When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Posts by William Cook

Limited Library

1951: James Thurber asserted that Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, never read anything except manuscripts for the magazine. According to Thurber, Ross’s personal library consisted of three books: “One is Mark Twain’s ‘Life on the Mississippi’; the second is a book by a man named Spencer . . . and the third is a treatise on the migration of eels.”

Source: H.L. Mencken, The Diary of H.L. Mencken, ed. Charles A. Fecher (1989), p. 136

Love Letter

1949: The death of Anne, his handicapped daughter, left Charles de Gaulle with one son and one daughter. On 10 September, de Gaulle wrote to his daughter, Élisabeth, “for no particular reason, simply to say that I love you greatly” (“Pour . . . aucune raison particulière. Simplement celle de vous dire que je vous aime beaucoup . . .”).

Source: Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, Notes et Carnets: Mai 1945–Juin 1951 (1984), pp. 374–5

Electoral Anomaly

1948: The Nationalist triumph in South Africa’s general election was an anomaly. General Smuts’s United Party and allies won 50.9 per cent of the total vote; D.F. Malan’s Herenigde Nasionale Party and allies managed only 41.2 per cent. The United Party, however, squandered too many votes on thumping majorities in urban constituencies, while the Nationalists performed strongly in rural seats whose smaller electorates required fewer votes to secure victory. When parliament reconvened, Smuts controlled 71 seats, but Malan controlled 79, sufficient for the Nationalists to usher in their policy of apartheid.

Source: Kenneth A. Heard, General Elections in South Africa 1943–1970 (1974), chap. 3

Not Welcome

1947: Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 effectively barred Chinese immigrants. Between 1924 and 1947, when the law was repealed, Canada admitted only 44 ethnic Chinese.

Source: S.W. Kung, Chinese in American Life: Some Aspects of Their History, Status, Problems, and Contributions (1962), p. 294

Dangerous Bedding

1945: “All of a sudden,” in the early hours of 25 April, “there was a fierce air raid; the flak started raging.” Too weary to go down to the basement, the author of A Woman in Berlin snuggled beneath the bedclothes. The sheets and blankets provided “an idiotic sense of security”, as if they were made of iron. “They say bedding is extremely dangerous.” A doctor who treated a woman who had been hit in bed found that “bits of feather had lodged so deeply in her wounds he could barely remove them”.

Source: Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin (2009), p. 49

Unequal Sacrifice

1943: Hugh Dalton, president of the Board of Trade, deplored the amount of fabric used in turn-ups on men’s trousers. Turn-ups were an extravagance, Dalton said, and in wartime, civilians should make do without them.

“There can be no equality of sacrifice in this war. Some must lose lives and limbs; others only the turn-ups on their trousers.”

Source: Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs 1931–1945 (1957), p. 410

Lines Of Defence

1942: British troops in Southeast Asia needed to guard their positions against Japanese night attacks. An obvious defence was to rig up perimeter wires that would light signal lamps when breached by enemy soldiers. Less obvious was the correct thickness of the wires. Too thin and they would break accidentally; too thick and they would be spotted by the enemy.

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Exit From Crete

1941: In less than a fortnight, a German airborne assault on Crete overcame the numerically superior British, Commonwealth and Greek defenders. Allied losses were heavy; thousands were killed, more than 10,000 captured and nine warships sunk. The only thing the Allies didn’t lose was their sense of humour. A story went round that a special medal would be awarded to those who had been bundled off the island, inscribed “EX CRETA”.

Source: Antony Beevor, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (2005), p. 227

Red Or White?

1939: When John Betjeman unexpectedly brought Cyril Connolly home for dinner, his put-upon wife, Penelope, shouted from the kitchen, “I’m going out in ten minutes. I’m sorry, you can only have hard-boiled eggs.” Undaunted, the two men trooped off to the well-stocked wine cellar. Betjeman surveyed the bottles. “Now, Cyril,” he mused, “I wonder what goes best with hard-boiled eggs.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: The Biography (2006), p. 195

Noted For His Hats

1938: Winston Churchill smoked from an early age, but the image of him chomping on a long cigar, two fingers raised in a V-sign, dated from the Second World War. These Tremendous Years 1919–1938, published by the Daily Express in 1938, associated cigars instead with F.E. Smith, the Earl of Birkenhead. Churchill, according to the Daily Express book, was noted not for his cigars but for his hats.

Source: These Tremendous Years 1919–1938 (1938), p. 140

Crippled For Life

1937: On 24 October, while riding in wooded country on Long Island, in New York State, Cole Porter’s horse shied and fell on him, crushing both his legs. For the rest of his life, Porter was crippled and in constant pain. Typically, the composer of a host of light-hearted lyrics invented names for his severely damaged limbs: Josephine and Geraldine. Josephine, the left leg, was sweet and obliging; Geraldine, the more painful of the two, was “a bitch, a psychopath”.

Source: William McBrien, Cole Porter: The Definitive Biography (1999), pp. 210–13

Not Optimistic

1936: A new viceroy was appointed for India: the Marquess of Linlithgow. A very tall, rather formal individual with the family name Hope, the marquess was accompanied by his three daughters. Junior officers obviously didn’t fancy their chances with the three young ladies – they nicknamed them “Some Hope”, “Little Hope” and “No Hope”.

Source: Adrian Fort, Archibald Wavell: The Life and Times of an Imperial Servant (2009), p. 243

Thumbs Up For Turing

1935: John Maynard Keynes detested nail-biting. Aristotle had classified it as a form of “bestiality”, Keynes declared, on a par with “buggering bulls and ripping open females with a view to devouring the foetus”. In March, Keynes lunched with a candidate for a fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, to “inspect him and his fingernails”. “He is excellent,” Keynes wrote to his wife, “there cannot be a shadow of doubt about it. Fingernails as long as yours (in proportion).” On the strength of this “infallible” guide, Keynes gave the young man the thumbs up. “And he was very nice – Turing his name.”

Source: Richard Davenport-Hines, Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015), pp. 279–80

Inartistic Island

Walter Gropius, photographed in about 1919 by Louis Held

1934: Shortly before moving to Britain, the German architect Walter Gropius questioned how he would survive in “this inartistic country with unsalted vegetables, bony women and an eternally freezing draught!?”

Source: Fiona MacCarthy, Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus (2019), p. 291

Last Of The Moriori

1933: At the end of 1835, the brig Rodney ferried two large parties of Maori migrants from New Zealand to the Chatham Islands, 900 kilometres to the east.

The warlike newcomers overwhelmed the peaceable Moriori inhabitants. “We took possession,” boasted a Maori, “in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killed – but what of that?”

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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