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

Fluent Cantonese

1986: Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents provided visitors to Hong Kong with the right phrases for unexpected situations:
“I forgot to wind up the doll.”
“A petty worker’s income is deplorable.”
“He was made so angry as to thump tables and throw bowls.”
“Many wizards hoodwink people all the time.”

Source: Zeng Zifan, Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents (1986), pp. 10, 54, 89, 119

Self-Loathing

Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, photographed in 1971 by Forrásjelölés Hasonló

1985: Petar Shapallo was a dentist from northern Albania who resembled the country’s Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha. After the secret police forced him to undergo plastic surgery, the likeness was even closer.

For years, Shapallo acted as the dictator’s double. He talked the way Hoxha talked, smiled the same reassuring smile, lost weight when Hoxha dieted, limped when Hoxha sprained his ankle.

When the Great Leader died, Shapallo lost his job. When communism collapsed, Shapallo was attacked by Albanians who feared he was the ghost of their despised leader. Shapallo loathed his appearance. When the torment became unbearable, he used a knife to gash and gouge his face.

Source: Lloyd Jones, Biografi: An Albanian Quest (1993), pp. 1–5

Deadly Witch-Hunts

1984: Between 1970 and 1984, police in 13 regions of mainland Tanzania recorded a total of 3,333 cases of witchcraft. This wasn’t harmless hocus-pocus: 1,407 men and 2,286 women suspected of being witches were murdered.

Source: Denise Roth Allen, Managing Motherhood, Managing Risk: Fertility and Danger in West Central Tanzania (2005), p. 249

Senior Comrades Drop Like Flies

Moscow by night, with Lenin’s mausoleum at the side of Red Square and the Kremlin behind, photographed by Andrew Shiva

1983: After years of arteriosclerosis, severe coronary disease, leukaemia and emphysema, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982 at the age of 75. Yuri Andropov was already seriously ill with chronic kidney disease and diabetes when he stepped into Brezhnev’s shoes, and died 15 months later. Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, suffered from emphysema, cirrhosis and hepatitis, and survived only 13 months in the top spot.

In the summer of 1983, and perhaps indicative of the doddery health of the Soviet leadership, an escalator was installed in the Kremlin to help ailing elderly comrades cope with the short climb to the platform on top of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square.

Source: Dmitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev (1998), pp. 371–2

Cactus Fights Back

Saguaro cactus, photographed in Arizona by Andrew Horne

1982: On 4 February, David Grundman drove out of Phoenix into the Arizona desert with one of his buddies, lots of beer and a shotgun. After a few drinks, Grundman began taking pot shots at saguaro cactuses. The smaller ones toppled over, but a big old saguaro stubbornly refused to fall. Grundman poked it with a stick. That dislodged an arm and then the whole cactus – more than a tonne in weight – wobbled and crashed down. Unfortunately for Grundman, it fell directly on its tormentor.

Source: Tom Miller, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen (2001), pp. 184–95

Smallpox Stamped Out

1979: After an intense global effort a special commission was able to certify, on 9 December, that smallpox had been eradicated from the world. The last person known to have been infected with naturally occurring smallpox, in October 1977, was Ali Maow Maalin, at the port of Merca, in Somalia. The disease was estimated to have killed 300 million people during the 20th century. The last fatality, in September 1978, was Janet Parker, who was exposed to the virus at the University of Birmingham Medical School.

Source: Ian and Jenifer Glynn, The Life and Death of Smallpox (2004), pp. 225–8

Not-So-Sharp Shooter

1976: Paul Cerutti of Monaco was disqualified from the Olympic trap shooting competition after testing positive for amphetamines. Not that they had done him much good – he had finished 43rd out of 44.

Source: Stan Greenberg, Whitaker’s Olympic Almanack (2003), p. 124

Bacon Bookmark

1974: Cyril Connolly’s obituary in The Times concentrated, of course, on his achievements as a book critic and author, but noted also his habit of “marking his place in a book at the breakfast table with a strip of bacon”.

Source: The Times, 27 November 1974

Sleight Of Hands

Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris

1973: Pablo Picasso never learned to swim. According to his widow, Jacqueline Roque, he mimicked strokes with his arms, while keeping his feet planted on the bottom.

Source: John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917–1932 (2007), p. 160

Blown Sky High

1972: John McErlean lived with his family just north of Belfast. He was 17 years old, an apprentice mechanic and a Catholic. His family never talked politics, but a few days after Bloody Sunday, he and two friends joined the Irish Republican Army. Ten weeks later, the IRA instructed them to move some gelignite stored in a garage. The gelignite exploded, killing all three.

John’s father, Jack, recalled, “I didn’t know anybody was killed until I was told there was flesh over the road and on the roofs.” Jack wasn’t even aware his son had joined the IRA, and only began to worry when he didn’t come home that evening for his meal. “It was a cold April day, there were pieces of flesh and bone all over the place, and the steam was rising off it all.”

Source: David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (1999), pp. 172–4

Uganda Goes Giddy Up

1971: On the day of Idi Amin’s coup against Milton Obote, Radio Uganda alternated curfew warnings and the pop song “My Boy Lollipop”.

Source: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Settler’s Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food (2008), p. 239

All In The Mind

1970: Playboy appeared in a Braille version. It lacked the photos of the printed version, of course, but was perfectly adequate, as long as the reader wanted the magazine only for its articles.

Source: The New York Times, 29 August 1986

Unearthly Footsteps

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon

1969: American astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, remarked: “When I would take a step, a little semicircle of dust would spray out before me. It was odd, because the dust didn’t behave at all the way it behaves here on Earth. On Earth, you’re sometimes dealing with puffy dust, sometimes with sand. On the moon, what you’re dealing with is this powdery dust traveling through no air at all, so the dust is kicked up, and then it all falls at the same time in a perfect semicircle.”

Source: What It Feels Like . . . , ed. A.J. Jacobs (2003), p. 41

Six O’Clock Swill Comes To An End

1967: South Australia became the last Australian state to abolish 6 o’clock closing at hotel bars. That put an end to the hour of frantic drinking after men finished work, characterised by “a flurry of shirt-sleeves, spilt froth, slapped-down change, and swished dish-cloths,” when “glasses of beer were slid two or three at a time along the wet counter-tops as fast as they could be pulled.” Then came the spectacle, after closing time, of drunken men tumbling out into the streets, lurching and vomiting their way home. No wonder it was called “the 6 o’clock swill”.

Source: J.M. Freeland, The Australian Pub (1966), p. 176

A barmaid at work in Petty’s Hotel in Sydney in 1941, photographed by Max Dupain

Showing Off

1966: On 16 July, Mao Zedong swam several kilometres down the Yangtze at Wuhan to demonstrate that, at 72, he retained his vigour. Mao was a keen swimmer, unlike his wife Jiang Qing, who never learned to swim. At the seaside, Jiang wore rubber shoes even when she paddled in the shallows, to conceal a sixth toe on her right foot.

Source: Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Inside Story of the Man Who Made Modern China (1994), pp. 175, 463

Rhubarb Thrives In Dirty Air

1965: Businessmen in Leeds deplored the city’s atmospheric pollution: petrol and diesel fumes from cars and lorries, smoke and soot from domestic chimneys and power stations. The only seeming beneficiary of west Yorkshire’s dirty air, The Guardian reported, was rhubarb: “While radishes are stunted, evergreens wilt, and half the population over 50 has bronchitis, rhubarb apparently remains in robust health.”

Source: The Guardian, 8 May 1965

Speedy Recovery

1964: Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics less than six weeks after an operation to remove his appendix.

Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), pp. 294–5

Sensory Deprivation

1963: After a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 49, cookery writer Elizabeth David could no longer properly taste salt (nor bear the smell of fried onions.)

Source: Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David (1999), p. 231

Classroom Chaos

1962: Adolescent girls at a boarding school in the Bukoba district of Tanganyika suddenly began to laugh and cry. No apparent reason; they just started. At first, only three girls were affected; soon, 95 of the 159 pupils had succumbed, forcing the school to close. Back in their home villages, the girls’ abnormal behaviour spread to other children and to adults. Before the epidemic subsided, hundreds were affected.

Source: The Central African Journal of Medicine, May 1963

Noddy And Chatterley

1960: Penguin Books’ decision to tweak a few legal noses by publishing an unexpurgated, inexpensive edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover produced the expected result: prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

Penguin’s lawyers contacted an array of writers and academics to bolster the defence case. Aldous Huxley offered to appear as a witness. Graham Greene backed the publisher, but admitted that he found parts of the book “rather absurd”. T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman sent letters of support. Enid Blyton declined: “My husband said NO at once”.

Source: Jeremy Lewis, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane (2005), pp. 323–4

Fast Forward With Fossils

1958: Mao Zedong assured the Chinese people that the Great Leap Forward would usher in the communist millennium. Mao promised that, with a wave of his Marxist wand, China would be transformed into a modernised, prosperous utopia.

Commune leaders and provincial bureaucrats grossly exaggerated output figures and made wildly unrealistic projections to show that the millennium had indeed arrived. Even the Association of Chinese Palaeontologists got swept up in the excitement, giddily pledging to more than halve its 20-year programme so as to overtake “capitalist” research into fossils.

Source: Stanley Karnow, Mao and China: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution (1984), p. 97

Ammonite fossils, photographed by Richard Wheeler