A Special Centenary

My Mum has appeared by proxy in several of my Tuesday Tunes posts, as I have referred to her musical tastes and how they differed from mine, yet occasionally coincided. Mum passed on 15th May 2008, at the age of 87, but if she had lived today would have been her 100th birthday. Although nearly thirteen years have gone by I think about her often, and my series of Tuesday posts on the music of the Sixties and Seventies brought back many memories for me. So I thought I’d do something to mark the date, with a few snippets about Mum and some of the other events of that year apart from her birth, to show what life was like back then.

This is Mum, probably in her late 30s (which places it around 1960ish):

Also in the photo are my Dad – still with us, and going strong at 93 – my cousin Sheila (top left), me, and my little sister, Heather. The photo was taken at a family gathering, though I’ve cropped a lot of others out. Those were the days when the gents still wore a suit to family events that weren’t weddings, christenings or funerals!

1921 was three years after the end of WW1, and a lot of the political events of the year were to do with the rebuilding from that, along with the settlement of reparations from Germany: this took place on 5th May, and required the payment of 132 billion gold marks, in annual instalments of 2.5 billion. That sounds a lot, even now! A couple of months later, on 2nd July, US President Warren Harding signed a Congressional order declaring an end to hostilities with Germany, Austria and Hungary: I’ve no idea why it took nearly three years, but, as that was the start of their habit of being late to join world wars I guess they were just keeping in character.

A look at the significant dates of 1921 reveals many which were related to wars and conflicts. There were a number involving the Soviet Union and neighbouring states, and also China. Here in the UK we had been fighting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until a truce was signed on 9th July, paving the way for the official creation of the Irish Free State in December. Students of history will know that the ‘Irish problem’ wasn’t resolved by this, with the renewal of hostilities in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, which were only finally put to rest by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It is to be hoped that the aftermath of Brexit doesn’t screw this agreement. My point in mentioning these conflicts is that there is nothing new, and we seem to be doomed to continue making the same mistakes rather than learning from them. One of the scariest 1921 dates for me, which is almost lost in the mix, is 4th November: after a speech by Adolf Hitler in the Hofbräuhaus (the Bavarian State Brewery) in Munich, members of the Sturmabteilung (“brownshirts”) physically assaulted his opposition. Given the number of occasions that journalists and political opponents have been physically assaulted at Trump rallies, and the events of 6 January at the Capitol, there are some frightening similarities here.

There were numerous other acts of political violence and assassination that year, including in Spain, Portugal and Persia (as it was then) but I don’t want to dwell on the less pleasant events of 1921. They were different times in many ways, from those that we are accustomed to in our days of widespread social media and access to global news on an instant basis. It was five years before John Logie Baird gave what is now regarded as the first public demonstration of what became ‘television,’ and a full thirty years before the medium became widely available, albeit often in grainy monochrome images. So, apart from creating large families, what did the good people of 1921 do for entertainment?  These were the early days of commercial movie theatres, when silent monochrome films were the height of sophistication. In this year, the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid was released. Here is a brief sample:

That is charming, but it isn’t exactly what would encourage us to swarm to the cinema these days if we were allowed to, is it? But if that has whetted your appetite, the whole movie can be found on YouTube here – it is just over an hour long,  a little short by modern day standards!

Another famous movie star of that era also released a new one in 1921 – Rudolph Valentino, in The Sheik. Again, the full movie is on YouTube here but this brief clip will give you a feel for it:

At 1 hr 26 mins that is a little longer, almost up to the length of shorter movies today. I love that clip, and I imagine there was much fun to be had in the captioning room with lines that had to be deleted, especially in response to Agnes Ayres’ “why have you brought me here?” question. Tragically, Valentino died just five years later of peritonitis, at the age of 31, causing mass hysteria amongst his fans: the ‘Latin Lover’ was no more, but his early death sealed his status as an icon of the cinema, in much the same way that later happened for James Dean.

As I mentioned, mass tv broadcasting was still a long way off, but radio was in its infancy in 1921. The US had a plethora of locally based broadcasters, with no control, whilst the UK looked on sniffily and declared that it didn’t want to recreate the ‘chaos’ of radio in the US. As a result, it wasn’t until 1922 that the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) was established, becoming the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927 to mark its independence from either government or commercial management. This little clip gives some of the background to that US chaos:

There is mention in that of the radio broadcasting of baseball. Radio and, later, tv have been instrumental in bringing us huge volumes of sports coverage. In these pandemic times, when mass gatherings aren’t allowed, the television has been vital for those of us wanting our ‘fix.’ But, back in 1921, if you wanted to follow a game you had to be there. It was on 7th May that the lowest ever paying crowd for a game in the English Football League was assembled: all 13 of them, for the fixture between Stockport County and Leicester City, in what was then Division Two. The match was played at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, as Stockport’s ground was officially closed after some crowd trouble – yes, really, it happened back then too! The official attendance of 13 was the number of spectators who paid for entrance after Man Utd’s earlier game against Derby County had finished, but it is believed that around 2,000 stayed on after the first match to get their money’s worth. I’m not sure that they did, though, as Stockport vs Leicester was a 0-0 draw. But as far as I can tell there were no reports of crowd disturbances.

I’ve always thought of fashion as being one of the most vacuous of industries, but it seems like it was going strong back then too:

They took it seriously: no dresses made of meat or bras like traffic cones for them. I’m not sure those clothes would be too well received by most people today, though, given the use of animal fur as decoration. I wonder if it was a status symbol to boast that your clothes were trimmed with bits of monkeys?

As you may have noticed through my posts, I am interested in folk music and the traditions that go with it. This one is still going today, albeit after the occasional hiatus:

If you have come across that before it may well be by the better known name of the Floral Dance. The Helston event is the best known, though there are others. As you can imagine, it now bears little resemblance to earlier versions like this one. It takes place on 8th May each year, and is a celebration of the passing of winter and the arrival of spring. The folk song Hal-An-Tow is associated with the day – it mangles together bits of celebration from English history.

All reviews of bygone years make reference to those who were born and died. Births in 1921, as well as my Mum, included several from the entertainment world, among them Humphrey Lyttleton, Diana Barrymore, Peter Sallis, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Ustinov, Lana Turner, Jane Russell, and quite  a few sportspeople, including Stan Mortensen, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Kramer. The big sporting event of the year has to be this, though:

I accept that there *might* be an element of bias in sharing that one.

Among those who departed in 1921 were Bat Masterson, the US gunfighter, army scout, professional gambler, lawman and journalist; Engelbert Humperdinck, the German composer (not the Release Me guy – though Mum loved that one); the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns; and the microbiologist Julius Richard Petri, who invented a dish.

That’s just about it for 1921, but as this is her day it wouldn’t be right to finish this piece without including a couple of songs that my Mum liked. This is one that she bought, saving me the need to do so:

And this is her absolute favourite song by her absolute favourite singer:

That says it all, really. Happy celestial 100th, Mum.