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

“Basket Case”

1919: “Basket case”, in its original sense, referred not to an economy gone to pot, but was American military slang for a soldier who had lost all four limbs on the battlefield and needed to be literally carried around in a basket.

Source: Jonathon Green, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2005), p. 75

Talented Bank Clerk

T.S. Eliot, photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1934

1917: The literary world regarded T.S. Eliot, after the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, in terms of his poetry, but Lloyds Bank, where Eliot commenced work in 1917, viewed him in terms of his clerical skills. A more senior Lloyds employee whom the literary scholar I.A. Richards bumped into offered an assessment of Eliot the bank clerk: “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why – in time, of course, in time – he mightn’t even become a Branch Manager.”

Source: Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971), p. 94

“Back Of ’Is ’Ead”

1916: While on night patrol in no man’s land, a grenade exploded in Captain Harold Macmillan’s face. His corporal explained what happened next: “Well, sir. I saw the German trying to run away. So I ’it ’im, and ’is ’elmet came off. Then I ’it ’im again and the back of ’is ’ead came off.”

Source: Alistair Horne, Macmillan 1894–1956 (1988), p. 43

Mail-Order Brides

1915: “If you want any French women there are plenty here, and they are very good looking,” wrote Umed Sing Bist in a letter from France to Sali Seok, in India. “If you really want any I can send one to you in a parcel.”

Source: Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18, ed. David Omissi (1999), p. 123

Three Categories

Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographed on board the Antarctic exploration vessel Aurora, between about 1914 and 1917

1914: Sir Ernest Shackleton announced in a letter in The Times that he intended to lead an expedition across Antarctica. Response was enthusiastic. Nearly 5,000 would-be polar explorers applied to accompany him. Shackleton placed their letters in three large drawers labelled “Possible”, “Hopeless” and “Mad”.

Source: Hugh Robert Mill, The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1923), p. 195

Mitford Connection

Unity Mitford, sketched by William Acton in 1937

1913: In view of her future infatuation with Adolf Hitler, it was appropriate that Unity, the fourth of the Mitford daughters, was conceived in the Canadian gold-mining town of Swastika.

Source: Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family (2001), p. 33

Zzxjoanw

1912: The Music Lovers’ Cyclopedia, edited by Rupert Hughes, defined zzxjoanw as a Maori word meaning “drum”, “fife” or “conclusion”. It would be a difficult word to pronounce in any language, and more so in Maori, which does not contain the letters z, x or j. (Evidence that editors are not without a sense of humour.)

Source: Michael Quinion, Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Language Myths (2005), p. 278

Statistical Inquiries

Sir Francis Galton, photographed by Eveleen Myers

1911: Sir Francis Galton was inclined to measure whatever was measurable (“Count wherever you can”): the plump curves of an African woman (by means of a sextant and trigonometry); the time taken for a headmaster to thrash schoolboys (eight minutes for 11 boys); “Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer”; and a map showing the distribution of beauty across Britain (the prettiest girls were in London and the plainest in Aberdeen).

Source: Martin Brookes, Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton (2004), pp. 24, 83–5, 183–6, 240

Ghostly Music

1910: On 11 December, the German steamship Palermo ran aground off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Its cargo included accordions, and their music was said to have wafted ashore from the stricken vessel, although that’s a story that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Source: Rafael Lema Mouzo, Catálogo de Naufragios: Costa da Morte – Galicia (2014), p. 27

Never Give Up

Robert Peary, photographed in 1909 by Benjamin B. Hampton

1909: Did Robert Peary lead the first expedition to reach the North Pole? Did he really get there?

Many believed Peary’s claim that he and a party of five reached the Pole on 6 April, but others were sceptical. Doubters pointed out that Peary’s expedition notes were scanty and slapdash; none of his companions during the final attempt on the Pole was capable of making navigational observations; and some of the distances Peary claimed to have covered across the Arctic pack ice were frankly incredible.

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Reger’s Retort

German composer and pianist Max Reger

1906: Writing in the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten on 7 February, music critic Rudolf Louis panned Max Reger’s Sinfonietta for “conjuring up the illusion of significance by a thousand contrapuntal tricks”.

Reger bristled. “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house,” he wrote in reply. “I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” (“Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nachsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein.”)

Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 139

Forcibly Ejected

1905: Richard Creedon was employed as a “sandhog” – one of the labourers who constructed the tunnels for New York’s subway system. On 27 March, while he was working in a pressurised air chamber beneath the bed of the East River, the roof of the chamber sprang a leak. Creedon attempted to plug the hole, but it suddenly widened into a blowout, and the pressurised air forced him through the hole, like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Creedon was propelled through 8 metres of silt and water, flung high into the air, then dumped in the river. Although dazed, he was unhurt, and claimed, with a touch of bravado: “I was flying through the air, and before I comes down I had a fine view of the city.”

Source: New York History, January 1999

Sign Of Maturity

Edith Sitwell, painted by Roger Fry in 1915

1904: Writing home from Paris, where she had been sent to finish her education, 17-year-old Edith Sitwell described the changes to her pubescent body: “I am growing eyebrows. One can see them distinctly.”

Source: Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius (2011), p. 48

Tiger At The Raffles

1902: Staff at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore were scared out of their wits one night when a tiger peered into the billiard room. Like many buildings in Southeast Asia, the billiard room was raised off the ground to protect against flooding. Next morning the tiger was discovered hiding beneath the room. A marksman was summoned, and the animal was shot and killed. The tiger, it transpired, was absent without leave from a nearby circus. Over the coming years, various accounts embroidered the story of the tiger, the last to be shot in Singapore. Instead of being shot under the billiard room, it was shot in the billiard room under the billiard table.

Source: Ilsa Sharp, There Is Only One Raffles: The Story of a Grand Hotel (1981), pp. 35–7

Death In Balangiga

1901: Uncle Sam arrived in the Philippines as a liberator and stayed on as a coloniser. Filipinos resisted, of course, but they were no match for the U.S. Army. One of the few Filipino successes was at Balangiga, on the island of Samar. On 28 September, armed only with machetes, guerrillas surprised the American garrison at breakfast, killing 54 and wounding 20 out of 78. American retribution was brutal. General Jacob Smith promised to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” and ordered his troops to kill all islanders aged 10 or over.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Balangiga_massacre

Mailed Fist

1900: Angered by tram workers on strike in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II dispatched a tetchy telegram to the commander of the Guards Corps: “I expect at least five hundred people to be shot when the troops intervene.”

Source: John C.G. Röhl, Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile 1900–1941 (2014), p. 139

Clinging On

1999: New York City hospitals recorded 1,791 deaths in the first week of 2000, an increase of 50.9 per cent from the 1,187 deaths during the corresponding period of January 1999 and 46.1 per cent more than the figure of 1,226 for the final week of December 1999. In the absence of bitterly cold weather, an influenza epidemic or some other explanatory factor, experts on ageing surmised that very sick people had simply clung on to life so that they could see in the new millennium.

Source: The New York Times, 15 January 2003

Political Novices

Tony Blair, photographed by Jing Ulrich in 2011

1997: The Labour Party returned to power after 18 years in opposition; not since the middle of the 19th century had an incoming Cabinet possessed so little experience of government. When the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock congratulated Tony Blair on his election victory, the prime minister replied, “OK, wise guy. What do we do now?”

Source: Andrew Rawnsley, Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour (2000), p. 17

“Cows In Sheds”

1996: In Afghanistan, Taliban prohibitions on music, dancing, television, videos, films, keeping pigeons and flying kites applied to both sexes.

Other restrictions applied solely to women: no work outside the home, no school, no university, no leaving home without a male relative, no travelling on the same bus as men, no treatment by male doctors, no brightly coloured clothes, no loud laughter, no cosmetics, no noisy shoes, no white socks.

“Life for women under the Taliban,” complained a woman from Herat, “was no more than being cows in sheds.”

Sources: Rosemarie Skaine, The Women of Afghanistan under the Taliban (2002), pp. 156–60; Christina Lamb, Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World (2015), p. 414

Possible Crime Scene

1995: Crime writer P.D. James’s first novel wasn’t published until she was 42, but she admitted that death had interested her from an early age. “It fascinated me,” she said. “When I heard, ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,’ I thought, ‘Did he fall or was he pushed?’ ”

Source: The Paris Review, Summer 1995

Warriors In Tights

1994: During the prolonged conflicts in Chechnya, Russian soldiers believed implicitly that their Chechen adversaries were receiving assistance from an unlikely quarter: snipers from the newly independent Baltic states. Female snipers. The women, motivated by love of money and hatred of Russians, were alleged to be members of a biathlon team and could be identified by the white tights they wore.

Source: Questions de Recherche, March 2011

Cool Chronicles

1993: The Black Bible Chronicles translated the scriptures into the language of contemporary black America. “You shouldn’t diss the Almighty’s name,” because, “It ain’t cool and payback’s a monster.” That was the Commandment warning against taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Thou shalt not kill,” became, in the idiom of Detroit and Harlem, “Don’t waste nobody,” and, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” became, “Don’t mess around with someone else’s ol’ man or ol’ lady.”

Source: P.K. McCary, Black Bible Chronicles: Book One: From Genesis to the Promised Land (1993)

Snakes And Ladders

Václav Havel, photographed by Jiří Jiroutek

1990: Caught up in the snakes-and-ladders existence of the East European political dissident, the playwright Václav Havel began 1989 with a prison sentence and ended the year as president of Czechoslovakia. Asked a few months later how he felt to be propelled from prisoner of the state to head of state, Havel said: “If that door over there opened and they came to take me away I would not be at all surprised.”

Source: Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life (2014), p. 379

Difficult To Sleep

1989: Where would you hear “The Electric Spanking of War Babies”, by Funkadelic, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, and “Heaven’s on Fire”, by Kiss, played at maximum volume, 24 hours a day? At the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City.

When the deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega fled to the safety of the Apostolic Nunciature, American forces brought in loudspeakers and bombarded him and the hapless papal nuncio with non-stop hard rock and heavy metal.

Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 126