With ‘normal’ news on hold at the moment, it’s to the past that we have to turn for ‘take your mind off the virus’ material. In that spirit, every weekend Spectator Life is bringing you doses of topical trivia – facts, figures and anecdotes inspired by the current week’s dates in history …
Harry Secombe (died 2001). The comedian was once told by his Goon Show colleague, ‘I hope you die before I do, Harry, because I don’t want you singing at my funeral’. This was indeed what happened – Milligan didn’t die until the following year. But at his memorial service, in tribute to the famous joke, a recording of Secombe singing was played.
In 1945, Harry S. Truman became President of the USA. The ‘S’ didn’t stand for anything. His grandfathers had been Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young – so to pay tribute to both of them, and offend neither, Harry’s parents gave their son a middle initial rather than a middle name.
Christopher Hitchens (born 1949). The writer was asked in 2009 what his favourite whisky was. He replied: ‘The best blended Scotch in the history of the world – which was also the favourite drink of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, as it is still of the Palestinian Authority, and the Libyan dictatorship, and large branches of the Saudi Arabian royal family – is Johnnie Walker Black Label. Breakfast of champions.’
Peter Davison (born 1951). He was the fifth actor to play Doctor Who – and his daughter Georgia went on to marry David Tennant, the tenth actor to play Doctor Who.
John Gielgud (born 1904). He once had to turn down an invitation because he was ill. His reply read: ‘Sorry, love, cannot attend. Gielgud doesn’t fielgud.’
In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ was published. It missed out the words ‘blonde’ and ‘champagne’, purely because Johnson hated the French.
Jeffrey Archer (born 1940). He once saw a sign in a bank which asked: ‘Is your income over £20,000?’ He says he was unable to answer: ‘Some days it is, some days it isn’t.’
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (died 1687). In 1672 Villiers had sold his London home, York House, to developers for £30,000. A condition of the sale was that every element of his name should be commemorated in the streets they built on the land. So there was George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street … and Of Alley. It’s still there (running east off Villiers Street, just south of the Strand). Even though it has since been renamed York Place, the sign adds ‘Formerly Of Alley’.
Peter Ustinov (born 1921). At school, asked by an exam paper to ‘name one Russian composer’, Ustinov wrote ‘Rimsky-Korsakov’. He was told that ‘the correct answer is Tchaikovsky’. Furthermore he was admonished in front of the entire school for ‘showing off’.
Victoria Beckham (born 1974). In 2002 the former Spice Girl tried to stop Peterborough United F.C. from using their decades-old nickname of ‘Posh’. The claim she filed at the Patent Office was unsuccessful.