When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Posts by William Cook

“Ba Ba Centipede”

1937: One advantage of having a poet as a father – Paul and Candida Betjeman grew up listening to customized nursery rhymes:
Ba Ba centipede,
Have you any jelly,
No sir, no sir, it’s all gone smelly.

Source: John Betjeman, Letters, I: 1926 to 1951, ed. Candida Lycett Green (1994), p. 368

No-Show

1934: Alistair Cooke, who had recently begun work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, married Ruth Emerson. The bridegroom was presumably on time for the ceremony; the bride, as tends to happen, was perhaps a little late; the best man failed to turn up at all. After waiting for an hour, Cooke got one of the guests to stand in. Who was the unreliable best man? Charlie Chaplin.

Source: Nick Clarke, Alistair Cooke: The Biography (2002), p. 114

Emus On Rampage

1932: Large mobs of emus, migrating from the interior of Western Australia to the coast, pecked and trampled crops in the state’s wheat belt, especially around the town of Campion. The farmers, many of them First World War veterans, clamoured for the authorities to deploy machine guns against the marauders. A contingent of soldiers armed with Lewis guns was sent into battle, but the birds were too speedy and too wily, scattering into small groups and dashing for cover as soon as the guns opened up. “Major Meredith and his merry men” claimed a thousand kills, but the inglorious campaign failed to impress anyone, and was scathingly referred to as the “Emu War”.

Source: Journal of Australian Studies, 2006

Noisy Send-Off

1931: As Arnold Bennett lay dying from typhoid in his flat near Marylebone Road, the local council gave permission for straw to be spread in the busy street to muffle the noise of traffic, possibly the last time this was allowed in central London. Bennett died at nine in the evening of 27 March. “It was a night of rain. The straw became sodden and slippery. Just after midnight a milk dray skidded and overturned, sending its load of churns crashing along the pavement below the flat in a thunderous din.”

Source: Reginald Pound, Arnold Bennett: A Biography (1971), p. 367

Chocolate Revolution

1930: Grown-ups fretted over grown-up issues like political instability and job insecurity, but for 13-year-old Roald Dahl, 1930 marked the start of the “great golden years of the chocolate revolution”. The limited chocolate choice of the 1920s was suddenly transformed; “the entire world of chocolate was turned upside-down in the space of seven glorious years, between 1930 and 1937”.

The Mars bar first appeared in 1932; Chocolate Crisp was launched in 1935 and renamed Kit Kat two years later; Aero also went on sale in 1935; Quality Street made its debut in 1936; and Maltesers, Rolo and Smarties were introduced in 1937.

Source: Felicity and Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl’s Cookbook (1991), pp. 150–5

Hint Of Glamour

1928: Picture palaces lured film-goers with their aura of glamour. According to Denis Norden, at the Empire Leicester Square in London, ushers lined up before opening time, lit Havana cigars and puffed smoke around the foyer.

Source: Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinemas in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties, ed. Margaret O’Brien and Allen Eyles (1993), p. 39

Gunned Down

1927: On 27 September, Police Constable George Gutteridge was murdered on a country road in Essex. In the small hours, Gutteridge flagged down a Morris Cowley, unaware that it had been stolen earlier that night. While he questioned the two men in the car, Frederick Browne and William Kennedy, one of them pulled a revolver and shot him in the side of the face. (Kennedy subsequently blamed Browne; Browne denied he was even there.) As the policeman lay badly injured in the road, the gunman approached and finished him off with two shots at close range – one in either eye.

Source: Christopher Berry-Dee and Robin Odell, The Long Drop: Two Were Hanged – One Was Innocent (1993)

Toronto “Stork Derby”

Charles Millar, instigator of Toronto’s “Stork Derby”

1926: The Toronto lawyer Charles Millar stipulated in his will that “at the expiration of ten years from my death” the bulk of the estate was to go to “the Mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children”. Millar, a bachelor, died on 31 October. Over the next decade, the media tracked progress in what was christened the “Stork Derby”. Illegitimate births and still births were discounted. The race ended in a tie. Four women showed that they had each given birth to nine children, and for their efforts, shared $500,000.

Source: www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-great-stork-derby/

Borrowed Verse

1923: In January 1927, a 12-year-old schoolboy from Swansea named Dylan Thomas made his first money from poetry. The Western Mail, which published “His Requiem”, paid 10 shillings for the work. Nobody else realised it at the time, but Thomas had plagiarised, more or less word for word, a poem by Lillian Gard that had appeared in the November 1923 issue of The Boy’s Own Paper.

Source: Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (1978), pp. 7, 41

Dogs Of War

1922: Dog taxes rarely provoke armed clashes; tax evaders seldom have bombs dropped on them.

In 1917, South-West Africa introduced a tax on dogs in rural areas; in 1921, the tax was increased fourfold. The native population, which used dogs for hunting, deeply resented the new levy.

Around the same time, the authorities demanded that the Bondelswarts people surrender a number of wrongdoers. The Bondelswarts refused to pay the dog tax and refused to hand over the wanted men.

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Improving On Dickens

1921: T.S. Eliot wrote in May that he had “a long poem in mind and partly on paper”. This was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. Eliot juggled the words, enriched the meaning, shaped the rhythm. And replaced the original title – a quote from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend – with another, better, title: “The Waste Land”.

Source: Marianne Thormählen, The Waste Land: A Fragmentary Wholeness (1978), pp. 28–31

Book Of The Month

1920: A best-seller from 1920: Theodore Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, which would surely have featured in the Ku Klux Klan’s book-of-the-month club, if there had been one.

Source: Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920)

Bone Dry

1918: With average yearly precipitation of less than a millimetre, Arica, on the edge of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, is one of the driest places on Earth. In January 1918, rainfall was recorded there for the first time since October 1903 – 14 consecutive years without rain.

Source: Nick Middleton, Going to Extremes: Mud, Sweat and Frozen Tears (2001), p. 93

Cordite And Conkers

1917: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

“In present circumstances it is felt that school children could give most valuable assistance in collecting the [horse] chestnuts . . .”

What could possibly link the Balfour Declaration with a Board of Education circular urging British youngsters to gather conkers? The answer: cordite, acetone, the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum and the chemist (and ardent Zionist) Chaim Weizmann.

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Lament For Peace

Mary Butts, photographed by Bertram Park

1916: “Not till the end of the war will there be any time for art or love or magic again,” lamented aspiring writer Mary Butts. “Perhaps never.”

Source: Mary Butts, The Journals of Mary Butts, ed. Nathalie Blondel (2002), p. 58

Graves Gets Cold Feet

1915: “I only once refrained from shooting a German,” Robert Graves recalled. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, perhaps seven hundred yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me. ‘Here, take this. You’re a better shot that I am.’ He got him; but I had not stayed to watch.”

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 112

Day In The Country

1913: Motor cars were unwelcome arrivals in the countryside. They hurtled noisily along narrow roads, stirred up clouds of dust, frightened horses, flattened chickens. Angry peasants sometimes scattered nails and broken glass on the roads, or pelted cars with stones, or blocked their way with ropes or barricades.

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Making Mischief

1912: Eight-year-old Cecil Day-Lewis entered Wilkinson’s prep school in central London. The future poet laureate got to know Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie’s adopted boys. When Llewelyn Davies took his friend to the playwright’s house in Campden Hill Square, the two youngsters went up to the attic and fired an air gun at pedestrians in the square.

Source: C. Day Lewis, The Buried Day (1960), pp. 72–4

Murder Incorporated

1911: On 11 January, Takács Rozália succeeded in murdering her husband, Takács Lajos. It wasn’t from want of trying; she had already made several attempts. According to his wife, Lajos was a good-for-nothing “alcoholic beast” who regularly mistreated her. His death was the first of a string of murders in the Hungarian village of Nagyrév. The killings were the work not of individuals acting in isolation, but of groups of villagers sharing their murderous expertise. Almost all of the murderers and their accomplices were women. Their victims – four-fifths of them – were men: abusive husbands, unfaithful lovers, elderly and frail fathers-in-law. The preferred means of murder was poisoning with arsenic, which was easily dissolved out of flypapers. Between 1911 and 1929, when the authorities eventually cottoned on that something was amiss, forty or more villagers were poisoned.

Source: Béla Bodó, Tiszazug: A Social History of a Murder Epidemic (2002), chap. 5

God’s Too Busy

1910: Among those taken to see the funeral of Edward VII was Lord Kinnoull’s young daughter. That evening, at bedtime, the girl’s mother asked her whether she had said her prayers. She hadn’t.

“Why not?”

“I don’t mean to say them to-night.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because it won’t be any use, as God will be too busy unpacking King Edward.”

Source: Lord Riddell, More Pages from My Diary 1908–1914 (1934), p. 149

On Guard Against 9/11

1909: Ninety years before the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Russia’s political police were sufficiently perceptive to realize that aircraft might be used as terrorist weapons, and began to monitor the activities of aviators, would-be aviators and flying clubs.

Source: Charles A. Ruud, Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police (1999), p. 70

“A Fairy Tale!”

1908: In German South-West Africa, a coloured worker named Zacharias Lewala, shovelling sand against an embankment in a railway siding, came across a diamond. Lewala’s supervisor, August Stauch, straight away quit his railway job to search for diamonds full-time.

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