When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

When Grandpa Was a Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

A Popular History of the 20th Century

Not-So-Sharp Shooter

1976: Paul Cerutti of Monaco was disqualified from the Olympic trap shooting competition after testing positive for amphetamines. Not that they had done him much good – he had finished 43rd out of 44.

Source: Stan Greenberg, Whitaker’s Olympic Almanack (2003), p. 124

Bacon Bookmark

1974: Cyril Connolly’s obituary in The Times concentrated, of course, on his achievements as a book critic and author, but noted also his habit of “marking his place in a book at the breakfast table with a strip of bacon”.

Source: The Times, 27 November 1974

Sleight Of Hands

Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris

1973: Pablo Picasso never learned to swim. According to his widow, Jacqueline Roque, he mimicked strokes with his arms, while keeping his feet planted on the bottom.

Source: John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917–1932 (2007), p. 160

Blown Sky High

1972: John McErlean lived with his family just north of Belfast. He was 17 years old, an apprentice mechanic and a Catholic. His family never talked politics, but a few days after Bloody Sunday, he and two friends joined the Irish Republican Army. Ten weeks later, the IRA instructed them to move some gelignite stored in a garage. The gelignite exploded, killing all three.

John’s father, Jack, recalled, “I didn’t know anybody was killed until I was told there was flesh over the road and on the roofs.” Jack wasn’t even aware his son had joined the IRA, and only began to worry when he didn’t come home that evening for his meal. “It was a cold April day, there were pieces of flesh and bone all over the place, and the steam was rising off it all.”

Source: David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (1999), pp. 172–4

Unearthly Footsteps

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon

1969: American astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, remarked: “When I would take a step, a little semicircle of dust would spray out before me. It was odd, because the dust didn’t behave at all the way it behaves here on Earth. On Earth, you’re sometimes dealing with puffy dust, sometimes with sand. On the moon, what you’re dealing with is this powdery dust traveling through no air at all, so the dust is kicked up, and then it all falls at the same time in a perfect semicircle.”

Source: What It Feels Like . . . , ed. A.J. Jacobs (2003), p. 41

Six O’Clock Swill Comes To An End

1967: South Australia became the last Australian state to abolish 6 o’clock closing at hotel bars. That put an end to the hour of frantic drinking after men finished work, characterised by “a flurry of shirt-sleeves, spilt froth, slapped-down change, and swished dish-cloths,” when “glasses of beer were slid two or three at a time along the wet counter-tops as fast as they could be pulled.” Then came the spectacle, after closing time, of drunken men tumbling out into the streets, lurching and vomiting their way home. No wonder it was called “the 6 o’clock swill”.

Source: J.M. Freeland, The Australian Pub (1966), p. 176

A barmaid at work in Petty’s Hotel in Sydney in 1941, photographed by Max Dupain

Showing Off

1966: On 16 July, Mao Zedong swam several kilometres down the Yangtze at Wuhan to demonstrate that, at 72, he retained his vigour. Mao was a keen swimmer, unlike his wife Jiang Qing, who never learned to swim. At the seaside, Jiang wore rubber shoes even when she paddled in the shallows, to conceal a sixth toe on her right foot.

Source: Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Inside Story of the Man Who Made Modern China (1994), pp. 175, 463

Rhubarb Thrives In Dirty Air

1965: Businessmen in Leeds deplored the city’s atmospheric pollution: petrol and diesel fumes from cars and lorries, smoke and soot from domestic chimneys and power stations. The only seeming beneficiary of west Yorkshire’s dirty air, The Guardian reported, was rhubarb: “While radishes are stunted, evergreens wilt, and half the population over 50 has bronchitis, rhubarb apparently remains in robust health.”

Source: The Guardian, 8 May 1965

Sensory Deprivation

1963: After a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 49, cookery writer Elizabeth David could no longer properly taste salt (nor bear the smell of fried onions.)

Source: Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David (1999), p. 231

Classroom Chaos

1962: Adolescent girls at a boarding school in the Bukoba district of Tanganyika suddenly began to laugh and cry. No apparent reason; they just started. At first, only three girls were affected; soon, 95 of the 159 pupils had succumbed, forcing the school to close. Back in their home villages, the girls’ abnormal behaviour spread to other children and to adults. Before the epidemic subsided, hundreds were affected.

Source: The Central African Journal of Medicine, May 1963

Noddy And Chatterley

1960: Penguin Books’ decision to tweak a few legal noses by publishing an unexpurgated, inexpensive edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover produced the expected result: prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

Penguin’s lawyers contacted an array of writers and academics to bolster the defence case. Aldous Huxley offered to appear as a witness. Graham Greene backed the publisher, but admitted that he found parts of the book “rather absurd”. T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman sent letters of support. Enid Blyton declined: “My husband said NO at once”.

Source: Jeremy Lewis, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane (2005), pp. 323–4

Fast Forward With Fossils

1958: Mao Zedong assured the Chinese people that the Great Leap Forward would usher in the communist millennium. Mao promised that, with a wave of his Marxist wand, China would be transformed into a modernised, prosperous utopia.

Commune leaders and provincial bureaucrats grossly exaggerated output figures and made wildly unrealistic projections to show that the millennium had indeed arrived. Even the Association of Chinese Palaeontologists got swept up in the excitement, giddily pledging to more than halve its 20-year programme so as to overtake “capitalist” research into fossils.

Source: Stanley Karnow, Mao and China: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution (1984), p. 97

Ammonite fossils, photographed by Richard Wheeler

Queen Charms Soviet Leader

1956: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Britain, where he was charmed by Elizabeth II – “the sort of young woman you’d be likely to meet walking along Gorky Street on a balmy summer afternoon.”

Source: Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, ed. Strobe Talbott (1971), p. 406

Moscow’s Gorky Street, since renamed Tverskaya Street, photographed in 1957 by Manfred and Barbara Aulbach

California Smash

Actor James Dean in a publicity still for the film Rebel Without a Cause

1955: James Dean was killed on 30 September when his new Porsche sports car collided head-on with another car on a California highway. The impact broke the young actor’s neck and crushed his chest; the driver of the other car suffered only minor cuts and bruises. (The other driver’s name, incidentally, was Donald Turnupseed.)

Source: Donald Spoto, Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996), pp. 248–9

Crocodile Smile

1952: After failing his exams in Paris for the second year in a row, Saloth Sâr’s scholarship was stopped and he returned to Cambodia.

“There was never the least hint of what he would become,” said Mey Mann, who knew Sâr in France. Others felt the same.

“He never said very much,” Mann remembered. “He just had that smile of his. He liked to joke, he had a slightly mischievous way about him.”

Back in Cambodia, the mediocre student with the reticent manner and engaging smile devoted himself to the revolutionary struggle. By the late 1960s he had become the undisputed leader of Cambodia’s communists, and in 1970 he adopted a new name: Pol Pot.

Source: Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (2004), pp. 31, 44

“The Little Fellows”

1951: James Joyce’s wife, Nora, outlived him by 10 years. She was protective of his literary reputation, though at times she overdid it. When an interviewer questioned her about the French writer André Gide, she remarked: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

Source: Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1983), p. 743

Seuss Zoo Quest

1950: American children’s writer Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, coined the name “nerd” for a tousle-haired, grumpy-looking creature in If I Ran the Zoo:
I’ll sail to Ka-Troo
And
Bring
Back
an IT-KUTCH
a PREEP
and a PROO
a NERKLE
a NERD
and a SEERSUCKER, too!

Source: Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo (2000), pp. 48–9

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