When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Tag archive: Great Britain

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

Wholesale Slaughter

1939: “They are saying, ‘The generals learned their lesson in the last war. There are going to be no wholesale slaughters,’ ” Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary on 1 November. “I ask, how is victory possible except by wholesale slaughters?”

Source: Evelyn Waugh, The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie (1976), pp. 448–9

Kenyatta On Screen

Jomo Kenyatta depicted on a 1964 Kenyan postage stamp

1935: Sanders of the River combined footage filmed on location in Africa – tribal dancing, wild animals, native canoes – with a storyline shot at an African village constructed in a film studio near London. The black extras for the British sequences were mainly dockers, but also included an overseas student named Johnstone Kenyatta. Thirty years later, having changed his first name in the interim to Jomo, Kenyatta became the prime minister and then the president of independent Kenya.

Source: Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television (2001), p. 36

Nazi Sympathizers

1934: Norfolk farmers showed little sympathy for skylarks, regarding them as pests that damaged winter crops. Newspapers offered farmers some support for the need to control lark numbers. The migration of larks from northern Europe and recent political developments in Germany were behind one finger-wagging headline: “Skylarks that sing to Nazis will get no mercy here”.

Source: Paul F. Donald, The Skylark (2004), p. 225

Cryptic Cinema

1930: The Film Society was sufficiently impressed by Germaine Dulac’s surrealist silent film La Coquille et le Clergyman, to screen it, with English subtitles, at a London cinema. The British Board of Film Censors took a dimmer view of the film’s merits and rejected it for general release, supposedly on the grounds that it was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”.

Source: James C. Robertson, The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913–1972 (1989), pp. 38–9

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

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

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

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

Deceptively Peaceful

1982: The 26 March issue of The Penguin News included articles on Polish sailors jumping ship in the Falklands (the 11 seamen represented “an increase in the population of the Falklands of over one half of one per-cent”), the construction of six houses in Stanley (“the biggest spate of house building that the capital has seen for many years”), and the horticultural society’s annual vegetable and home produce show (entries were “much more numerous” than the previous year). In fact, rather like a parish magazine, except that other articles expressed unease on a topic of wider importance: Argentine claims to the Falklands. The islanders were right to be apprehensive; a week later Argentine troops invaded the islands, which put an end to all that parochial calm.

Source: www.fig.gov.fk/archives/online-
collections/periodicals/penguin-news

Taking Revenge

1977: When his first wife, Elaine, confessed to an affair with another man, Kenneth Tynan caned her – he got a thrill out of caning. One stroke for each letter of his wife’s lover’s name:
K-I-N-G-S-L-E-Y-A-M-I-S

Source: Kenneth Tynan, The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, ed. John Lahr (2002), p. 374

Out With A Bang

1976: Staff at a crematorium in Solihull were puzzled by a salvo of explosions during the cremation of a body; investigators discovered that batteries in a cardiac pacemaker implanted in the deceased had detonated. It was the first such incident recorded at a British crematorium, although P.J. Morrell, writing in The Practitioner, gave examples of other explosions during cremations caused, in one case, by an aerosol deodorant can inadvertently left inside a coffin and, on another occasion, by a coconut.

Source: The Practitioner, July 1977

Monster Hoax?

1975: Blurry underwater photographs from Loch Ness purported to show the head, elongated neck and body of large animal, and a diamond-shaped fin or flipper. The conservationist Sir Peter Scott, writing in the journal Nature, proposed that the creature be named Nessiteras rhombopteryxNessiteras combining the name of the loch with the Greek word teras, meaning “marvel” or “wonder”; and rhombopteryx combining the Greek rhombos, meaning “diamond shape”, and pteryx, meaning “fin” or “wing”. Sceptics quickly pointed out that Nessiteras rhombopteryx was also an anagram of “monster hoax by Sir Peter S”.

Source: New Scientist, 18/25 December 1975