1937: At the beginning of October, President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic ordered his soldiers to round up Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border between the two countries. To distinguish between Creole-speaking Haitians and Spanish-speaking Dominicans, the soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask, What is this? Those who could not roll the “r” of the Spanish word “perejil” gave themselves away as Haitians.
1936: Margaret Roberts was a pupil at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School from autumn 1936 until summer 1943. Her nickname – years before “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” and “The Iron Lady” – was “Snobby Roberts”.
Source: Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers, ed. Robert Eccleshall and Graham Walker (1998), p. 361
1934: Pearl Buck had lived so long in China that on her return to America she found she was a foreigner in her own country. Like most Chinese, Buck ate little meat and avoided dairy products altogether. She quickly noticed that white Americans smelled. The milk, butter and beef they consumed gave them “a rank wild odor, not quite a stink, but certainly distressing”.
Source: Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1955), p. 315
1933: Heinrich Himmler often took his daughter Gudrun to visit Dachau. Gudrun was especially fond of the camp’s farm for breeding Angora rabbits.
Source: Harold Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933–2001 (2001), p. 30
1932: “Ravel’s Bolero I submit as the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music. From the beginning to the end of its 339 measures it is simply the incredible repetition of the same rhythm,” scoffed Edward Robinson in The American Mercury. The main theme, he wrote, was “an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune”, little different from “the wail of an obstreperous back-alley cat”.
Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 138
1931: On 12 August, the Hawera Star surprised readers with a story about exploding trousers. Richard Buckley, a local farmer, had placed his wet trousers in front of the fire to dry. As they warmed up, they “exploded with a loud report”.
Buckley’s trousers weren’t the only combustible clothing. Elsewhere in New Zealand, a load of laundry burst into flames on a washing line and a farmer’s trousers began to smoulder while he was actually wearing them.
1930: The BBC had a narrow view of what was newsworthy and what wasn’t. If an item didn’t come up to the required standard, it wasn’t broadcast. No effort was made to pad out news bulletins to a standard length. On 18 April, a quiet news day, the BBC announcer simply declared, “There is no news tonight.”
Source: Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, I: 1922–1939, Serving the Nation (1991), p. 118
1929: William Empson was summarily dismissed from his fellowship at Cambridge after a college servant found condoms in a drawer in his room.
Source: John Haffenden, William Empson: Among the Mandarins (2005), pp. 242–3
1928: A motor track was constructed from the Persian Gulf through the foothills of the Zagros to Gach Sārān, where, in that same year, oil was discovered in large quantities.
The rugged road and sizzling temperatures were too much for most vehicles. Engines overheated and took hours to cool. Only one lorry could overcome the terrain and the heat; while the others panted and wheezed, this particular vehicle barely raised a sweat as it climbed the steep slopes.
1927: What’s on a man’s mind? In the case of Leoš Janáček, quite clearly, his lover’s breasts. They were a motif in the Moravian composer’s letters to Kamila Stösslová at the end of 1927. He imagined them rippling like little waves on the River Otava or swelling like the open sea, and fantasized once about covering them with sheets of music.
Source: Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová , ed. John Tyrrell (2005), pp. 140–1, 150, 156, 161–2
1926: John Daniell captained Somerset cricket team for the last time, and soon after, played his last first-class match for the county.
Some years later, Daniell was watching a match at Taunton, when the bowler bowled a delivery that struck Frank Lee, the batsman, in the box.
“The box, you say. What namby-pamby nonsense is that?” Daniell spluttered.
A few minutes later, the same thing happened again. “What does he need a so-called box for?” Daniell thundered. “In my day, we hit fours with our private parts.”
Source: The Guardian, 12 January 2007
1925: Marian Arnold’s husband worked for the China Navigation Company and the Insurance Department of Butterfield & Swire. Years later, she reminisced about their time in China.
She remembered in particular a lunch party at a friend’s house. The friend’s Chinese cook was a talented cake maker. The lunch guests were so impressed by his beautifully decorated gâteau that he was summoned from the kitchen and warmly praised. The cook was very flattered. The hostess was very pleased. She asked whether he had iced the cake with the fancy icing set she had bought at a Shanghai department store.
1924: Norway’s decision to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union was impelled, in part, by the need to find markets for the Norwegian herring catch. Twelve years later, herrings again played an unexpected role in bilateral relations. The Norwegian government, fearful that the Soviets would halt purchases of the fish, gagged the political exile Leon Trotsky, and then put him on board a ship to Mexico.
Source: Donald Rayfield, Stalin and His Hangmen: An Authoritative Portrait of a Tyrant and Those Who Served Him (2004), pp. 259–60, 261, 271
1923: Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of Hollywood silent movies, made her first screen appearance in Down to the Sea in Ships. Her mentally ill mother, who regarded heavily made-up actresses as no better than prostitutes, had threatened to kill her to keep her out of films. “You ain’t goin’ inta pictures,” she had ranted. “You ain’t gonna be no hoor.”
Source: David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (1989), pp. 13, 22–3
1922: In the first commercial use of skywriting, Captain Cyril Turner flew his aircraft over the crowds gathered on Epsom Downs for the Derby and wrote “Daily Mail” across the sky.
Source: Daily Mail, 1 June 1922
1921: Famine killed an estimated 5 million people in the Volga region of Soviet Russia. Among the starving refugees at Samara, the British journalist Arthur Ransome came upon “a silently weeping little girl” with a “wizened dead face, pale green”, and on the east bank of the Volga, “an old woman cooking horsedung in a broken saucepan”.
1920: “Like every morning I have had my enema, in order to preserve a clear skin and sweet breath,” wrote Princess Ghika in her notebook on 11 January. “It is a family habit, approved of by Dr Pinard,” explained the princess, the former demi-mondaine Liane de Pougy. “One of Maman’s old great-aunts, the beautiful Madame Rhomès, died at the age of ninety and a half with a complexion of lilies and roses, skin like a child’s. She took her little enema, it seems, at five o’clock every evening, so that she would sleep very well. She did it cheerfully in public. She would simply stand in front of the fireplace; her servant would come in discreetly, armed with the loaded syringe; Madame Rhomès would lean forward gracefully so that her full skirts lifted, one two three, and it was done! Conversation was not interrupted. After a minute or two my beautiful ancestress would disappear briefly, soon to return with the satisfaction of a duty performed.”
Source: Liane de Pougy, My Blue Notebooks (1979), p. 83
“Mother . . . had a pretty custom, which she hated anyone to detect, of putting every letter she wrote to us when stamped, directed and sealed, into her Bible for a minute or two, ostensibly to sanctify the sealing up.”W.N.P. BARBELLION, JOURNAL, 18 MARCH 1919
1918: The American state of Georgia raised the age of consent from 10 to 14.
Source: Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr, Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History (1998), p. 28
1917: Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau travelled to Rome in February to cooperate with Sergei Diaghilev on the ballet Parade. Diaghilev insisted on showing them the sights of the city. On the evening of 21 February they went to the circus. Diaghilev fell asleep, but woke with a start when an elephant placed its feet on his knees.
Source: Jean Cocteau, Lettres à sa Mère, I: 1898–1918 (1989), p. 297
1916: When the British attack lost momentum on the first day of the battle of the Somme, Lieutenant R.A. Heptonstall found himself stranded in no man’s land. “From my shell hole I could see a dead man propped up against the German wire in a sitting position.” A German rifleman whiled away the time taking pot shots at the corpse “until his head was completely shot away”.
Source: Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (1988), p. 218
1915: Behind the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel, in Singapore, bartender Ngiam Tong Boon reputedly created – his personal contribution to the war effort – the Singapore Sling cocktail.
Source: Ilsa Sharp, There is Only One Raffles: The Story of a Grand Hotel (1981), p. 122
1914: Bronisław Malinowski made better use of the war years than he would have done slopping about in a trench in Galicia or the Carpathians. While conducting anthropological research in Papua and the nearby Trobriand Islands he met an old cannibal who had heard of the conflict raging in Europe. “What he was most curious to know was how we Europeans managed to eat such enormous quantities of human flesh, as the casualties of a battle seemed to imply. When I told him indignantly that Europeans do not eat their slain foes, he looked at me with real horror and asked me what sort of barbarians we were to kill without any real object.”
Source: Julius E. Lips, The Savage Hits Back or the White Man through Native Eyes (1937), p. vii
1913: “At the foot of the cliffs,” W.N.P. Barbellion wrote in his journal on 27 June, “[I] met an old man gathering sticks. As he ambled along dropping sticks into a long sack he called out casually, ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ?’ in the tone of voice in which one would say, ‘I think we shall have some rain before night.’ ‘Aye, aye,’ came the answer without hesitation from a boy lying on his back in the sands a few yards distant, ‘and that He died to save me.’
“Life is full of surprises like this. . . . Your own gardener will one day look over his rake and give you the correct chemical formula for carbonic acid gas. I met a postman once reading Shelley as he walked his rounds.”
Source: W.N.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man and A Last Diary (1984), pp. 91–2
1912: Writing home on 3 March, 8-year-old Eric Blair regaled his mother with a breathless account of his exploits on the school football field: “I was goalkeeper all the second halh, and they only got past the half-line twise while I was in goal but both of those times it nearly a goal and I had to be jolly quick to pick them up and kick them, because most of the chaps the other side were in aufel rats and they were runing at me like angry dogs”. (Not quite Orwell, not yet, but it was a promising start.)
Source: George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell, X: A Kind of Compulsion 1903–1936, ed. Peter Davison (1998), pp. 13–14
1911: The first escalator on the London Underground opened at Earl’s Court station on 4 October. A man with a wooden leg, William “Bumper” Harris, was employed to ride up and down the newfangled device to give timid travellers the confidence to use it. Hmm. Yes.
Source: Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How It Changed the City Forever (2004), p. 182; email from London Transport Museum, 12 March 2009
1910: “As I face eternity, I say that Ethel LeNeve has loved me as few women love men,” declared “Dr.” Hawley Harvey Crippen in an emotional “farewell letter to the world”. Writing from Pentonville Prison in London, four days before he was hanged for the murder of his wife, Crippen professed that “the love of Ethel LeNeve has been the best thing in my life – my only happiness – and that in return for that great gift I have been inspired with a greater kindness towards my fellow-beings, and with a greater desire to do good.”
Source: Tom Cullen, Crippen: The Mild Murderer (1988), pp. 217–18
1909: Ballerina Tamara Karsavina recounted how Vaslav Nijinsky “rose up, a few yards off the wings, described a parabola in the air, and disappeared from sight. No one of the audience could see him land; to all eyes he floated up and vanished.” Nijinsky’s leaps, defiant of gravity, caused a sensation in Paris. How did he accomplish them? Were they difficult? “No! No!” he replied, “not difficult. You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.”
Source: Tamara Karsavina, Theatre Street (1930), pp. 240, 241–2
1908: Incest became a crime under Scots law in 1567, but wasn’t criminalized in England until the Punishment of Incest Act of 1908.
Source: Sybil Wolfram, In-Laws and Outlaws: Kinship and Marriage in England (1987), p. 3