1985: On the first day of the year, 29 passengers and crew died when an Eastern Air Lines plane flew into the side of a mountain in Bolivia. Six weeks later, an Iberia airliner struck a television antenna near Bilbao, in northern Spain; 148 people died. A terrorist bomb exploded on an Air India jumbo jet over the north Atlantic on 23 June, killing all 329 people on board. On 12 August, in what was shaping up to be a bad year for air accidents, a Japan Airlines jumbo jet on a domestic flight went out of control after its tail sheared off. The aircraft crashed in mountains west of Tokyo; 520 died, four survived. On 12 December, 248 U.S. servicemen, heading home for Christmas, together with eight crew, perished when their Arrow Air plane came down shortly after takeoff from Gander, in Newfoundland. Total fatalities for the year: 2,962.
1984: How many words do the Eskimos have for snow? A handful? Dozens? A hundred?
The anthropologist Franz Boas gave four examples in his 1911 Handbook of American Indian Languages. Benjamin Lee Whorf expanded the list to at least seven in a 1940 essay. After that, the number snowballed; by 1984, an editorial in The New York Times was mentioning “100 types” of snow and “100 synonyms” for the white stuff.
So how many words do the Eskimos have for snow? It’s not exactly a trick question, but there are a variety of answers, depending on what you mean by “Eskimo” and “word” and “snow”.
Source: American Anthropologist, June 1986
1983: The American playwright Tennessee Williams bemoaned the downward trajectory of his career “from good reviews, to bad reviews, to no reviews”.
On 25 February, his body was discovered in a New York hotel room, curled on the floor next to the bed. An alphabet of prescription drugs, from Aldomet to Zyloprim, lay on the chest of drawers; capsules of Seconal, a barbiturate, littered the bedclothes; a half-empty glass of red wine stood on the bedside table. Cause of death: the toxic amount of Seconal consumed and not, as some reports suggested, a medicine bottle cap stuck in the throat.
Source: John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014), pp. 582–8
1982: Larry Walters had always wanted to be a pilot, and on 2 July he finally achieved his ambition.
The Los Angeles truck driver bought a bunch of weather balloons, inflated them with helium and tied them to an ordinary garden chair – what the Americans call a lawn chair. He then donned a parachute, strapped himself into the chair and instructed his ground crew to release the cords that tethered his home-made flying machine to the ground.
Walters had expected to rise gently into the sky and to float about at a modest altitude; instead, he zoomed upwards at an alarming speed and drifted into the airspace over Long Beach airport.
1981: The economic recession of 1981 to 1982 forced the closure of many steel mills and factories in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania. This produced a sharp reduction in air pollution. Measured in terms of total suspended particulates, or TSPs, pollution fell by a quarter between 1980 and 1982. The improved air quality led in turn to a decline in infant mortality caused by “internal” causes (respiratory and cardiopulmonary deaths, for example). While the number of births in Pennsylvania increased by roughly 3,000, the number of infant deaths actually decreased: from 1,815 in 1980 to 1,595 in 1982. So, each year, 220 infants lived who, if it hadn’t been for the recession, would have died.
1980: Each year, regularly, in December, the United Nations General Assembly voted to find “approaches and ways and means” to improve the “effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Given its laudable aims, the resolution garnered overwhelming support: 120 nations voted for it, and one nation voted against, in 1980; 135 nations voted for, and one against, in 1981; 113 for, one against, in 1982; 132 for, one against, in 1983. Each year, regularly, the lone country opposed to the resolution was the United States of America.
1979: The introduction, in 1979, of a one-child family policy in China was followed by more intrusive birth control measures that reached a peak in 1983. The number of abortions increased from 5.4 million in 1978 to 14.4 million in 1983, while sterilisations jumped from 3.3 million to 20.8 million. Women bore the brunt: female sterilisations outnumbered male sterilisations by three to two in 1973; by 1985, four times as many women as men were operated on; in 2000, the ratio was more than five to one.
Source: Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler, Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics (2005), pp. 255–61
1977: The novelist Vladimir Nabokov died in a Swiss hospital (window carelessly left open, bronchitis) at the age of 78. Véra, his wife, and Dmitri, his son, were in the room. With his last breath, said Dmitri, his father emitted “a triple moan of descending pitch”.
Source: The Observer, 25 October 2009
1976: The Sex Pistols weren’t all spittle and swear words. Nils Stevenson, their tour manager, recalled that Johnny Rotten “was incredibly charming with landladies; he really did have a way with older women”.
Source: John Robb, Punk Rock: An Oral History (2006), p. 227
1975: “There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production,” warned a science story in Newsweek. “The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” What evidence? A shorter growing season in Britain, drought near the equator, lots of tornadoes in the United States. “The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down.”
Source: Newsweek, 28 April 1975
1974: Faced with impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States. Even in utter disgrace, Nixon managed a final act of bravado. As he climbed aboard the helicopter that would whisk him away from the White House, he lifted both arms and stuck out his fingers in a V sign – V for victory.
Source: Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973–1990 (1991), p. 445
1973: In certain parts of medieval Switzerland it was the practice to cut an ear off any loitering gypsies. The message from the sedentary population was clear: go away and stay away.
In 20th-century Switzerland the charity Pro Juventute separated the children of Jenisch travelling people from their parents and placed them in orphanages or with foster parents among the wider community, so as to “improve” the children through education. In time, it was hoped, the supposed scourge of nomadism would be removed and the Jenisch way of life would fade away.
Between 1926 and 1973 the Kinder der Landstrasse (“Children of the Open Road”) project systematically and often forcibly removed over 700 Jenisch children from their parents, until a Swiss magazine exposed what was happening, and public outrage forced it to end.
Source: Mitya New, Switzerland Unwrapped: Exposing the Myths (1997), pp. 108–9
1972: For 40 years, black men in Alabama were the unwitting participants in a Public Health Service study of the effects of untreated syphilis. From 1932 until 1972, when The Associated Press broke the story, the Tuskegee Study followed the progress of the disease in a group of 399 men. No effort was made to cure the men. When penicillin became available for the treatment of syphilis, it was deliberately withheld from them, since its use would interfere with the experiment. By the time the study was terminated, at least 28 and possibly as many as 100 of the participants had died from complications caused by the disease. “They were subjects, not patients;” James H. Jones observed in Bad Blood, “clinical material, not sick people.”
Source: James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1993), pp. 1–2, 179
1969: In 1968 and 1969, the United States dropped on South Vietnam one and a half times the tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany by all the Allies during the Second World War.
By 1969, the explosive force of the bombs dropped on North Vietnam each month was equivalent to two atomic bombs.
Up to the end of 1971, the United States had dropped 6.3 million tons of bombs on Indochina – more than three times the amount it dropped in all theatres during the Second World War.
In South Vietnam alone, there were 21 million bomb craters.
Source: Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young and H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: A Documented History (1985), p. 461
1967: The British imperial presence in Aden ended on 29 November. Sir Richard Turnbull, the last-but-one high commissioner, had remarked that when the British Empire finally disappeared it would leave behind only two monuments: “one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’ ”.
Source: Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), p. 358
1966: Just after nine on the morning of Friday, 21 October, one of the colliery waste tips that loomed over the Welsh mining village of Aberfan collapsed. A wave of mining slag and loose rock slipped down the mountainside, burying Pantglas Junior School and 20 houses in the village. Altogether, 144 people died; 116 of them were children.
1965: Let Stalk Strine offered Poms, Yanks and others a glimpse of Strine – English with an Australian twang. A few examples:
share: shower, either the bathroom or meteorological sort, as in a “cole share” or “scadded shares and thunnerstorms”
egg jelly: in fact, really
air fridge: ordinary, not extreme, as in “the air fridge person”
tea nature: adolescent
baked necks: a popular breakfast dish
rise up lides: used by men for shiving
split nair dyke: continuous and severe pain in the head
londger ray: women’s underclothing
ebb tide: hunger, desire for food (“I dono watser matter, I jess got no ebb tide these dyes.”)
nerve sprike tan: mental collapse caused by stress, anxiety, etc. (“He never let sarp, marm. He’ll ever nerve sprike tan the waze goane.”)
Source: Afferbeck Lauder, Let Stalk Strine: A Lexicon of Modern Strine Usage (1965)
1964: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to British scientist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin for her “determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”, notably penicillin and vitamin B12. The Daily Mail’s headline: “Nobel prize for British wife”.
Source: Daily Mail, 30 October 1964
1963: The Green Line in Cyprus, separating the fractious Greek and Turkish communities, originated literally as a green line on a map. An upsurge of violence in December subsided after Britain’s Major-General Peter Young persuaded representatives of the two sides to accept a dividing line in Nicosia, the island’s capital. “Time and time again his green chinagraph pencil retraced the line across the talc of his field map, only to be rubbed out and changed in direction to suit the requirements of one side or the other. At last the pencil wavered no more – and the Green Line was finally and irrevocably drawn.”
Source: Michael Harbottle, The Impartial Soldier (1970), p. 67
1962: America’s first space mission to another planet came to a very premature end. The Mariner 1 spacecraft was supposed to fly past Venus, but the rocket carrying the spacecraft began to behave erratically soon after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, forcing NASA to blow it up five minutes into the flight. A post-mortem attributed the failure to a missing symbol in the guidance program. Dubbed “the most expensive hyphen in history”, the omission of the symbol (actually an overline rather than a hyphen) allowed incorrect guidance signals to throw the rocket wildly off course.
Source: Paul E. Ceruzzi, Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age (1989), pp. 202–3
1961: When Leonid Rogozov, a member of the Soviet team at the Novolazarevskaya base in Antarctica, fell ill with nausea, a high temperature and abdominal pains, the diagnosis was straightforward: acute appendicitis. Evacuation by sea or air, in the middle of the polar winter, was out of the question; Rogozov would have to be operated on at the base. And since Rogozov was the team doctor, that meant he would have to operate on himself.
1960: Before the discovery of a vaccine, most children in the United States had to endure a bout of measles; it was part of growing up. Many suffered nothing worse than three or four days in bed with a rash, a temperature and a cough, but complications and fatalities could and did occur.
Between 1912 and 1916 measles-related deaths averaged 5,300 a year – 26 deaths for every 1,000 reported cases. By the late 1950s the mortality rate had declined to less than one death for every 1,000 cases, but with an average of 542,000 cases of measles annually between 1956 and 1960, this still amounted to a significant number of deaths: 530 in 1956, 389 in 1957, 552 in 1958, 385 in 1959 and 380 in 1960.
Source: The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 1 May 2004
1959: Kenneth Tynan’s effing remark on a late-night satire show on BBC television in 1965 had many viewers foaming at the mouth (moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse suggested Tynan should have his bottom smacked).
In contrast, similar language during a teatime magazine programme on Ulster Television six years earlier attracted little response. Perhaps the viewers of Roundabout were paying more attention to their tea than to the telly. Live on air, the man who painted the railings alongside the River Lagan in Belfast was asked whether he got bored doing the same job all year round. His reply: “Of course it’s fucking boring.”
Source: Joe Moran, Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV (2013), pp. 6–8
1958: Western Australia’s deputy commissioner of police defended the use of ankle chains on Aboriginal prisoners at Hall’s Creek. In fact, according to Hugh McLernon, chaining had a humane purpose: it left the prisoners’ hands free to brush off insects.
Source: The Herald, 20 March 1958
1957: Magazines and newspapers marvelled when Maria Callas managed to shed 28 kilograms in 11 months; they carried before-and-after photographs of her transformation from a frumpy 92 kilos to a slender 64.
Callas lost weight by strict adherence to a diet of one meal a day, small servings of fresh fruit and raw meat, no pasta, no bread and no alcohol. But when the opera singer later became infested with a tapeworm (probably consumed with the raw meat), gossip columnists gleefully suggested that she had deliberately swallowed it as part of a diet regimen.
Source: Anne Edwards, Callas: Her Life, Her Loves, Her Music (2001), pp. 115, 116, 160, 161
1956: In the 1920s, Nina Hamnett was a promising artist, but by the 1930s and ’40s she had become a shabby figure who spent too little time in the studio and far too much time in the pubs and clubs of London’s Fitzrovia and Soho. “She was dirty, smelt of stale bar-rooms, and very pathetic.” At the York Minster pub, she made her favourite seat indelibly hers by urinating on it; sometimes she would be sick into her handbag before staggering home at night. On 13 December 1956 she fell from the window of her upstairs flat in Paddington and was impaled on the railings below. She died a few days later.
Source: Denise Hooker, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia (1986), pp. 184, 242, 250, 258
1955: Driver Jim Blake must have thought he was simply enforcing regulations when he ordered four black passengers on his bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to give up their seats for a white man. Instead, Blake’s action on the afternoon of 1 December provoked the Montgomery bus boycott, a milestone in the American civil rights movement.