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

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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Pink Pills

1905: Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People promised to cure anaemia, gastritis, lumbago, rheumatism and a host of other aches and ailments. Like most patent medicines, Dr. Williams’ pills promised much and cured little, but a catchy name and vigorous advertising ensured that they made pots of money for their Canadian manufacturer and distributor, George Fulford.

Source: Peter G. Homan, Briony Hudson and Raymond C. Rowe, Popular Medicines: An Illustrated History (2008), chap. 19

Lenin The Sportsman

1904: Nikolai Valentinov got to know Vladimir Lenin in Geneva, where the Bolshevik leader was living with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Valentinov’s Encounters with Lenin gives glimpses of Lenin’s domestic life. He liked to walk in the country and enjoyed picnics. He swam well and skated well. He exercised on the trapeze and on rings. He was very good at billiards. Before starting work each morning, he dusted his books and put them in order. He cleaned his shoes until they shone. If he lost a button, he would sew on another himself, and this he did “better than Nadya”.

Source: Nikolay Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin (1968), pp. 79–80

Excited Elgar

1901: “Gosh! man I’ve got a tune in my head.” The effervescent composer was Edward Elgar, writing to his friend August Jaeger, and the tune was the trio section of the first Pomp and Circumstance march, later set to words in “Land of Hope and Glory”.

Source: Jerrold Northrop Moore, Elgar and His Publishers: Letters of a Creative Life (1987), vol. I, p. 267

Vexed Question

1998: Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s leading rabbis, pronounced on the vexed theological issue of whether Jews should be allowed to pick their noses on the Sabbath. Nose-picking risks dislodging nasal hairs and is therefore similar to shaving or cutting hair – activities forbidden on the Sabbath – but the rabbi ruled that the habit was harmless and permissible.

Source: The Guardian, 12 January 1998