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

Change Of Career

Ernesto

Failed entrepreneur Ernesto “Che” Guevara, photographed in 1951

1949: Before he discovered his vocation as a revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara studied medicine in Buenos Aires. Like many university students, he was strapped for cash, which led him into a series of ingenious but impractical commercial ventures. The most spectacularly unsuccessful was a scheme to manufacture domestic cockroach killer by mixing locust insecticide with talcum powder. Guevara set up a “factory” at the family home, but a nauseous smell soon pervaded the house, he and his “commercial partners” fell ill, and the venture went belly up.

Source: Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997), pp. 57–8

Ambidextrous

1948: When a grenade shattered the right hand – the shooting hand – of Hungarian Takács Károly, it threatened to end his career as a pistol champion. Undeterred, he learned to shoot with his left hand and won gold in the rapid-fire pistol competitions at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.

Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 959

Snails, Stamps And Potted Meats

1947: The death of Matthew Connolly was a major loss in the field of gastropod studies. He was the author of The Land Shells of British Somaliland and A Monographic Survey of South African Marine Molluscs, as well as learned papers on such arcane malacological matters as the giant snail from Ceylon that licked the paint off window frames. Connolly discovered about 30 snails,

snail-shells-65358_960_720

six of which were named after him and one after his son, the critic and writer Cyril Connolly. He was also a keen philatelist, hailed by Stamp Collector as “the greatest authority on Railway Parcels stamps”, and an acknowledged expert on potted meats and pâtés.

Source: Jeremy Lewis, Cyril Connolly: A Life (1997), pp. 7–8

Mother Knows Best

1946: For his 11th birthday, Elvis Presley’s mother bought him his first guitar. Elvis wanted a bicycle, but his mother was worried he might get run over, so she bought him a guitar instead.

Source: Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994), p. 19

When Writers Meet

1945: War correspondent George Orwell was delighted to find that Ernest Hemingway was staying at the same hotel in Paris. The two men had never met. Orwell went up to Hemingway’s room and knocked. A voice bellowed at him to come in. He opened the door and said sheepishly, “I’m Eric Blair.” The American was standing on the other side of the bed, packing suitcases. “Well, what the –ing hell do you want?” he shouted. Orwell spoke again. “I’m George Orwell.” Hemingway pushed the suitcases to the end of the bed. “Why the –ing hell didn’t you say so? Have a drink. Have a double.”

Source: Paul Potts, Dante Called You Beatrice (1960), p. 82

First Things First

1944: Able Seaman Ken Oakley’s job on D-Day was to organise the men and machines disgorged from landing craft at Sword beach. “More and more craft were coming in continuously, and I was directing them. The trouble was, when the soldiers came ashore, their first reaction was, ‘Let’s group up and have a little check, and then we’ll have a cup of tea.’ ”

Source: Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Second World War (2004), pp. 314–15

“The Smallest Children Lay Like Fried Eels”

1943: Operation Gomorrah was the code name for British and American air raids that inflicted biblical destruction (“brimstone and fire from . . . out of heaven”) on Hamburg.

For 10 days the bombers returned again and again. In the early hours of 28 July, incendiary bombs unleashed a firestorm in the densely populated city. Many thousands of people perished in many hideous ways: sucked into blazing buildings by hurricane-force winds; torched by blizzards of sparks; trapped and suffocated in basement shelters; stuck fast in melted asphalt on the roads.

Their bodies, charred and shrivelled by the intense heat, piled up in the cellars and littered the streets. “How terribly must these people have died,” lamented one woman. “The smallest children lay like fried eels on the pavement.”

Source: Martin Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg: Allied Bomber Forces against a German City in 1943 (1980), chap. 15

Devastated residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg.

Devastated residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, viewed by a Royal Air Force photographer

Mice Disable Panzers

1942: As the battle for Stalingrad reached its climax, both sides hurled men and machines into the fray. West of the city, though, the German 22nd Panzer Division didn’t budge; its tank engines wouldn’t start. Not because of harsh weather, or Soviet sabotage, but because field mice had sneaked into the tanks and nibbled through the electrical insulation.

Source: Henry Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler (2003), p. 114

Dirty Tricks In French Rugby

1941: Rugby union and rugby league have never seen fully eye to eye. In France, rugby union slumped in popularity in the 1930s as spectators deserted it for the newly introduced rugby league.

Following the military defeat of France in 1940, rugby union stooped to dirty tricks against its sporting rival. Officials lobbied the Vichy government, and in December 1941 rugby league was banned.

Although rugby league was rehabilitated after the downfall of Pétain, it never recovered its prewar vitality and remains a minority sport.

Source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interdiction_du_rugby_à_XIII_en_France

Caught On The Hop

1940: The speed with which the Wehrmacht lunged across northern France caught P.G. Wodehouse on the hop; he was trapped in his villa at Le Touquet.

Two months later, the Germans decided to intern all enemy males under the age of 60. Wodehouse was given ten minutes to pack. Ethel, his wife, went “nearly insane” and couldn’t find the keys for the room with the suitcase. Plum went into captivity equipped with “a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pajamas, and a mutton chop”.

Source: P.G. Wodehouse, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, ed. Sophie Ratcliffe (2011), p. 295

Toilet Training

1939: As war loomed, the British government evacuated more than a million children and mothers from the cities to the countryside. Host families were appalled to find that some of the children lacked proper toilet training. It wasn’t the children’s fault; their parents hadn’t taught them. One Glasgow mother admonished her 6-year-old child: “You dirty thing, messing the lady’s carpet. Go and do it in the corner.”

Source: Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (1950), p. 122

Turbulence Over Europe

1938: I felt “some slight sinking when I found myself flying over London”, turbulence “rocked and bumped” the aeroplane “like a ship in a sea”, and there were “more nervous moments when we circled down over the aerodrome” at the end of the flight. The apprehensive air passenger was Neville Chamberlain, heading to Munich in September for crisis talks with Adolf Hitler.

Source: Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936–1945: Nemesis (2000), pp. 110, 876

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain back in Britain after his shuttle diplomacy secured

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressing a crowd at Heston Aerodrome on 30 September 1938, after his shuttle diplomacy secured “peace for our time”

Cocaine For The King

George V in his coronation robes

George V in his coronation robes, painted by Luke Fildes

1936: From the middle of January, King George V’s health deteriorated rapidly. By the evening of 20 January, he was clearly dying and not expected to survive the night. His personal physician, Lord Dawson, prepared the text of a final bulletin: “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.”

The Prince of Wales had earlier told Dawson that neither he nor Queen Mary wished to see life prolonged unnecessarily. When the doctor judged that the time had come, he injected morphia and cocaine into the king’s jugular vein. “Intervals between respirations lengthened,” and just before midnight, “life passed so quietly and gently that it was difficult to determine the actual moment.”

Source: History Today, December 1986

Breathless

Liane de Pougy, photographed by Nadar

Liane de Pougy strikes a pose for photographer Nadar

1935: In her notebook entry for 15 July, Princess Ghika – the former demi-mondaine Liane de Pougy – recounted: “Anniversary of the day on which I got married and on which, with one thrust which quite deprived me of breath, I lost my virginity.”

Source: Liane de Pougy, My Blue Notebooks (1979), p. 262

Latecomers Miss Out On Lynching

1934: On 27 October, a racist crowd in the rural northwestern corner of Florida lynched Claude Neal, a black farmhand, for the rape and murder of a white neighbour, Lola Cannidy. Neal was snatched from a small-town jail, and after the niceties of mob justice and family revenge had been observed, his corpse was hanged from a tree outside Jackson County courthouse. Late arrivals for the lynching, disappointed to find that the body had been taken down, demanded that the sheriff replace it.

Source: James R. McGovern, Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal (1982), chaps. 3 and 4

Who? Me? Bossy?

1933: What words can properly describe Hitler? I remember watching a television documentary with footage of him speaking to a crowd. He raged and bellowed and waved his hands about. Sonya – she was eight – said, “I don’t like Hitler. He’s bossy.”

Source: Personal recollection

Getting To Know Each Other

1932: Howard Hawks, the film director, invited screenwriter and author William Faulkner and actor Clark Gable to go dove hunting. As they drove east from Los Angeles, Hawks and Faulkner began to talk about books. Gable joined in, asking Faulkner to name the best modern writers.

“Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos,” Faulkner replied, “and myself.”

“Oh,” said Gable. “Do you write?”

“Yes, Mr. Gable,” said Faulkner. “What do you do?”

Source: Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (1984), pp. 309–10

Young At Heart

Oliver Wendell Holmes honoured on a 1968 U.S. postage stamp

Oliver Wendell Holmes honoured on a 1968 U.S. postage stamp

1931: Catching sight of a pretty young woman, the 90-year-old American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have exclaimed, “Oh, to be 70 again!”

Source: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck (1980), p. 645

Casual Acquaintance

1930: In August, Noël Coward and T.E. Lawrence met for the first time. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was shyly and unsuccessfully masquerading as Aircraftman Shaw (service number 338171) of the Royal Air Force. After they met, the two men exchanged letters. Coward began: “Dear 338171, (May I call you 338?)”

Source: Noël Coward, The Letters of Noël Coward, ed. Barry Day (2007), p. 211

“But Your Mother Never Called Me!”

Vladimir Lenin with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, photographed in 1922 by Lenin’s sister, Maria Ulyanova

Vladimir Lenin with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, photographed in 1922 by Lenin’s sister, Maria Ulyanova

1929: The diplomat Bruce Lockhart heard what he described as a “priceless story of Lenin and the death of his mother-in-law”. Without naming the source, Lockhart wrote in his diary: “Krupskaya tired of watching at death-bed asked Lenin to sit by her mother while she slept. He was to call her if her mother wanted anything. Lenin took a book and began to read. Two hours later Krupskaya came back. Her mother was dead. Lenin was still reading. Krupskaya blamed him: ‘Why did you not let me know?’ Lenin replied: ‘But your mother never called me!’ ”

Source: Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, I: 1915–1938, ed. Kenneth Young (1973), p. 82

Woolf At The Wheel

Virginia Woolf in about 1927

Virginia Woolf, photographed about the same time she learned to drive

1927: “You won’t mind talking for 24 hours on end, I hope?” Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend. “It will be mostly about motor cars. I can think of nothing else.” The Woolfs had just bought their first car, and Virginia was thrilled to get behind the wheel. “I have driven from the Embankment to the Marble Arch and only knocked one boy very gently off his bicycle.”

Source: Virginia Woolf, A Change of Perspective: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, III: 1923–1928, ed. Nigel Nicolson (1977), p. 400

Muddled Little Mind

1926: By the time his grandchildren were born, my father was well into his sixties. He was born in 1926; they were born in the 1990s. He must have seemed very old to them. I remember Sophie or Sonya, about six years old, asking: “When grandpa was a boy, were there any dinosaurs?”

Source: Personal recollection

Eisenstein Cuts It Fine

Poster for Sergei Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin

Poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin

1925: On 21 December, Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin was first screened at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Eisenstein had toiled for three weeks to edit the film in time, and was still putting the finishing touches to it on the opening night.

His assistant Grigori Alexandrov recalled, “I spent the evening riding on a motorcycle between the cutting room and the theatre, carrying the reels one at a time. When Eisenstein was finally happy with the last reel, he sat on the back of my motorcycle with the can of film under his arm. . . . but when we were in the middle of Red Square, and about a quarter of a mile from the Bolshoi, the motorcycle broke down. So we ran the rest of the way!”

At that time, films were shown with a break between each reel. “All went well, except that the break between the last two reels was nearly twenty minutes long!”

Source: Ronald Bergan, Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict (1997), pp. 111–12

Evidently Insane

1924: Writing in a medical journal, the former head of Egypt’s Lunacy Department, John Warnock, dismissed the upsurge of nationalism in the country as “an infectious mental disorder”.

Source: James H. Mills, Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition 1800–1928 (2003), p. 184

Lord Bags 556,813

1923: The 71-year-old Marquess of Ripon collapsed and died doing what he liked best – slaughtering birds on a grouse moor. At the age of 70 he killed 420 grouse in a single day. Timed by stopwatch, he once bagged 28 pheasants in 60 seconds. On another occasion, he downed 11 partridges with just two shots. His lifetime tally of pheasants reached almost a quarter of a million, and in the 57 years from 1867 to 1923 he killed more than half a million head of game – 556,813, to be precise, an average of 9,768 each year.

Source: Hugh S. Gladstone, Record Bags and Shooting Records (1930), pp. 57, 72, 177–8, 205

Poisoners Fictional And Non-Fictional

Solicitor and poisoner Herbert Armstrong

Solicitor and poisoner Herbert Armstrong

1921: Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, went on sale in Britain at the beginning of February. While readers puzzled over the identity of the poisoner in rural Essex, a second poisoner was active on the other side of the country, only this one wasn’t fictional.

Herbert Armstrong, a solicitor, thought he could resolve his personal and business problems by getting rid of his overbearing wife and an overly successful professional rival.

Katherine Armstrong died in agony at the end of February from what was initially thought to be gastritis. A few months later, the solicitor Oswald Martin became violently ill after taking tea with Armstrong, but survived (“Excuse fingers,” said Armstrong, as he passed Martin a poisoned scone).

Hercule Poirot was not on hand to solve these cases, but with the help of the forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, arsenical poisoning was shown to have taken place, the arsenic was linked to Armstrong, and Armstrong was convicted of murder and executed.

Source: Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics: How Sir Bernard Spilsbury Invented Modern CSI (2009), pp. 98–118

Miss Hoity-Toity

1920: Looking back on the 1920s, Loelia, Lady Lindsay, the former Duchess of Westminster, recalled the tremendous snobbery. “If you had danced with a man the night before and had found out that he was socially inferior . . . the following day you would just look through him.”

Source: Roy Strong, The Roy Strong Diaries 1967–1987 (1997), pp. 55–6