1991: Did Britain’s ambassador to the European Communities really hide under a table, passing notes to Prime Minister John Major, during a leaders-only session at the Maastricht summit? “There’s an element of truth in it,” the ambassador, Sir John Kerr, later admitted. “It all became rather silly, so I went under the table.” Major’s recollection was slightly different. Kerr “crouched beside me at the table . . . trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible”, he said, but added that the diplomat “crouched beneath the table”.
1990: Between 1945 and 1999, 712 fatalities were recorded in the United States among professional, recreational, college and high-school players of American football. In just over half a century there was only one year, 1990, when there were no football-related deaths.
Source: Journal of Athletic Training, September 2001
1989: The recent past soon becomes history; a generation grows up that has no direct experience of the way things were. Almost half – 49 per cent – of young Romanians questioned by a survey in 2010 were uncertain whether political repression had existed in their country under communism. In neighbouring Bulgaria, a survey of 15- to 35-year-olds in 2013 found that the expression “Iron Curtain” had no specific meaning for 65.7 per cent of them, while “Gulag” meant nothing to 79.2 per cent (although 3.1 per cent thought it was an Internet search engine).
Source: Teaching the History of Communism, ed. Vasil Kadrinov (2013), pp. 11, 30–1
1988: Among its advice and warnings on how to avoid illness abroad, Travellers’ Health drew attention to a survey of 10,000 cooks in Taiwan: more than two-thirds of them had athlete’s foot.
Source: Travellers’ Health: How to Stay Healthy Abroad, ed. Richard Dawood (1989), p. 6
1987: Andy Warhol thought his tombstone should be blank. “No epitaph, and no name,” he wrote in America. On second thoughts, though, perhaps it should bear a single word: “figment”.
Source: Andy Warhol, America (2011), p. 129
1986: The Norwegian football club SK Brann lacked in consistency. For eight years, from 1979 until 1986, Brann yo-yoed between the country’s 1st and 2nd divisions. In consecutive seasons, Brann was relegated, then promoted, then relegated, then promoted, then relegated, then promoted, then relegated, then promoted.
1985: Norway had its first aircraft hijacking. On 21 June, Stein Arvid Huseby boarded a Braathens SAFE plane in Trondheim carrying an air pistol in his hand luggage. (Airport security obviously needed beefing up.) Midway through the flight to Oslo, he threatened a cabin attendant and warned that there were explosives in the toilets. After the plane landed in Oslo, he allowed the passengers to leave, but kept the crew hostage. Throughout the incident, Huseby consumed copious amounts of alcohol. When the plane ran out of beer, he agreed to give up his gun in exchange for more beer. As soon as he gave up the weapon, special forces rushed the plane.
1984: Mass starvation offers little in the way of humour, but book reviewer Ysenda Maxtone Graham recalled her “malapropism-prone” great-aunt referring to the Ethiopian famine as “the famine in Utopia”.
Source: The Times, 17 February 2018
1982: South Africa’s segregated prisons were harsh institutions; Barberton prison farm, in the eastern Transvaal, was reputedly the harshest of all. While Simon Mpungose was incarcerated there, he once saw warders ironing the corpse of a black prisoner. The warders had beaten him to death and, to avoid awkward questions, they were literally ironing the dead body to try to erase the welts.
Source: Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart: Blood and Bad Dreams: A South African Explores the Madness in His Country, His Tribe and Himself (1991), pp. 196–7
1981: Death can be banal. “Mike the Bike” Hailwood was one of the foremost motorcycle racers of the 1960s, chalking up nine Grand Prix championships and 12 wins over the notoriously tricky Isle of Man Tourist Trophy course. On 21 March 1981, after retiring from competitive racing, he was fatally injured in a car crash while on a family errand – fetching some fish and chips.
Source: Stephen Bayley, Death Drive: There Are No Accidents (2016), pp. 191–9
1980: “Beware of the bull” notices fail to dissuade walkers from wandering off designated paths, Viscount Massereene and Ferrard told landowners during a debate in the House of Lords. He recommended instead: “Beware of the Agapanthus”.
1979: After months of strikes, dubbed the “winter of discontent” by British media, the government of James Callaghan faced a parliamentary motion of no confidence on the evening of 28 March.
House of Commons catering staff had “chosen this of all nights to go on strike”, so hungry and thirsty politicians and reporters had to make do without cakes, tea, coffee and alcohol.
1978: The British art historian Sir Anthony Blunt visited Germany for a Poussin exhibition. As he passed a McDonald’s takeaway, he remarked to his companions: “How strange to find a Scottish restaurant in Düsseldorf.”
Source: Brian Sewell, Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite: An Autobiography (2012), pp. 126–7
1977: Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols explained the complexities of musical composition: “You just pick a chord, go twang and you’ve got music.”
Source: Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (2005), p. 220
1976: When Shashikant Phadnis, an Indian chemistry researcher at Queen Elizabeth College, in London, was instructed to “test” a sucrose derivative, he mistakenly thought his supervisor said “taste” it. Phadnis did as he thought he was told, and dabbed the compound on his tongue. This potentially lethal mistake – the chemical could have been toxic – resulted in the fortuitous discovery of an exceptionally sweet substance, which was later named sucralose and developed commercially as an artificial sweetener.
Source: New Scientist, 19 June 1986
1975: Wartime slang among Rhodesia’s white population:
catch a gonk phr. take a nap
chibuli n. beer
flat dog or mobile handbag n. crocodile
flatten a chibuli phr. down a beer
floppy n. terrorist or guerrilla (because they flop down when shot)
jam stealer n. non-combatant soldier
slot a floppy phr. shoot a terrorist
tick taxi n. dog
Source: A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, ed. Paul Beale (1991), pp. 531–2
1974: When Peter Benchley finished his story about an enormous shark terrorizing a beach resort on the East Coast of the United States, he was stuck for a title. His father, the novelist and children’s writer Nathaniel Benchley, suggested What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig?. Thanks, dad. In the end, Peter decided to call it Jaws.
Source: André Bernard, Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (1995), p. 15
1973: Vladimir Lenin’s best years as a political leader were well behind him, but when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided to renew party documents, he was issued party card number 00000001.
Source: John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (2011), p. 169
1972: Death Valley in California can at times be almost literally boiling hot; on 15 July the ground temperature at Furnace Creek exceeded 93C.
Source: Ruth Kirk, Exploring Death Valley (1977), p. 26
1971: Like messy picnickers, astronauts on the Apollo moon missions scattered their empty food packages on the ground, trampled all over the place, and didn’t take their rubbish home. Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left more than 100 items at the Sea of Tranquillity. Between 1969 and 1972, at six different landing sites, American astronauts left behind them earplugs, facial wet wipes, towels, two golf balls, 12 pairs of boots and 96 bags of urine, faeces and vomit.
1970: The philosopher Bertrand Russell died on 2 February at the age of 97. Shortly after, The Times printed an anecdote, contributed by Valerie Eliot, the widow of T.S. Eliot. By coincidence, the poet had once caught a taxi a few evenings after the driver had picked up Russell – two celebrity passengers in quick succession. Eliot listened as the taxi driver recounted his recent conversation with the philosopher. “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?” he had asked. “And do you know,” the cabby told Eliot, “he couldn’t tell me.”
Source: The Times, 10 February 1970
1969: “In 1969 I published a small book on Humility,” Frank Longford wrote in The Tablet in 1994. “It was a pioneering work which has not, to my knowledge, been superseded.”
Source: The Tablet, 22 January 1994
1968: The only black people on the whites-only Orient Beach at East London, in South Africa, were a sad-looking cleaner in blue overalls, and a girl who sold ice creams, whose black feet left footprints in the wet sand. Seven-year-old Don McRae wasn’t sure she should be allowed on the beach barefoot. Whenever he visited the beach, he made sure his small, white, prejudiced feet “stepped over her black footsteps”.
Source: Donald McRae, Under Our Skin: A White Family’s Journey through South Africa’s Darkest Years (2012), p. 46
1967: What do dictators do at the weekend, after a busy week dictating? Francisco Franco doubtless checked the pools results. The Spanish leader was keen on football, and each week he filled out a pools coupon. In May he struck lucky and won 900,000 pesetas.
Source: Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography (1993), pp. 700, 731
1966: On the afternoon of 6 September, a parliamentary messenger named Demetrio Tsafendas stabbed and killed Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in the chamber of South Africa’s House of Assembly. Tsafendas was quickly labelled a “crank” and a “madman”: he had a history of mental illness, he had been detained in institutions in several countries, and he was obsessed with, and his actions driven by, an illusory tapeworm in his stomach.
Source: Tiffany Fawn Jones, Psychiatry, Mental Institutions, and the Mad in Apartheid South Africa (2012), pp. 86–92
1965: William Somerset Maugham and Winston Spencer Churchill were almost exact contemporaries. Maugham was born at the beginning of 1874, Churchill at the end; Churchill died at the beginning of 1965, Maugham at the end. As the two men grew old, their physical and mental health declined, though Maugham liked to think that he had withstood the passage of time better than Churchill. “If you think I’m g-g-ga-ga,” he stuttered, “you should see W-W-Winston!”
Source: S.N. Behrman, Tribulations and Laughter: A Memoir (1972), p. 308
1963: Soon after President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Charles de Gaulle predicted that the president’s widow would end up on the yacht of an oil tycoon. In 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. Onassis had made his money in shipping, not oil, but he did have a very large yacht.
Source: André Malraux, Fallen Oaks: Conversation with De Gaulle (1972), p. 55
1962: Timmie Jean Lindsey became the first woman to have sacs of silicone gel implanted in her breasts. The 29-year-old Texan happened to visit a hospital in Houston at the same time that cosmetic surgeons were recruiting young women to try out the new implants. “I was okay with what I had,” Lindsey later recalled, although she admitted, “After six children I guess they were kind of saggy.” The cosmetic surgeons tried to convince her that a perkier bosom would boost her confidence, but she already had plenty of confidence. What she really wanted, Lindsey said, was to have her ears pinned back. In the end, the surgeons persuaded her to have the implants. “Yeah, we’ll fix your ears too,” they promised.
Source: Florence Williams, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (2012), pp. 66–9
1961: The playwright John Mortimer portrayed his father as a formidable figure in the law courts, a barrister who continued work even after he suddenly went blind. He was a man with a volcanic temper, who delighted in argument, yet he laughed a lot, particularly at his own jokes, “until the tears ran from his sightless eyes”. He was very clean and always bathed twice a day. On the night he died, he was his usual irascible self, protesting noisily about not being allowed out of bed for a bath. When he was told not to get angry, he retorted: “I’m always angry when I’m dying.”
Source: John Mortimer, A Voyage Round My Father, ed. Mark Pattenden (1990), pp. vii–ix, 78–9