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.

1953 And All That

Today is my birthday, and I reach the grand old age of 66. Six years ago was the day I officially retired from work although, as it was a Monday that year too, my last actual working day was the previous Friday, the 13th – an easy date to remember! To mark my milestone birthday my two wonderful daughters took me out for the day on Saturday 14th, which if you so desire you can read about in A Celebration. For the actual birthday I went to an exhibition at the British Museum (rock ‘n’ roll or what!) and also posted a piece on my blog. This was rather different from my usual – if there is such a thing – and I shared it again three years ago. As most of you won’t have been following my blog then, let alone six years ago, I thought I’d share an updated version to celebrate turning 66. As bingo fans will know, 66 is called ‘clicketty-click,’ which I think must derive from the noise our joints make at that age when we stand up.

So what was 1953 actually like? It was a year of some momentous occurrences, and that’s before you even consider my birth! This isn’t a standard narrative article: what I’m doing is giving you a flavour of the year in which I was born. There are some clickable links, some videos you can watch straight from here, some pictures, a couple of lists and some more words. I had loads of fun when I first researched this, and again in updating it: I hope you will enjoy it too. There is a lot here and it is probably far too much to take in at one go, so do feel free to revisit if you are exhausted before the end!

I was talking about this a couple of weeks before the original post with a friend at work, and when I told him what I was doing he showed me the wonderful Pathe News website. This is worth repeat visits, as it carries a huge number of clips from  bygone years. It’s ideal for anyone who, like me, loves those old newsreel films with the terribly terribly posh voiceovers! The only problem is that as the site is aimed at getting you to buy the clips at ridiculous prices they don’t seem to let you embed them in the same way that YouTube does. So I’ve had to make do with some clickable links – not too many, as you can make a cup of tea while you wait for some of them to load, but they really are worth it! The first of these is the Pathe News Coronation Year Review, The Crowning Year which is a ten minute run through some of the year’s most important events. Not all, by a long way, but it’s a lovely snapshot of an historic year. Not that I was aware of what was happening, especially as the two biggest events happened while I was still an expected arrival, but I was lucky enough to be born in the year which saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the first ascent of Mount Everest. Beat that!

As another taster of what Pathe News was covering that year, and for a glimpse at fashionable home décor, here’s The Queen at the Ideal Homes Exhibition – absolutely spiffing! I have a couple more slices of Pathe 1953, but I’ll save those for later.

To give you an idea of that year was like, here is a totally random selection of things that happened in 1953:

28 Jan – Derek Bentley (the ‘let him have it’ case) was executed at Wandsworth Prison

31 Jan to 1 Feb – a North Sea flood killed 1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in the UK and several hundreds more at sea

5 Feb – Disney’s Peter Pan premiered (there will be a clip of this later)


1 March – Death of Joseph Stalin, the man who loved rewriting history (a certain President seems to be adopting him as a role model!)

Seems like a nice chap!

Seems like a nice chap!

13 April – Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in the UK. Little did he know what he was unleashing on the world! To be honest, the book feels a little dated now, but there has been the occasional movie of Bond books, I think?

Where it all began

Where it all began

29 May – Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest (video by The Guardian). Nowadays, people who attempt this climb are armed with all sorts of support which wasn’t available in 1953, which in my eyes makes this an incredible achievement:

2 June – Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey – contrary to popular belief, this did actually happen in colour. This clip is from a full length video of the event, which you can buy from places like Amazon, I believe, and is copyright of Granada Ventures:

23 July – Howard Hawks’ film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell) was released

What a stunning pair! Or two

What a stunning pair! Or two

4 Sept – Research on the discovery of REM sleep was first published by Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman. As I’ve mentioned in several posts, I had a sleep problem, so I couldn’t resist this short cartoon, which I think was originally released in the USA in 1953. Copyright Disney, of course:

26 Sept – Following the end of sweets rationing earlier in the year, the rationing of cane sugar ended in the UK, to the great relief of the sweet-toothed everywhere! I can’t imagine growing up without sweets – but in these more health conscious days sugar is apparently a bad thing. A pity, really.

5 Oct – the UNIVAC 1103 was the first commercial computer to use random access memory. It’s hard to see a connection between this brute and today’s computers, tablets and smartphones, isn’t it!

Yes, this really is a computer!

Yes, this really is a computer!

21 November – the Natural History Museum announced that the skull of the Piltdown Man was a hoax (I gather that this was a big news story at the time – they’ll be telling us that the Earth isn’t flat, next!)

Shame, such a good-looking guy too!

Shame, such a good-looking guy too!

December – the first issue of Playboy was published, Marilyn Monroe was the nude centrefold and it sold 54,175 copies at $0.50 eachPlayboy Issue 1

30 Dec – the first colour television sets went on sale in the US, priced at $1,175. At today’s exchange rate ($1.25 to the £) that equates to £940. In today’s money, however, that would be just over £26,000!First colour tv 1953

I mentioned earlier that I had another couple of links to Pathe News, to give an insight into life in 1953. The first of these is the Boy Scouts’ Soapbox Derby which really is from another age! The second is a group of Carol Singers in Ashford, Kent which is rather nice – to an oldie like me it somehow seems more Christmassy than nowadays, although it is an unfortunate coincidence that Santa bears an uncanny resemblance to a former BBC DJ who was at one point on trial for some unpleasant offences. He was found not guilty, unlike some of his peers.

As I’ve mentioned often in my posts, I love music and it has always played a very important role in my life. So I thought I’d show you what was top of the hit parade (yes, they did call it that!) when I was born. Charts as we know them today had only been introduced in 1952 – previously they had counted sales of sheet music – and sources differ as to what actually was No.1 at the time. As far as I can make out, though, the No.1 in the UK, for the first of six weeks, was Guy Mitchell, with Look At That Girl

And in the USA it was Les Paul and Mary Ford, Vaya Con Dios, enjoying the sixth of nine weeks at No.1


Reviews of the year always do these, so I thought I should follow suit. Among those who share my year of birth are Lucinda Williams – wonderful singer/songwriter; Carl Hiaasen – writer of some of the funniest novels I’ve ever read; Tony Blair – after dinner speaker, world traveller, waste of space; Mike Oldfield – the man with the Tubular Bells; Pierce Brosnan – been in a few films; Victoria Wood – brilliant writer, actor, comedian, singer etc etc, now no longer with us, sadly; Michael Portillo – bouffant-haired railway traveller and former Tory government minister; Keith Allen – the Sheriff of Nottingham on the BBC, loads of other acting roles, father of two vaguely well-known kids; Cyndi Lauper – who just wants to have fun; Nanci Griffith – another great singer/songwriter; Nigel Mansell – the boring racing driver, used to go ‘Brum Brum’ to himself as he drove round the circuits; and Kim Basinger – blimey, I feel old!

And these are just a few of those who departed in 1953: Hank Williams – country musician; the aforementioned Joseph Stalin; Arnold Bax – British composer; Sergei Prokoviev – Russian composer; Dylan Thomas – playwright who wrote Under Milk Wood, set in the fictional town of Llaregub (read it backwards); Django Reinhardt – the very talented French guitarist; John Christie – the Rillington Place serial killer who has since been the subject of stage, movie and TV adaptations of his gruesome life; and Guccio Gucci, who began a fashion house – guess which one!

In these days of Brexit – and our (hopefully temporary) Prime Minster, who is a fan of his, it is appropriate that I mention Sir Winston Churchill, who won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, and may or may not have done a Bob Dylan in accepting it.

Churchill accepting the Nobel, according to the caption - his wife went to Sweden to pick it up!

Churchill accepting the Nobel, according to the caption, though the Nobel website says his wife went to Sweden to pick it up!

To round off, I’m going to add a few more videos for you to dip into if you feel so inclined. They aren’t in any particular order, and the only connection between them is that they date from 1953. Firstly, the famous film of the train journey from London to Brighton, which the BBC often used to show as a filler in the 60s when live broadcasts didn’t go to plan:

And I couldn’t do 1953 without Stanley Matthews’ FA Cup Final, with commentary by Kenneth Wolstenholme, who was the voice of football as I grew up:

From a 21st century perspective this one is hysterical (they sure knew how to have fun, and that Betty – what a gal!):

Do you fancy a trade advert? It seems they couldn’t afford a voiceover, or maybe that profession had yet to be invented, thereby creating work for countless actors who couldn’t get any real roles. There was clearly a job for someone with a wobbly hand to roll the script, though:

Or a film trailer, for Peter Pan – great special effects here. The original clip I used for this is no longer available to UK viewers (thanks, Walt) so I’m sharing a more recent clip for the DVD release:

I could go on for ages, but I’ll stop here. I’ll leave you with one final one, a news story that caught my eye. At that time, this must have been revolutionary, and I can’t begin to imagine the prejudice Christine Jorgensen must have endured after this blaze of publicity :

If you’ve got this far I really do applaud you, but there are no prizes, I’m afraid. Not even one of those shiny capes they usually give out at the end of marathons! I really do hope you’ve found something to interest and entertain you and that I’ve given you an idea of what 1953 was like – not that I really knew, of course! It does seem, in many ways, a more innocent time, but consider that it was only eight years after the end of WW2 and was the dawning of an age of rapid social, cultural and technological growth and you’ll get a sense of the world in which I grew up.

Have fun – I hope you enjoy playing with this stuff as much as I have.