When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Tag archive: Great Britain

Mental Decline

1965: William Somerset Maugham and Winston Spencer Churchill were almost exact contemporaries. Maugham was born at the beginning of 1874, Churchill at the end; Churchill died at the beginning of 1965, Maugham at the end. As the two men grew old, their physical and mental health declined, though Maugham liked to think that he had withstood the passage of time better than Churchill. “If you think I’m g-g-ga-ga,” he stuttered, “you should see W-W-Winston!”

Source: S.N. Behrman, Tribulations and Laughter: A Memoir (1972), p. 308

Irascible Exit

1961: The playwright John Mortimer portrayed his father as a formidable figure in the law courts, a barrister who continued work even after he suddenly went blind. He was a man with a volcanic temper, who delighted in argument, yet he laughed a lot, particularly at his own jokes, “until the tears ran from his sightless eyes”. He was very clean and always bathed twice a day. On the night he died, he was his usual irascible self, protesting noisily about not being allowed out of bed for a bath. When he was told not to get angry, he retorted: “I’m always angry when I’m dying.”

Source: John Mortimer, A Voyage Round My Father, ed. Mark Pattenden (1990), pp. vii–ix, 78–9

Cider With Daisy

1959: Cider with Daisy? Cider with Poppy? Cider with Rosie? Laurie Lee considered a number of titles for his autobiographical account of growing up in a Gloucestershire village. Eventually he settled on Cider with Rosie, although the alternative titles suggest that young Laurie larked around with other village girls when Rosie’s back was turned.

Source: The Times, 16 May 2003

Yudenow’s English

1958: Much of the humour in Gerald Kersh’s comic novel Fowlers End centred on Sam Yudenow, the seedy proprietor of a seedy north London cinema. His bastardization of the English language made him a direct literary descendant of Mrs. Malaprop.

Yudenow managed to mangle most words of more than one syllabub. F’rinstance, “edvertise”, “gruggy”, “govmint subdizzy”, “nushment”, “nishertive”, “unfluential”, “soluntary”, “smomp” and “ploppitate”. Other yudenisms: “cutterbups”, “fulsuric acid”, “Simonese” cats and the London “Milharphonic” Orchestra.

Source: Gerald Kersh, Fowlers End (1958)

Chance Discovery

1957: In 2011, while refurbishing an antique bureau previously owned by Agatha Christie, furniture restorer Clive Payne came across two folded pieces of paper that had slipped down the back of the bureau. One was a telegram from the playwright Noël Coward, dated September 1957, congratulating Christie on the record-breaking 1,998th performance of her murder mystery The Mousetrap in the West End. The other was a 1952 receipt for £24 13s 6d from a certain Miss Elliott, supplier of nightwear and lingerie.

Source: Antiques Trade Gazette, 20 August 2011

Hockney’s Chippy

1954: When David Hockney studied art in Bradford, he would often visit The Sea Catch fish and chip shop near closing time to get a cheap evening meal. One of his early artworks was a lithograph of the chippy, depicting the proprietors, Hayden and Janet Smith, frying and serving, while a young man leans on the counter. Hockney made only a handful of copies, one of which he gave to the Smiths, who displayed it for several years above the fryers. In 2017, it sold at auction for £18,750.

Source: Simon Garfield, The Error World: An Affair with Stamps (2008), pp. 176–85

Unequal Sacrifice

1943: Hugh Dalton, president of the Board of Trade, deplored the amount of fabric used in turn-ups on men’s trousers. Turn-ups were an extravagance, Dalton said, and in wartime, civilians should make do without them.

“There can be no equality of sacrifice in this war. Some must lose lives and limbs; others only the turn-ups on their trousers.”

Source: Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs 1931–1945 (1957), p. 410

Lines Of Defence

1942: British troops in Southeast Asia needed to guard their positions against Japanese night attacks. An obvious defence was to rig up perimeter wires that would light signal lamps when breached by enemy soldiers. Less obvious was the correct thickness of the wires. Too thin and they would break accidentally; too thick and they would be spotted by the enemy.

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Red Or White?

1939: When John Betjeman unexpectedly brought Cyril Connolly home for dinner, his put-upon wife, Penelope, shouted from the kitchen, “I’m going out in ten minutes. I’m sorry, you can only have hard-boiled eggs.” Undaunted, the two men trooped off to the well-stocked wine cellar. Betjeman surveyed the bottles. “Now, Cyril,” he mused, “I wonder what goes best with hard-boiled eggs.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: The Biography (2006), p. 195

Noted For His Hats

1938: Winston Churchill smoked from an early age, but the image of him chomping on a long cigar, two fingers raised in a V-sign, dated from the Second World War. These Tremendous Years 1919–1938, published by the Daily Express in 1938, associated cigars instead with F.E. Smith, the Earl of Birkenhead. Churchill, according to the Daily Express book, was noted not for his cigars but for his hats.

Source: These Tremendous Years 1919–1938 (1938), p. 140

Not Optimistic

1936: A new viceroy was appointed for India: the Marquess of Linlithgow. A very tall, rather formal individual with the family name Hope, the marquess was accompanied by his three daughters. Junior officers obviously didn’t fancy their chances with the three young ladies – they nicknamed them “Some Hope”, “Little Hope” and “No Hope”.

Source: Adrian Fort, Archibald Wavell: The Life and Times of an Imperial Servant (2009), p. 243

Thumbs Up For Turing

1935: John Maynard Keynes detested nail-biting. Aristotle had classified it as a form of “bestiality”, Keynes declared, on a par with “buggering bulls and ripping open females with a view to devouring the foetus”. In March, Keynes lunched with a candidate for a fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, to “inspect him and his fingernails”. “He is excellent,” Keynes wrote to his wife, “there cannot be a shadow of doubt about it. Fingernails as long as yours (in proportion).” On the strength of this “infallible” guide, Keynes gave the young man the thumbs up. “And he was very nice – Turing his name.”

Source: Richard Davenport-Hines, Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015), pp. 279–80

Inartistic Island

Walter Gropius, photographed in about 1919 by Louis Held

1934: Shortly before moving to Britain, the German architect Walter Gropius questioned how he would survive in “this inartistic country with unsalted vegetables, bony women and an eternally freezing draught!?”

Source: Fiona MacCarthy, Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus (2019), p. 291

Racehorse And Writer

Eric Blair, alias George Orwell, from a 1943 photograph

1932: An easy victory in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket ensured that Orwell was firm favourite to win the Derby in June. Punters bet heavily on the colt, but he lacked the staying power needed for the longer Epsom race, and finished a long way down the field. At Doncaster, three months later, he had the chance to redeem himself in the St. Leger, but again ran poorly. Win or lose, though, the name Orwell appeared prominently and repeatedly in the sports pages.

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“Paisley Snail”

1928: May Donoghue worked as a shop assistant in Glasgow. She was 30 years old. On the evening of 26 August, she visited the Wellmeadow Café in nearby Paisley with a friend, who treated her to an ice-cream float. The café owner brought a tumbler of ice cream and a bottle of ginger beer, which he poured over the ice cream. (Important detail: the bottle was made of dark, opaque glass.) Donoghue consumed some of the float. When her friend refilled the tumbler, a decomposed snail slid out of the bottle. Donoghue felt unwell.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Gravitas

1975: Margaret Thatcher worked hard to improve her public speaking skills. Analysis of recordings showed that over a decade she succeeded in lowering the pitch of her voice by about 60 hertz, which made her sound more assertive, gave her more gravitas. She had less success with the tone of her voice. Even at the end of her political career it still sounded (to use Clive James’s description) like a “condescending explanatory whine” that treated the person on the receiving end as if they were “an eight-year-old child with personality deficiencies”.

Source: Anne Karpf, The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent (2006), pp. 226–9

Mumbo-Jumbo

1965: Towards the end of Clement Attlee’s life, the biographer Kenneth Harris questioned him about religion. What were his feelings towards Christianity and God and Christ and life after death?

“Believe in the ethics of Christianity,” replied the former prime minister, in typically terse fashion. “Can’t believe the mumbo-jumbo.”

Source: Kenneth Harris, Attlee (1984), pp. 563–4

National Calamity

Ravens at the Tower of London, photographed by Colin

1955: Ravens have probably stalked and flapped around the Tower of London for much of its history, but the earliest reference to the myth that their departure would portend a calamity for the British nation dates back only as far as 1955.

Source: History Today, January 2005

Turning To Stone

1953: Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary on 10 January: “The young duke of Kent and his sisters, taken to see a famous illusionist in a London music hall. The number ends with some nudity, and the nanny doesn’t know what to do. As they leave she ventures to ask, ‘How did your Highness enjoy the performance?’ ‘I’m scared.’ ‘Why, Your Highness?’ ‘Mama told me if I looked at naked women I’d turn to stone – and it’s starting.’ ”

Source: Jean Cocteau, Past Tense (1990), vol. II, p. 4

Enthusiastic Party

Henry “Chips” Channon, photographed in 1930

1947: Henry “Chips” Channon was delighted with the dinner he hosted at his London home on 25 November. The house in Belgrave Square “looked very grand and glittering, lit up and full of yellow chrysanthemums”; the queens of Spain and Romania attended; and William Somerset Maugham complimented him, “This is the apogee of your career.” The drinks contributed to the success of the evening. “I ‘laced’ the cocktails with Benzedrine,” Channon revealed in his diary, “which I find always makes a party go.”

Source: Sir Henry Channon, Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, ed. Robert Rhodes James (1967), p. 419