February 9


The Beatles’ first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show”.

With so few entertainment choices, in the 1960s popular culture was still relatively uniform. It had not finished dividing into the many sub-categories we endure today; a television variety program like Ed Sullivan’s could attract a multi-generational audience with a variety of performers ranging from night-club crooners, Chinese plate-spinners, Mexican ventriloquists, borscht-belt comedians, and rock musicians.

The British Invasion that was changing the sound of pop music was led by those four lovable mop-topped lads from Liverpool, the Beatles. By early 1964, their hold on youth was so strong that my church youth group was resigned to letting us teenagers go home early to watch their first North American tv appearance. I sat on the polyester rug in our living room and sang along while my parents watched, manifestly unimpressed.

In the end, Sullivan’s show lost its appeal to those advertisers seeking to court the youth market and his show was cancelled in 1971.

February 6

1952 The succession of Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith succeeded her father George VI on this day. She received the news while visiting Kenya as part of a royal tour. As part of Elizabeth’s formal accession she was required to sign this document:

The formal insistence on the monarch’s Protestantism was a product of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and is still a part of the job requirements. The Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England; whether her putative successor, the future Charles III, will be comfortable with that is open for debate. The great lummox had said he would prefer to be known as “Defender of the Faiths” [sic] but was, apparently, talked out of it.

The standard version of the royal anthem (which my generation regularly sang as schoolchildren) is:

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen!

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign:
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen!


February 5

By now every high school and college teacher has read one of the collections of student bloopers that circulate relentlessly on the Internet. “Francis Drake,” we are told, “circumcised the world with a hundred-foot clipper.” “Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife”. “Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock”, etc. It behooves me, therefore, to salute some of my University of Manitoba students who in their essays and exams contributed these gems.

• Who defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae? “The Persian emperor Xerox”.

• Aristotle was one of the “Immorals of Science”.

• Emperor Charles V “abolished Luther at the Doctrine of Worms”.

• Clovis, king of the Franks was a “barbaric worrier”.

• Define “buboes”: “The black plaque that hid Europe.”

• Define hedonism: “Geek pleasure”.

• One of Luther’s doctrines? “The just shall live by fate.”

• One of the contributions of medieval philosophy? “Ockham’s Raisin”.

• At what point did the French Revolution become less radical? “The 1794 Thermodynamic Reaction”.

• Who were the Flagellants? “The people who wiped themselves”.



February 4

1836 Politics by candle-light

The Speech from the Throne is a solemn moment in the conduct of business in those legislatures which have adopted the British parliamentary system (the supreme form of government ever conceived by humans.) In it the monarch (or his vice-regal representative) enters the Upper House (being forbidden to enter the House of Commons since Charles I’s invasion of 1642) and reads the speech which outlines the government’s plans for the forthcoming session. What follows is the 19th-century account of such a speech king awry.

The opening-day of the Session of Parliament in 1836 (February 4), was unusually gloomy, which, added to an imperfection in the sight of King William IV, and the darkness of the House, rendered it impossible for his Majesty to read the royal speech with facility. Most patiently and good-naturedly did he struggle with the task, often hesitating, sometimes mistaking, and at others correcting himself. On one occasion, he stuck altogether, and after two or three ineffectual efforts to make out the word, he was obliged to give it up; when, turning to Lord Melbourne, who stood on his right hand, and looking him most significantly in the face, he said in a tone sufficiently loud to be audible in all parts of the House, ‘Eh! what is it?’ Lord Melbourne having whispered the obstructing word, the King proceeded to toil through the speech; but by the time he got to about the middle, the librarian brought him two wax-lights, on which he suddenly paused; then raising his head, and looking at the Lords and Commons, he addressed them, on the spur of the moment, in a perfectly distinct voice, and without the least embarrassment or the mistake of a single word, in these terms:

My Lords and Gentlemen, I have hitherto not been able, from want of light, to read this speech in the way its importance deserves; but as lights are now brought me, I will read it again from the commencement, and in a way which, I trust, will command your attention.

The King then again, though evidently fatigued by the difficulty of reading in the first instance, began at the beginning, and read through the speech in a manner which would have done credit to any professor of elocution.

January 29


The Pro Football Hall of Fame names its first inductees. How many names can you recognize? Do you recall which one was “Johnny Blood”, the “Galloping Ghost”, the “Old Master”, “Old Indestructible”, or the “Big Dog”? In alphabetical order they are:

“Slingin” Sammy Baugh, quarterback, punter, and defensive back with the Washington Redskins, 1937-52.

Bert Bell, founder and coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and NFL Commissioner, 1933-59.

Joseph Carr, owner of the Columbus Panhandles and NFL President, 1920-39.

Dutch Clark, running back with the Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions, 1931-38.

Harold “Red” Grange, halfback with the Chicago Bears and New York Yankees, 1925-34.

George Halas, end, coach, and owner, Chicago Bears, 1920-83.

Mel Hein, centre, New York Giants, 1931-45.

Pete Henry, tackle, Canton Bulldogs, Pottsville Maroons, and New York Giants, 1920-28.

Cal Hubbard, tackle, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1927-36.

Don Hutson, end, safety, and kicker, Green Bay Packers, 1935-45.

Earl “Curly” Lambeau, halback, coach, and manager, Green Bay Packers, 1919-53.

Tim Mara, owner New York Giants, 1925-59.

George Preston Marshall, owner Boston Braves/Washington Redskins, 1932-69.

John McNally, halfback,Milwaukee Badgers, Duluth Eskimos, Pottsville Maroons, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1925-38.

Bronko Nagurski, fullback, linebacker, Chicago Bears, 1930-37, 1943.

Ernie Nevers, fullback and coach, Duluth Eskimos, Chicago Cardinals, 1926-39.

Jim Thorpe, halback, coach, first NFL President, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants, Chicago Cardinals, 1915-28.

January 16

Historians may justly claim that today’s date witnessed a number of significant events.

In 1493 on this date Christopher Columbus returned to Europe from his accidental discovery of the New World.
In 1604 the Hampton Court conference called for a new English translation of the Bible which resulted in the publication 7 years later of the magisterial Authorized (or King James) Version.
In 1919 Prohibition was ratified in the United States.
In 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in patriotic protest against the Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia.

But for lovers of the absurd, January 16 will be forever sacred to the memory of heavyweight boxing champ and dental fashion-plate Leon Spinks who in 1981 was mugged and robbed of his gold teeth

January 9

It is St Fillan’s Day. Fillan was an 8th-century Scottish saint,  known for his piety and good works. He spent a considerable part of his holy life at a monastery which he built in Pittenweem. While engaged here in transcribing the Scriptures, his left hand sent forth sufficient light to enable him, at night, to continue his work without a lamp. For the sake of seclusion, he finally retired to a wild and lonely vale, called from him Strathfillan, in Perthshire, where he died, and where his name is still attached to the ruins of a chapel, to a pool, and a bed of rock.

The uses to which the locale was put tell us much about the treatment of mental illness in Medieval Scotland: At Strathfillan, there is a deep pool, called the Holy Pool, where, in olden times, they were wont to dip insane people. The ceremony was performed after sunset on the first day of the quarter, and before sunrise next morning. The dipped persons were instructed to take three stones from the bottom of the pool, and, walking three times round each of three cairns on the bank, throw a stone into each. They were next conveyed to the ruins of St. Fillan’s chapel; and in a corner called St. Fillan’s bed, they were laid on their back, and left tied all night. If next morning they were found loose, the cure was deemed perfect, and thanks returned to the saint. The pool visited  in the nineteenth century, not by parishioners, who had no faith in its virtue, but by people from other and distant places.

January 4

1999, Death of a cultural appropriator

In a 1971 public service announcement so iconic that it made The Simpsons, Iron Eyes Cody, seemingly a nature-loving native American, is depicted crying at the litter that pollutes the landscape. On this day in 1999 that actor died.

Iron Eyes Cody appeared in over 200 films and 100 television episodes making a comfortable living portraying the Indian part of “Cowboys and Indians”: Chief Black Feather, Chief Sky Eagle, Chief Watashi, Chief St Cloud, Chief Thundercloud, Chief Big Cloud, Chief Grey Cloud, Chief Yellow Cloud, Crazy Horse, Crazy Foot, Crow Foot, etc.

To the end of his days, Mr Cody insisted that he was a Cherokee, or a Cree, or some other sort of tribesman. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, born Espera Oscar de Corti. He began his Hollywood career as an extra and ended it having his own star on the Walk of Fame.




December 20

Trapped inside the doomed “cauldron” at Stalingrad, Wehrmacht pastor Kurt Reuber drew a charcoal picture of the Madonna and Child on the back of a map and labelled it “Life, Light and Love, Christmas in the Cauldron Fortress Stalingrad 1942”. He took it from bunker to bunker to cheer the troops at Christmas 1942. Reuber described the effect on displaying it:

When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall. …The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love. …Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.

The work was sent out on the last transport plane to leave the siege but the artist was left with the rest of the Sixth Army to fall captive to the Soviets. Reuber died in a Russian prisoner of war camp in 1944. The picture was suppressed by Nazi officials during the war but is now on display in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.