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Sunday, 1 December 2013

Make a date - 1 December etc

Some time ago I published a regular monthly column linking a set selection of dates in history. The series was popular. I'm busy coordinating the articles into book form. As today is 1 December, here are a number of linked events for that date plus two other December dates. To avoid repetition, I've simply indicated the relevant date in brackets. The three dates for this article are:

1, 10 and 24 December

The sale of dates greatly increases over the Christmas period and this month you could easily get a surfeit of dates. Still, they’re good for you. Unlike lampreys, apparently.

Henry I died (1) from food poisoning in 1135, having had a surfeit of lampreys in Normandy.
It begs the question, though, why would anyone want to eat even one lamprey?

A lamprey resembles an eel in outward appearance but is actually a jawless fish that has no scales and has cartilage instead of bones and is sort of in between a vertebrate and an invertebrate; it’s a parasite and sucks the blood of other fish.

When Britain actually had a fishing fleet, we fought three cod wars against Iceland - 1958, 1972 and 1975 - all over fishing rights and the limits of territorial water; my ship HMS Mermaid was holed by an Icelandic vessel packed with concrete; the damage control ratings and chippy (carpenter) did a fantastic job of shoring up the big gash in our side. Iceland (1) became a self-governing kingdom in 1918, though it remained part of Denmark.

On the same day in 1835, one of Denmark’s most famous citizens, Hans Christian Andersen, published (1) his first book of fairy tales. Twelve years later in 1847 Andersen visited England for the first time and was a great success in society. Charles Dickens invited him to stay for a fortnight but Andersen ignored the writer’s hints to leave and stayed a further four weeks! Shortly afterwards, Dickens published David Copperfield in which Uriah Heep is supposed to be modelled on Andersen.
That same year, one of Dickens’s contemporary writers published Vanity Fair, set at the time of the Napoleonic wars. William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel was an immediate success. Thackeray died (24) in 1863, leaving the world forever with one of literature’s most fascinating immoral female characters, Becky Sharp.

A particularly sharp operator was Howard Hughes, who was born (24) in 1905. One of Hughes’ lovers was film star Ava Gardner; she was born (24) on the same day as Hughes, but in 1922. At one time Howard Hughes was the richest man in the world. He was a film writer and director, pilot, designer of the half-cup bra for his Hollywood discovery Jane Russell and in later life a hypochondriac recluse. An excellent film about him is The Aviator.

In essence, flight defies gravity. Which Isaac Newton would be familiar with, considering that in 1684 he began to propound (10) his theories about the motion of celestial bodies culminating in his Principia, published in 1687, considered by many to be the greatest scientific book ever written.

Newton led to the law of universal gravitation which explained a wide range of previously unrelated phenomena: the eccentric orbits of comets, the tides and their variations, the precession of the Earth’s axis, and motion of the Moon as perturbed by the gravity of the Sun.

Czech astronomer and physician Tadéas Hájek was born (1) in 1525. He published his studies of a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia in 1572 and counted among his contacts such luminaries as Tycho Brahe, Kepler and John Dee. Many regarded him as the greatest astronomer of his time.

And, like Dee, he was also fascinated with astrology, which wasn't unusual for scientists of the period. A crater of the moon and an asteroid have been named after Hájek.

A fascinating aspect of scientific research in our past is that these men - and women - were able to span several sciences at once, as well as philosophy. Today, where science is now ‘pure’, any moral sense - perhaps supplied by philosophy - sometimes seems missing.
The thoroughly amoral Lord Byron was the father of Ada Lovelace, one of the earliest computer programmers. She was born (10) in 1815 and a few weeks later the poet abandoned her mother and child. Byron went abroad and when Ada was eight he died in Greece while fighting for freedom from the Turks. Her mother brought up Ada to be a mathematician, what she thought was the antithesis of a poet.
In her teens, Ada met Charles Babbage and helped him with his Analytical Engine and her writings on the subject became the premier text on what became known as computer programming.

Ada’s prescient comments included predictions that such a calculating machine might be used to compose complex music, to produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use. Cancer claimed her in 1852, at exactly the same age as her father had died - thirty-six. At her request she was buried next to her father. Poetic, that.

The poet Emily Dickinson was born (10) in 1830 and lived twenty years longer than Ada. While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends. She is now almost universally considered to be one of the most important American poets.
American-born expat Lady Astor, was the first female MP, taking her seat (1) in 1919.
In the same year the League of Nations was formed but ultimately collapsed due to the depredations of the fascist powers in the 1930s; it was replaced by the United Nations in October 1945.

Three years later, the UN adopted (10) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It seemed like a good idea until lawyers got hold of it.

Certain inalienable rights were not being granted in the Land of the Free. In 1865 several Confederate veterans formed (24) the Ku Klux Klan to enforce white supremacy by terrorising and killing Negroes.

You probably recall reading about the seamstress Rosa Parks refusing (1) to give up her bus seat to a white man and was arrested for violating Montgomery, Alabama’s racial segregation laws. She was charged and fined in 1955. Five days later the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, with a young Baptist minister as its leader - Martin Luther King Jr.

Another Martin Luther was a monk and theologian who in 1517 nailed to his church door 95 theses, criticising the avarice of the Church of Rome, notably in selling indulgences which instilled fear into the people so they would pay for escape from eternal damnation. The new printing presses widely distributed Luther’s theses, heralding the beginning of the Reformation. Rome responded in 1520 with the papal bull Exsurge Domine, which warned Luther of excommunication unless he recanted. Luther’s response was to burn this papal bull (10) outside the Elster Gate of Wittenberg.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: a black bull blocked (24) the Cross Harbour Tunnel in Hong Kong for three hours in 1985. On the same day (24) in 1941 Hong Kong fell to the Japanese Imperial Army.

Fourteen days earlier in the same year (10), Japanese forces landed in the Philippines and captured Guam and sank HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, which sent shock waves through Britain.

The Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune appeared in almost 170 films, including The Seven Samurai and a strange western called Red Sun starring Charles Bronson and Ursula Andress. Mifune died (24) in 1997, aged seventy-seven.
Born (24) in the same year as Mifune, Evgeniya Rudneva, a Hero of the Soviet Union, flew 645 night combat missions during the Second World War, perishing on her last sortie. She’d promised her first bomb against the Nazis after they’d bombed her old university’s buildings for the faculty of mechanics and mathematics.
Another brave Russian was Andrei Sakharov who spoke out for civil liberties and reform in the Soviet Union. He was awarded (10) the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, which was collected by his wife Yelena Bonner since he wasn’t allowed out of his own country.

Yet another spouse who received (10) the Peace Prize (for 1983) was Danuta, on behalf of her husband Lech Walesa, the face and voice behind the Polish Solidarity movement.

Other Peace Prize winners (10) include Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, Dr Albert Schweitzer in 1953, Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978 and Desmund Tutu in 1984.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, the Swedish Nobel Prize Ceremony official flag day is on December 10 in remembrance of the Swedish founder, Alfred Nobel, who died (10) in Italy in 1896. He invented dynamite to facilitate the building and construction industries. During his lifetime Nobel took out over 350 patents - dynamite was patented in 1867 - and all he ever wanted was to be of service to mankind. Indeed, many great engineering works would not have been possible without his invention - not least, the Suez and Panama canals.

A year after his death, it was revealed that he left the bulk of his considerable estate to a fund, the interest on which was to be awarded annually to those people whose work had been of the greatest benefit to mankind. The Nobel Foundation began on 29 June 1900 and the first Nobel Prizes were awarded (10) in 1901.

Nobel's high ideals are the reverse of those exhibited by his countrymen in 1715 when Swedish troops occupied Norway (24).

This wasn’t the only Christmas Eve invasion, of course. The Soviet invaded Afghanistan on the same day in 1979, ostensibly to support the Marxist government. It wasn’t all gloom and doom on Christmas Eve during war. In 1914 the ‘Christmas Truce’ began (24) during the First World War. In successive years it never caught on with the Top Brass as they thought the ordinary soldiers from both sides were fraternising. That would never do - bad for morale and all that.

On the same day (24) in 2003 cowardly terrorists were thwarted in their evil designs in Spain. ETA’s attempt to detonate 50kg of explosives inside Madrid’s busy Chamartin Station was defused by Spanish police. You can’t help wondering if this incident suggested (admittedly wrongly) to the authorities that the 11 March, 2004 bomb perpetrators were also ETA rather than al Queda. On such questions do political parties fall.

Independence from Spain isn’t new, naturally. In 1640 Portugal regained its independence (1) from Spain and Joao IV of Portugal became that country’s king.

And on the same day (1) seven years earlier the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain died. She and her husband Albert were patrons of such artists as Rubens and Brueghel and after her husband’s death she joined the Order of the Sisters of St Clare and became the governor of the Netherlands until her death.
Isabella of England was the daughter of King John. She married Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1235 and he kept her hidden away. When her brother Richard passed through Sicily on his return from the Crusades he had to beg Frederick to see Isabella just to speak for a few moments. Isabella gave birth to four children, dying in childbirth with her fifth (1). Apparently, Frederick buried her beside one of his Saracen mistresses.

We started with royalty and so we’ll end with them too - with what is probably yet another surfeit of dates - calendar dates.

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