When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1940s

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

Giveaway Vegetable

1942: The poet Robert Graves, living in south Devon, had his application to join the special constabulary blocked by the village policeman. Three reasons: first, because of Graves’s suspicious German middle name, von Ranke: second, because Graves had been heard “talking a foreign language to two disreputable foreigners” – refugees from Franco’s Spain, as it happened; and third, because someone had scratched the words HEIL HITLER! on a marrow in his garden.

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 281

Peace In Wartime

1941: “You hear people say that fishing is a waste of time,” wrote the novelist and keen angler H.E. Bates. “Can time be wasted?” he pondered. “In a hundred years it will not matter much whether on a June day in 1941 I fished for perch or devoted the same time to acquiring greater learning by studying the works of Aristotle, of which, anyway, I have no copy. The day is very hot, and there are thousands of golden-cream roses blooming on the house wall in the sun. Perhaps someone will be glad that I described them, sitting as I am forty miles from the German lines at Calais. Perhaps someone will wonder then at the stoicism, the indifference, the laziness or the sheer lack of conscience of someone who thought roses and fish of at least as much importance as tanks and bombs.”

Source: H.E. Bates, The Country Heart (1949), p. 30

Mouldy Clothing

1940: If the Wehrmacht crossed the English Channel and German jackboots got as far as Oxford, the Australian Howard Florey and his team of researchers at the university planned to destroy their work on penicillin to prevent it benefitting the enemy.

Hoping to salvage something from their efforts, they intended to rub Penicillium notatum into the fabric of their coats, knowing that the spores of mould could survive for years. Then at some time, somewhere, they might be able to resume their work.

Source: Eric Lax, The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat: The Remarkable True Story of the Penicillin Miracle (2004), pp. 4, 158–9