When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

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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

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

Queen Charms Soviet Leader

1956: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Britain, where he was charmed by Elizabeth II – “the sort of young woman you’d be likely to meet walking along Gorky Street on a balmy summer afternoon.”

Source: Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, ed. Strobe Talbott (1971), p. 406

Moscow’s Gorky Street, since renamed Tverskaya Street, photographed in 1957 by Manfred and Barbara Aulbach

California Smash

Actor James Dean in a publicity still for the film Rebel Without a Cause

1955: James Dean was killed on 30 September when his new Porsche sports car collided head-on with another car on a California highway. The impact broke the young actor’s neck and crushed his chest; the driver of the other car suffered only minor cuts and bruises. (The other driver’s name, incidentally, was Donald Turnupseed.)

Source: Donald Spoto, Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996), pp. 248–9

Crocodile Smile

1952: After failing his exams in Paris for the second year in a row, Saloth Sâr’s scholarship was stopped and he returned to Cambodia.

“There was never the least hint of what he would become,” said Mey Mann, who knew Sâr in France. Others felt the same.

“He never said very much,” Mann remembered. “He just had that smile of his. He liked to joke, he had a slightly mischievous way about him.”

Back in Cambodia, the mediocre student with the reticent manner and engaging smile devoted himself to the revolutionary struggle. By the late 1960s he had become the undisputed leader of Cambodia’s communists, and in 1970 he adopted a new name: Pol Pot.

Source: Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (2004), pp. 31, 44

“The Little Fellows”

1951: James Joyce’s wife, Nora, outlived him by 10 years. She was protective of his literary reputation, though at times she overdid it. When an interviewer questioned her about the French writer André Gide, she remarked: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

Source: Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1983), p. 743

Seuss Zoo Quest

1950: American children’s writer Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, coined the name “nerd” for a tousle-haired, grumpy-looking creature in If I Ran the Zoo:
I’ll sail to Ka-Troo
And
Bring
Back
an IT-KUTCH
a PREEP
and a PROO
a NERKLE
a NERD
and a SEERSUCKER, too!

Source: Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo (2000), pp. 48–9

Nobs And Spivs

1949: Visiting Cannes, on the Riviera, Nancy Mitford found herself hobnobbing with a sizeable contingent from the British working class with their “Rolls Royces & luxury yachts – the black marketeers I suppose”.

Source: Nancy Mitford, The Letters of Nancy Mitford: Love from Nancy, ed. Charlotte Mosley (1993), pp. 233–4

“Comme Les Autres”

1948: Charles de Gaulle’s tender love for his family contrasted sharply with the cold dignity he displayed towards the public.

De Gaulle was especially devoted to his second daughter, Anne, who suffered from Down’s syndrome. She was different from de Gaulle’s other children, different from other parents’ children, and de Gaulle loved her all the more because of it. Anne reciprocated his love; sometimes she squeezed his cheeks so hard she left red marks and the only word she could apparently say properly was “papa”.

At the age of 20, she caught pneumonia. Her body hadn’t the strength to fight the illness, and she died on 6 February. At the graveside, de Gaulle consoled his wife, Yvonne: “She’s like the others now.” (“Maintenant, elle est comme les autres.”)

Source: Jonathan Fenby, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (2010), pp. 90–1, 337–8

Culinary Queen

1947: Marooned in a provincial English hotel with dispiriting winter weather outdoors and dispiriting food indoors, Elizabeth David’s mind wandered to memories of southern sun, colours and flavours. Writing about Mediterranean cookery offered a way of escape.

The memories and words tumbled out: “The saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermilion or tiger-striped, and those long needle fish whose bones mysteriously turn green when they are cooked.”

Source: Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), p. v

Wells’s Sex Appeal

1946: How did H.G. Wells become the Don Juan of 20th-century English literature? How did a short, rather portly man with a receding hairline, a tired moustache and a squeaky voice attract a string of lovers that included the writers Rebecca West and Elizabeth von Arnim, the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and the Russian baroness Moura Budberg?

“Fat and homely” was the way William Somerset Maugham described Wells, and he once asked Budberg what it was that attracted her to him. His smell, she said; his body “smelt of honey”.

Source: Andrea Lynn, Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells (2001), pp. 19–21

Dangerous Driver

Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris photographed at his desk

1943: The area bombing of German cities and the people in them was inextricably linked to Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command. Harris was very energetic, very forceful, very blunt. When stopped late one night for driving his Bentley at high speed, the policeman rebuked him: “You might have killed somebody, sir.” To which Harris replied: “Young man, I kill thousands of people every night!”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), p. 135