When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

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Hypnotic Acts

1952: Britain’s Hypnotism Act (“An Act to regulate the demonstration of hypnotic phenomena for purposes of public entertainment”) prohibited the hypnotising of people under the age of 21.

Source: ‘Current Law’ Statutes Annotated 1952, ed. John Burke (1952), chap. 46

Health And Safety

1951: Inspectors at the Fernald uranium processing plant near Cincinnati, where ore was converted into metal for the American nuclear weapons programme, would routinely test the metallic strength of radioactive “green salt” by dabbing some on their tongues to see whether it tasted right.

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, 11 May 1998

Eccentric Englishman

1950: Lord Berners, who died in April, was a classical composer and the author of several novels, though he’s probably best remembered for his eccentricities: the clavichord in his Rolls-Royce; fake pearl necklaces round his dogs’ necks; blue mayonnaise; the warning, “Trespassers will be prosecuted, dogs shot, cats whipped,” in his garden; pigeons dyed magenta, copper green and ultramarine, “tumbling about like a cloud of confetti in the sky”; the notice at the entrance to his folly at Faringdon, “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.

Source: Mark Amory, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998), pp. 79, 120, 137–8, 150

Promise To Be Good

1947: After dusk on 7 April, a search party of coalminers recovered the body of 4-year-old Glyndwr Parfitt from the River Afan in south Wales. The boy’s hands and feet had been tied with bootlaces. The police charged a 9-year-old playmate with murder. When questioned, he admitted the killing but promised, “I won’t do it again.”

Source: David James Smith, The Sleep of Reason, p. 5

Hyperinflation

1946: In July, hyperinflation in Hungary reached a monthly rate of 13,000,000,000,000,000 per cent. Put another way: prices doubled every 15.6 hours. By the time the pengő was replaced by the forint at the beginning of August, the Hungarian currency was so devalued that the dollar value of all the Hungarian bank notes in circulation amounted to just one-thousandth of one cent.

Source: www.cato.org/zimbabwe; Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), p. 87

Direct Hit

1945: “Command post moved to Potsdamer Platz station,” a German officer noted on 27 April as Soviet troops fought their way into the centre of Berlin. “Direct hit through the roof. Heavy losses among wounded and civilians. . . . Terrible sight at the station entrance, one flight of stairs down where a heavy shell has penetrated and people, soldiers, women and children are literally stuck to the walls.”

Source: Tony Le Tissier, Berlin Then and Now (1992), p. 226

Tom, Dick And . . .

1944: On 24 March, in what was dubbed the “Great Escape”, 76 Allied prisoners of war scrambled to freedom through a tunnel under the perimeter wire of Stalag-Luft III. A year earlier, the prisoners had begun work on three tunnels: one had been discovered by the Germans, one had been abandoned, and one had been successful. Their code names were Tom, Dick and Harry.

Source: Anton Gill, The Great Escape: The Full Dramatic Story with Contributions from Survivors and Their Families (2002), p. 106

Farewell Flight

1943: The Royal Air Force lost 55,000 men during the bomber offensive against Europe, and the Americans, 26,000. Aircrews were gloomily aware of the odds against them. “If you live on the brink of death yourself,” the pilot Denis Hornsey pointed out, “it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination. And . . . you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), pp. 220–2

Maize Monopoly

1942: In European colonies, white settlers used their political clout to reshape economies for their own benefit. Discrimination was thinly disguised. Kenya’s chief native commissioner described the colony’s monopoly on the marketing of maize, introduced in 1942, as “the most barefaced and thorough-going attempt at exploitation the people of Africa have ever known since Joseph cornered all the corn in Egypt”.

Source: Paul Mosley, The Settler Economies: Studies in the Economic History of Kenya and Southern Rhodesia 1900–1963 (1983), p. 100

Unexpected Visitor

Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy and self-appointed peace envoy

1941: In May, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, flew to Scotland on what appears to have been a misguided peace mission. Hess baled out of his aircraft and parachuted down near a cottage where David McLean, a ploughman, lived with his mother, Annie. The ploughman checked the airman for weapons, and then escorted him to the cottage. Mrs. McLean, meanwhile, had responded to the excitement by making a pot of tea. Hess politely refused the tea but asked for a glass of water.

Source: Roy Conyers Nesbit and Georges van Acker, The Flight of Rudolf Hess: Myths and Reality (1999), pp. 70–1

Culinary Expertise

1940: Clement Freud began his culinary career as a trainee chef in the “huge dank dark” kitchen of the Dorchester Hotel. The vegetable cook was an elderly Frenchman, a heavy-drinking garlic chewer who garnished dishes by stuffing his mouth with chopped parsley and spraying it through the gaps between his teeth. This technique, Freud reported, was “particularly effective with new potatoes, where the evenness of his aim made the dish look impressive”.

Source: Clement Freud, Freud Ego (2001), pp. 35, 36

“A Perfect Day”

1939: “A perfect day,” wrote Harold Nicolson from his home in Kent, “and I bathe in the peace of the lake.” The date was 4 September; Britain had declared war on Germany the previous day. It was all very confusing: the tranquillity of the English countryside; the way things seemed to carry on as they had before. “Even as when someone dies, one is amazed that the poplars should still be standing quite unaware of one’s own disaster, so when I walked down to the lake to bathe, I could scarcely believe that the swans were being sincere in their indifference to the Second German War.”

Source: Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939–1945, ed. Nigel Nicolson (1967), p. 30

Cats On A Hot Tin Roof

Hawaiian lava flow, National Park Service/L. Konrad

1938: The eruption of Bilyukai, on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Siberia, produced huge amounts of lava. Rivers of it, which, as it flowed away from the volcano, cooled and formed a crust on its surface.

The volcanologists V.F. Popkov and I.Z. Ivanov, showing scant regard for their personal safety, decided that the only way to properly study the lava was to go out on to it.

They tossed rocks on to the crust to strengthen it, and then Popkov gingerly stepped on to the band of lava that separated the riverbank from the crust. “Without letting go of Ivanov’s hand, I put . . . one asbestos-shod foot on the incandescent lava,” he wrote. “I released Ivanov’s hand and made another step by resting my body on the iron rod which I used as a walking stick and which sank slowly into the plastic mass.”

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Blind Devotion

1937: When the entomologist Oscar Scheibel acquired a specimen of a previously undocumented blind cave beetle, found in only a few caves in northern Yugoslavia, he demonstrated his admiration for Germany’s leader by naming it Anophthalmus hitleri.

Source: http://rosegeorge.com/site/
a-beetle-called-hitler

Hands On The Levers

Boris III of Bulgaria, the royal train driver

1936: Boris III of Bulgaria had his hands on the levers of power in more than one sense. Figuratively, he was absolute monarch of his country; literally, his favourite pastime was driving locomotives. His brother, Kyril, was also a railway enthusiast, and when Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson visited Bulgaria, the two brothers squabbled over who should drive the train.

Source: Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor K.G. (1951), pp. 308–9

No Wobbly Knees

1935: In Germany, special schools were set up as the SS was expanded from a personal bodyguard into a fighting force. Training was rigorous. At the Bad Tölz school, an officer cadet might be ordered to pull the pin out of a grenade, balance it on his helmet and stand to attention while it exploded.

Source: Gerald Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922–1945 (1956), p. 78

“Don’t Speck Nothing”

1934: Charles Johnson’s Shadow of the Plantation laid bare the poverty of black people in rural Alabama. Seventy years after the abolition of slavery, many still lived in ramshackle cabins (“Do it leak in here? No, it don’t leak in here, it jest rains in here and leak outdoors”), many endured ill-health (“All my chillen is fond of having fevers”) and many despaired of anything better (“Ain’t make nothing, don’t speck nothing no more till I die”).

Source: Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (1934), pp. 99, 126, 194

Voter Intimidation?

1933: When the Nazi Party organised a plebiscite in November to demonstrate nationwide support for Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, 99.5 per cent of the inmates of Dachau concentration camp voted in favour.

Source: Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (1998), pp. 495, 740

Following His Nose

1932: Ralph Bagnold was a pioneer of motorised desert travel who later, during the Second World War, founded the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group. In Sand, Wind, and War, he recalled an incident from a peacetime expedition in the eastern Sahara.

Bagnold and his companions were driving across the Selima Sand Sheet. Their immediate destination was a small, uninhabited oasis, where they anticipated finding a petrol dump guarded by a policeman and his camel. They had driven hundreds of kilometres on a compass bearing. In the early morning, as they neared the oasis, Bagnold “distinctly smelt camel” on the breeze. He decided to follow his nose. “We drove for eight miles, and there, in a small depression out of sight from any distance, was the little oasis, the petrol, the policeman, and his camel.”

Source: Ralph A. Bagnold, Sand, Wind, and War: Memoirs of a Desert Explorer (1990), pp. 88–9