlefield and needed to be literally carried around in a basket.

Source: Jonathon Green, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2005), p. 75

Talented Bank Clerk

T.S. Eliot, photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1934

1917: The literary world regarded T.S. Eliot, after the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, in terms of his poetry, but Lloyds Bank, where Eliot commenced work in 1917, viewed him in terms of his clerical skills. A more senior Lloyds employee whom the literary scholar I.A. Richards bumped into offered an assessment of Eliot the bank clerk: “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why – in time, of course, in time – he mightn’t even become a Branch Manager.”

Source: Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971), p. 94

“Back Of ’Is ’Ead”

1916: While on night patrol in no man’s land, a grenade exploded in Captain Harold Macmillan’s face. His corporal explained what happened next: “Well, sir. I saw the German trying to run away. So I ’it ’im, and ’is ’elmet came off. Then I ’it ’im again and the back of ’is ’ead came off.”

Source: Alistair Horne, Macmillan 1894–1956 (1988), p. 43

Mail-Order Brides

1915: “If you want any French women there are plenty here, and they are very good looking,” wrote Umed Sing Bist in a letter from France to Sali Seok, in India. “If you really want any I can send one to you in a parcel.”

Source: Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18, ed. David Omissi (1999), p. 123

Three Categories

Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographed on board the Antarctic exploration vessel Aurora, between about 1914 and 1917

1914: Sir Ernest Shackleton announced in a letter in The Times that he intended to lead an expedition across Antarctica. Response was enthusiastic. Nearly 5,000 would-be polar explorers applied to accompany him. Shackleton placed their letters in three large drawers labelled “Possible”, “Hopeless” and “Mad”.

Source: Hugh Robert Mill, The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1923), p. 195

Mitford Connection

Unity Mitford, sketched by William Acton in 1937

1913: In view of her future infatuation with Adolf Hitler, it was appropriate that Unity, the fourth of the Mitford daughters, was conceived in the Canadian gold-mining town of Swastika.

Source: Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family (2001), p. 33

Zzxjoanw

1912: The Music Lovers’ Cyclopedia, edited by Rupert Hughes, defined zzxjoanw as a Maori word meaning “drum”, “fife” or “conclusion”. It would be a difficult word to pronounce in any language, and more so in Maori, which does not contain the letters z, x or j. (Evidence that editors are not without a sense of humour.)

Source: Michael Quinion, Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Language Myths (2005), p. 278

Statistical Inquiries

Sir Francis Galton, photographed by Eveleen Myers

1911: Sir Francis Galton was inclined to measure whatever was measurable (“Count wherever you can”): the plump curves of an African woman (by means of a sextant and trigonometry); the time taken for a headmaster to thrash schoolboys (eight minutes for 11 boys); “Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer”; and a map showing the distribution of beauty across Britain (the prettiest girls were in London and the plainest in Aberdeen).

Source: Martin Brookes, Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton (2004), pp. 24, 83–5, 183–6, 240

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.

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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