When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1930s

“Animalistic Hopping”

1937: The Lambeth Walk, a jaunty number from the musical Me and My Girl, was a success first on the London stage, and then in dance halls around Britain and on the Continent. Fascist leaders in Europe, however, took a dim view of the craze. In Italy, the dance was condemned for its “ugly, coarse, awkward motions and gesticulations”, and in Germany it was denounced as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping”.

Sources: The Times, 19 May 1939; The New York Times, 8 January 1939

Dahl Dislikes Dust

1936: After two years’ training with the oil company Shell, Roald Dahl anticipated an exotic foreign posting – somewhere with tall coconut palms, silvery beaches, jungles, lions and elephants.

Head office called him in to meet one of the directors. “We are sending you to Egypt,” the director said.

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Papal Divisions

1935: During a visit to Moscow, the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, urged Joseph Stalin to improve the lot of Catholics in the Soviet Union. Stalin was utterly contemptuous of Catholics and the Vatican. “The Pope!” he snorted. “How many divisions has he got?” (To which the perfect riposte would have been: “The same number that Karl Marx had.”)

Source: Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, I: The Gathering Storm (1950), p. 121

Attractive Feature

John Betjeman, phototgraphed in the 1920s

1932: Penelope Chetwode met her future husband, the journalist and promising poet John Betjeman, for the first time. Asked shortly afterwards what it was she liked about him, she replied, “He has green teeth.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, Young Betjeman (1988), p. 373

What If . . . ?

1931: On the afternoon of 22 August, a young British aristocrat named John Scott-Ellis was making his way along Brienner Strasse, in Munich, in a little red Fiat. “Although I was going very slowly, a man walked off the pavement, more or less straight into my car.” The 42-year-old pedestrian was bowled over, but quickly picked himself up, politely shook hands with the driver, and went on his way.

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Cure For Sleepiness

1939: Straight-talking Winston Churchill went down well with wireless listeners. Two millworkers overheard in conversation in Bolton:
MW1: “Ah bet tha heard Churchill.”
MW2: “Aye – I did.”
MW1: “He doesn’t half give it them. I corn’t go to sleep when he’s on.”

Source: Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge, War Begins at Home (1940), p. 158

Singed Eyebrows

1938: In dense cloud over the south of France, a ball of lightning entered the open cockpit window of a B.O.A.C. flying boat, singed the captain’s eyebrows and hair, burned a hole in his seat belt, and then meandered harmlessly through the forward passenger cabin into the rear cabin, where it burst with a loud explosion.

Source: Nature, 5 April 1952

Spanish Shibboleth

1937: At the beginning of October, President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic ordered his soldiers to round up Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border between the two countries. To distinguish between Creole-speaking Haitians and Spanish-speaking Dominicans, the soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask, What is this? Those who could not roll the “r” of the Spanish word “perejil” gave themselves away as Haitians.

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Young Maggie

1936: Margaret Roberts was a pupil at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School from autumn 1936 until summer 1943. Her nickname – years before “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” and “The Iron Lady” – was “Snobby Roberts”.

Source: Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers, ed. Robert Eccleshall and Graham Walker (1998), p. 361

Culture Shock

Pearl Buck, photographed by Arnold Genthe

1934: Pearl Buck had lived so long in China that on her return to America she found she was a foreigner in her own country. Like most Chinese, Buck ate little meat and avoided dairy products altogether. She quickly noticed that white Americans smelled. The milk, butter and beef they consumed gave them “a rank wild odor, not quite a stink, but certainly distressing”.

Source: Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1955), p. 315

Down On The Farm

1933: Heinrich Himmler often took his daughter Gudrun to visit Dachau. Gudrun was especially fond of the camp’s farm for breeding Angora rabbits.

Source: Harold Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933–2001 (2001), p. 30

Vulgar Wailing

1932: “Ravel’s Bolero I submit as the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music. From the beginning to the end of its 339 measures it is simply the incredible repetition of the same rhythm,” scoffed Edward Robinson in The American Mercury. The main theme, he wrote, was “an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune”, little different from “the wail of an obstreperous back-alley cat”.

Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 138

Hot Pants

1931: On 12 August, the Hawera Star surprised readers with a story about exploding trousers. Richard Buckley, a local farmer, had placed his wet trousers in front of the fire to dry. As they warmed up, they “exploded with a loud report”.

Buckley’s trousers weren’t the only combustible clothing. Elsewhere in New Zealand, a load of laundry burst into flames on a washing line and a farmer’s trousers began to smoulder while he was actually wearing them.

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Quiet News Day

1930: The BBC had a narrow view of what was newsworthy and what wasn’t. If an item didn’t come up to the required standard, it wasn’t broadcast. No effort was made to pad out news bulletins to a standard length. On 18 April, a quiet news day, the BBC announcer simply declared, “There is no news tonight.”

Source: Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, I: 1922–1939, Serving the Nation (1991), p. 118

“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

Blemished Skin

1931: Like most Western mothers in China, Lucy Soothill hired an amah to care for her baby. The amah was generally reliable, but not always. On one occasion Soothill discovered that her daughter’s skin was “irritable and red”, and when she kissed her, she noticed a “salty sharp taste”. On a hunch, Soothill checked the puff box in the baby’s basket and found that the contents had the same distinctive taste. Instead of powdering the baby’s skin with talcum, the amah had been using “extra strong American baking-powder”.

Source: Lucy Soothill, A Passport to China: Being the Tale of Her Long and Friendly Sojourning amongst a Strangely Interesting People (1931), p. 55

“Southern Trees Bear A Strange Fruit”

1930: Photographer Lawrence Beitler was in Marion, Indiana, on the night of 7 August, when a mob of whites lynched two black men, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. Beitler made a tidy sum from selling souvenir photos of the spectacle at 50 cents each. It was probably one of these keepsakes that provoked Lewis Allan’s searing condemnation:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Source: Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (2007), pp. 11–25; David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (2000), pp. 15, 33–7