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

Glum Outlook

1936: Having sold only two copies of More Pricks Than Kicks in a year, Samuel Beckett’s publisher was understandably reticent about his next effort, Murphy. A further 41 publishers turned the novel down before it was eventually accepted.

“I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read,” Beckett wrote to a friend. Thoroughly disillusioned, he contemplated swapping his desk and typewriter for an aircraft cockpit. “I hope I am not too old to take it up seriously, nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot.”

Source: Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. I: 1929–1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Loise More Overbeck (2009), p. 362

Kenyatta On Screen

Jomo Kenyatta depicted on a 1964 Kenyan postage stamp

1935: Sanders of the River combined footage filmed on location in Africa – tribal dancing, wild animals, native canoes – with a storyline shot at an African village constructed in a film studio near London. The black extras for the British sequences were mainly dockers, but also included an overseas student named Johnstone Kenyatta. Thirty years later, having changed his first name in the interim to Jomo, Kenyatta became the prime minister and then the president of independent Kenya.

Source: Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television (2001), p. 36

Nazi Sympathizers

1934: Norfolk farmers showed little sympathy for skylarks, regarding them as pests that damaged winter crops. Newspapers offered farmers some support for the need to control lark numbers. The migration of larks from northern Europe and recent political developments in Germany were behind one finger-wagging headline: “Skylarks that sing to Nazis will get no mercy here”.

Source: Paul F. Donald, The Skylark (2004), p. 225

Cockroach Whiskers

NKVD mugshot of Osip Mandelstam

1933: The poets Osip Mandelstam and Demian Bedny landed themselves in trouble for injudicious comments about Stalin. Mandelstam described how
His cockroach whiskers leer
and
His fingers are fat as grubs
and Bedny wrote in his diary that books he lent to the Soviet leader came back with greasy fingermarks on the pages.

Source: Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir (1971), pp. 13, 26

Painful Birth

1932: Jessie Beale accompanied her husband, a forest manager with a teak firm, into the foothills of Burma. At Karen and Kachin villages they distributed Epsom salts, boracic washes and aspirin. Other than that, the villagers had to rely on local medical care, some of it “pretty grim”.

“I once saw a poor girl who was being looked after by some old women in childbirth. They put a plank on her stomach and jumped on it to force her baby out.”

Source: Lines from a Shining Land, ed. Derek Brooke-Wavell (1998), p. 9

Cryptic Cinema

1930: The Film Society was sufficiently impressed by Germaine Dulac’s surrealist silent film La Coquille et le Clergyman, to screen it, with English subtitles, at a London cinema. The British Board of Film Censors took a dimmer view of the film’s merits and rejected it for general release, supposedly on the grounds that it was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”.

Source: James C. Robertson, The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913–1972 (1989), pp. 38–9

Breast Reduction

1929: For almost a thousand years, women had been banned from the monastic communities on Mount Athos, in northern Greece. The French journalist Maryse Choisy, however, managed to sneak in and stay for a month. She claimed she had improved her disguise beforehand by having her breasts “appropriately trimmed” by a plastic surgeon.

Source: Maryse Choisy, A Month among the Men (1962), p. 11

“Kindly Firm”

1928: Treat your children as if they were young adults, the psychologist John Watson advised parents. “Always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. . . . Try it out.”

Source: John B. Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), p. 73

Tea With Auden

1927: In his final year as an undergraduate at Oxford, Wystan Auden fell for an attractive newcomer named Gabriel Carritt. Auden became close friends with the Carritt family, even if they were initially startled by his bluntness. (“Mrs Carritt,” he said one day, “my tea tastes like tepid piss.”)

Source: Humphrey Carpenter, W.H. Auden: A Biography (1992), pp. 75–8

Rich Vein Of Humour

1926: Life and Laughter ’Midst the Cannibals was Clifford Collinson’s account of his adventures in the Solomon Islands and not, as the book’s title might imply, a hodge-podge of missionary-in-the-cooking-pot jokes.

Source: Clifford W. Collinson, Life and Laughter ’Midst the Cannibals (1926)

Plodding Past

1925: In his efforts to modernize Persia, Rezā Shāh Pahlavi took a dim view of anything that drew attention to the country’s backwardness. Camels, for example. Camels were an anachronism in a modernized, motorized nation. So Rezā Shāh prohibited photographs of camels.

Source: Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup (2012), pp. 78–9

Say It In Hausa

1924: A Hausa Phrase Book provided colonial officials in northern Nigeria with the language to deal with embarrassing situations (“I have been robbed of my trousers”) and domestic difficulties (“Rats have been in here, call the cat”); likewise, the linguistic skills to handle troublesome servants (“Quarrelling, loud talking, and wrangling women are all forbidden”), tiresome guests (“Relieve us of your presence for awhile”), reluctant taxpayers (“You have only brought in half the tax; where is the rest?”) and very reluctant taxpayers (“If you do not pay in one month, your house will be burned and you will be driven to the bush”).

Source: Allan C. Parsons and G.P. Bargery, A Hausa Phrase Book (1924), pp. 2, 4, 9, 11, 45, 49

Delayed Handover

1922: When the head of the Ireland’s Provisional Government arrived at Dublin Castle on 16 January to receive the handover of the building, a huffy British official remarked: “You’re seven minutes late, Mr Collins.” Michael Collins is supposed to have replied: “We’ve been waiting 700 years, you can have the seven minutes.”

Source: Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: A Biography (1990), p. 310

Food Hygiene

1921: The Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie excavated at Abydos over four seasons at the turn of the century. Flinders Petrie was a penny pincher; at the end of each digging season he reputedly buried unused cans of food. These were dug up at the start of the next season and thrown against a wall; any that did not explode were considered fit to eat. Flinders Petrie spent another season at Abydos in 1921. After an absence of 20 years, his return must have been explosive.

Source: David O’Connor, Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (2011), p. 27

Flying Felines

1919: John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who became the first men to fly an aeroplane non-stop across the Atlantic, and the crew of the airship R34, which traversed the ocean in both directions, grabbed the headlines, but it was also a good year for flying cats. A tabby kitten named Whoopsie stowed away on the outbound flight of the R34, and Alcock and Brown were accompanied on their flight by two stuffed black cat mascots, Lucky Jim and Twinkletoe.

Sources: Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, Our Transatlantic Flight (1969), p. 67; George Rosie, Flight of the Titan: The Story of the R34 (2010), pp. 102, 157, 163

Invasive Species

1918: Lord Howe Island, 600 kilometres east of the Australian mainland in the Tasman Sea, is remote enough to have evolved its own distinctive flora and fauna. On 15 June, the steamship Makambo ran aground at the northern end of the island. While the ship was being refloated and patched up, black rats, which had been unknown on the island, made their way from ship to shore. The rats thrived, and during the next few years they wiped out several bird species, including the vinous-tinted thrush, the Lord Howe gerygone, the grey fantail, the robust white-eye and the Tasman starling. To make matters worse, masked owls were introduced to control the rat population, but they failed, and were probably responsible for the extinction of the southern boobook.

Source: K.A. Hindwood, The Birds of Lord Howe Island (1940), pp. 22–6

All-In Wrestling

1917: “What surprises me,” Charles Carrington wrote after the war, “is that historians have elevated” the fighting at Broodseinde, during the third battle of Ypres, “into a tactical masterpiece”. To Carrington, in the thick of it, it had been more like “all-in wrestling in the mud”.

Source: Richard Holmes, Firing Line (1985), p. 155

Harshly Critical

Sergei Prokofiev, photographed in about 1918

1916: The music critic Leonid Sabaneyev described the first Moscow performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite as bad, cacophonous and barbaric. Sabaneyev wrote the review off the top of his head; he didn’t bother to attend the performance. If he had, he would have known that it was cancelled at short notice.

Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 129

Round Of Drinks

1915: To curb alcohol consumption, Britain’s Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) made it illegal for people to buy each other drinks. A Liverpool man was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for treating a friend, and in Bristol a husband was fined 9 shillings for buying a drink for his wife.

Source: Norman Longmate, The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance (1968), p. 269

Multiple Deaths

Ferdinand Foch, portrayed in 1918

1914: The French dead from fighting near the Belgian border on 22 August included Germain Foch, the only son of corps commander General Ferdinand Foch, and, on the same day, the general’s son-in-law, Captain Paul Bécourt.

Source: Martin Gilbert, First World War (1995), p. 56

Recent Superstition

1913: It would be wrong to assume that the superstition surrounding Friday 13th is particularly ancient. Although the notions of Friday as an unlucky day and 13 as an unlucky number have longer histories, the first definite reference connecting Friday, the 13th day of the month and bad luck dates only to 1913.

Source: Steve Roud, A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles (2004), pp. 23–5

Solar Power

1912: At Maadi, south of Cairo, the American inventor and engineer Frank Shuman began work on the world’s first solar-powered steam engine. Rows of trough-shaped mirrors heated water to provide steam to power the engine, which pumped water from the Nile to irrigate nearby fields.

Source: Richard Cohen, Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life (2010), pp. 392–3

Gunboat Diplomacy

1911: Germany’s attempt to increase its influence in southern Morocco at the expense of France provoked the Agadir crisis, which almost bump-started the First World War three years early. Under the pretext of protecting German citizens during a period of insecurity, Berlin dispatched the gunboat Panther to the port of Agadir. There were in fact no German citizens in Agadir so, to keep up appearances, one had to be fetched from a town up the coast.

Source: Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1992), chap. 39

Snuffing Out Life

1910: The astronomer and writer Camille Flammarion caused consternation with his warning that cyanogen in the tail of Halley’s comet could “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet”. The approach of the comet led to brisk sales of “comet pills” as an antidote to the highly toxic gas.

Source: Robert E. Bartholomew and Hilary Evans, Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion (2004), pp. 19–37

Saddle-Sore

1909: Cyclists in the inaugural Giro d’Italia crossed the finish line in Milan on 30 May. After eight stages and 2,445 bumpy, dusty kilometres of road, the overall winner was Luigi Ganna, a bricklayer. Asked how he felt, Ganna replied: “L’impressione più viva l’è che me brusa tanto ’l cu.” (Rough translation: “My arse is killing me.”)

Source: John Foot, Pedalare! Pedalare!: A History of Italian Cycling (2012), p. 15

Temporary Setback

Chester Nimitz, photographed in about 1945

1908: Eighteen months after he was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, Chester Nimitz was in command of the destroyer Decatur when it ran aground on a mudbank in Batangas Bay, in the Philippines. Nimitz was court-martialled and found guilty of “neglect of duty”. He was relieved of his command, but his mistake had no lasting effect on his career; he moved up the ranks and in December 1941 was put in command of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific.

Source: Brayton Harris, Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater (2011), pp. 15–19

Monkey Business

1906: On the afternoon of 16 November, Enrico Caruso was arrested in New York’s Central Park for “annoying” a female visitor to the monkey house.

Monkey business in the monkey house? Clearly, proclaimed the arresting officer. Certainly not, protested Caruso. Did the Italian opera star foist himself on the young lady? Was she the innocent victim of Caruso’s unwanted attentions? Unfortunate woman.

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