Archive for February, 2012

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An Englishman’s April fool is a Frenchman’s ‘poisson d’Avril’

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Superstition on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about superstition and customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Poissons d'Avril, picture, image, illustration

A poisson d’Avril or April Fool in France, with two clowns juggling the poissons

If anyone has ever sent you to buy a left-handed screwdriver, a box of straight hooks, a bucket of blue steam or a reel of tartan cotton or told you to pick up a penny glued to the floor – you have something in common with your medieval ancestors. With them it was often a pint of pigeon’s milk or a “History of Eve’s Mother.” What started it all?

As far back as we can trace, people have celebrated New Year by giving presents. Originally New Year’s Day was March 25th, but this date often occurred during Holy Week, so the Church decreed that all merry-making should be postponed until April 1st. Four centuries ago, New Year’s Day was moved to January 1st but the more mischievous citizens, feeling perhaps that the coming of spring still deserved recognition fell into the habit of teasing absent-minded friends by playing practical jokes, or giving mock presents to persuade them that the spring New Year was still in operation. (Similar jokes were played by the ancient Persians, whose new year was also celebrated about the time of the Vernal Equinox, and among Hindus at their spring Huli festival.)

In France an April fool is un poisson d’Avril (an April fish). In Scotland he’s a “gowk” (cuckoo) – the day itself being “Huntogowk Day” from the old joke of “hunting the gowk.” Scottish children still send unsuspecting friends to another friends in the know with a message reading: –

“Don’t you laugh, and don’t you smile,

Hunt the gowk another mile . . .”

The conspirator refuses the note, saying it has been brought to the wrong person, and the ‘Gowk’ must try again . . .

“Fools’ Day” ends at noon. Anyone who plays tricks after this is greeted with some such chant as:

“April Fools’ Day’s past and gone

You’re the fool for making one . . .”

A British naval catastrophe saw the sinking of the Good Hope and the Monmouth in 1914

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, World War 1 on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about the First World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Catastrophe off Coronel, picture, image, illustration

In the catastrophe off Coronel the British lost the Good Hope and the Monmouth with all hands, by Graham Coton

The German colony in Valparaiso, Chile, was in party mood. It was hardly surprising, for into the port had sailed a victorious German battle squadron and its Commander-in-Chief, Admiral von Spee, aboard his flagship Scharnhorst. For his crushing victory over the British off Coronel, he was welcomed with a feast, and someone suggested a toast “To the damnation of the British Fleet!”

Von Spee refused it. Instead he said: “I drink to the memory of a gallant and honourable foe.” And when he was given a bouquet of flowers, he said: “They will do for my funeral.”

His gloomy reply was prophetic, yet for the moment he might well have rejoiced with the whole of Germany, for he had inflicted a total defeat on the world’s greatest navy. Trafalgar seemed a very distant memory on that November day in 1914.

Britain and France had gone to war with Germany and her allies in August. The British had not only the largest fleet in the world, but the biggest merchant navy and, as an island, nothing must be allowed to disrupt her shipping lanes, which would soon be carrying not only goods, but also troop ships from all parts of the Empire.

Yet Germany had rapidly expanded her fleet, and in the endless wastes of the Pacific and the Southern Ocean north of Antarctica, there were sea wolves ready to pounce on any victims that they found. As soon as war was declared von Spee, commanding the East Asiatic Squadron, sailed from the Chinese port of Tsingtan with the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the fast light cruisers, Dresden, Emden and Nurnberg. And there was another cruiser at large in the Pacific, the Leipzig.

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Artistic Ettore Bugatti was a stylish Italian designer of good-looking cars

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sport, Transport on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about motor cars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Early racing cars, picture, image, illustration

Bugatti built superb racing cars distinguished by beautiful line and their famous horse-shoe radiator (top), by Peter Jackson

What makes the “Black Bess” different from all the other Bugattis?  It was the only Bugatti to be built with a chain drive. Known as the “Black Bess,” the 5-litre, 1913 model was bought by the famous French aviation pioneer and First World War flying ace Roland Gavros.

Ettore Bugatti, the car’s designer and builder, was born in Milan, Italy, in 1881, the son of a well-known goldsmith, who wanted his two sons to become artists. One of them, Rembrandt Bugatti, was to become well known as a sculptor.

But Ettore loved mechanical things. At the age of 17, he planned and built his own two-engine tricycle. After a year as an apprentice with an engineering company, Bugatti built his first motor vehicle, the forerunner of a line that was to continue for 40 years.

Bugatti established his own factory in 1910 at Molsheim in Alsace. At 28, he was a famed car designer, his talents being used by De Dietrich and Peugeot.

His first production car, Tipo 13, was meant for racing.

At about the same time, he produced a road car which was bought by Peugeot and named the Bebe.

Now started a period, ending with the outbreak of the First World War, when from the lively mind of Bugatti came many marvellous machines which were the stars and victors of over a thousand races.

The victories were due to the exceptional stability of these cars and the careful design of the engines. Their famous horse-shoe radiators became the hallmark of success.

Ettore Bugatti died in 1947. The Bugatti car company carried on for some years after his death, but the cars built without the genius of the man who created the line were not true Bugattis, as any enthusiast will agree.

Some fish have behavioural eccentricities and even try to fly

Posted in Fish, Nature, Oddities, Wildlife on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about fish originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Odd fish, picture, image, illustration

The upside-down Catfish (top row, second from left)

Catfish get their name from the long “feelers” or barbels which are supposed to resemble the whiskers of a cat.

One of the biggest, known as the Wels, is a native of Eastern Europe and grows up to 10 feet long.

Perhaps the most extraordinary is the “upside-down” catfish. It has the remarkable habit of turning completely upside-down and swimming along like this for some time before reverting to a normal swimming position.

Another curious kind is the “glass” catfish which is almost completely transparent when young and even when it becomes adult, the only visible colouring is around the head.

In a fish-tank, it looks exactly like a swimming skeleton.

The incredibly impressive trajectory of the flying snake

Posted in Animals, Nature, Oddities, Wildlife on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about snakes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

gliding creatures, picture, image, illustration

The flying snake (top left) is one of several gliding creatures

Many snakes can climb trees on occasions but this “tall” story was disbelieved at one time believe it or not. However, in Indonesia and Malaya, there are some snakes which spend most of their lives high up in the branches, feeding on young birds, lizards and insects.

One kind is known as the “flying” snake and although it is not quite correct to say that this species can really “fly”, they can glide long distances from tree to tree.

The snake launches itself from one of the topmost branches of a lofty tree, at the same time spreading out its ribs so that its body is nearly flat like a ribbon and can take advantage of the air currents.

It then glides to a lower branch on another tree, perhaps as much as twenty feet away.

Observers have maintained that by twisting its body, the aeronautical snake is capable of changing direction in flight.

Luckily, we in Britain are not plagued with snakes, apart from the adder.

Of late, there have been sightings of various “unidentified flying objects” but so far, nothing in the nature of a “flying snake.”

William Miller accurately predicted the Second Coming – several times

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Religion, Sinners on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about the Second Coming originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Battle of New Orleans, picture, image, illustration

William Miller was a Captain in the army during America’s war with Britain, which ended with an American victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, by Ron Embleton

Daylight glimmered through cracks in the shutters. The candle had dwindled to its last inch and was spluttering in a sea of wax. Feverishly, William Miller thumbed the pages of his Bible, his eyes flickering from the closely printed paper to the notes that lay beside it. Suddenly he threw down his pen, flung back his chair and fell on his knees in prayer. At last he had solved the problem which had vexed him since childhood. He knew now that the date of Christ’s Second Coming had been hidden there all along and that he alone had discovered it. The place was Hampton, New York State, U.S.A. The year was 1817. And Christ was due, according to William Miller’s calculations, in 26 years’ time, in 1843.

William was the son of a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His mother was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Between them, they gave him a strict religious education. At the same time they planted in him a yearning for knowledge and he quickly became known along the frontier settlements because of his eager quest for books.

Not only did William read voraciously, he thought carefully about what he read. In the long winter nights he pored over the Bible and commentaries on it by scholars of the past and present, trying to reconcile the many anomalies and contradictions that he found in it. Eventually, the influence of his friends enticed him away from religious study and other pursuits occupied his mind.

Then, in 1812, America went to war against Britain. William served as a captain in the army. His experiences in battle changed him. He saw at first hand the fear, bravery, sickness and death of which he had hitherto only read in books and he turned again to religion. Naturally, his unbelieving friends scoffed at him and asked him to convince them of the truth of the Bible. William took up their challenge. He began to read and study it once more.

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The brief life of the butterfly, one of Nature’s most beautiful winged creatures

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about butterflies originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Butterflies, picture, image, illustration

A montage of butterflies including the Green Birdwing butterfly

Carterocephalus palaemon silvicolus, what an ugly and cumbersome name for such a beautiful and delicate creature as a butterfly. But this is only one of the names naturalists have given to the 70 different kinds of butterfly in Britain. It is also classified under the general heading of “lepidoptera” which means “scale wings.” The life of a butterfly can be divided into four stages, first the egg, then the caterpillar, next the chrysalis and finally, the fully-fledged butterfly.

The majority of our butterfly species pass the winter as eggs or pupae. They tend to find places such as hollow trees, barns or any other solitary place where they can rest undisturbed. One of the most wonderful things about butterflies is the way they have developed “eye-spots.” These are small decorations which are designed to attract birds and other predators. But the “eye-spots” are on the margin of a butterfly’s wings so that its attacker is lured away from the more vital parts of the butterfly’s anatomy.

The larvae or caterpillars are plant-feeders and they often feed in exposed places on the leaves. Many of the large white butterfly family, pieris brassicae, can do untold damage to the foliage of a small fruit tree.

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Pearl Harbour, December 7th 1941: “a date that will live in infamy” (Franklin D Roosevelt)

Posted in America, Aviation, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Pearl Harbour, picture, image, illustration

The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour

At 7.55 a.m. on December 7th, 1941, the Sunday morning quiet of the American base at Pearl Harbour was broken by the drone of approaching aircraft. A dive-bomber bearing the scarlet roundel of Japan came in low over the lush green hills of Oahu and headed for Wheeler Field, where rows of US warplanes were neatly parked. Behind the newcomer stretched two hundred others: high-level and dive-bombers, torpedo-planes, fighters. Minutes later, the bombs began to fall, the torpedoes to run.

The first attack lasted a quarter of an hour. By then Wheeler Field was a graveyard of blazing, wrecked planes. At the other side of the island, at the fleet anchorage, the battleships USS “Arizona,” “West Virginia” and “Oklahoma” had been pounded to scrap iron. The “Arizona” blew up, “West Virginia” settled on the bottom of the harbour, “Oklahoma” rolled completely over and showed her propellers.

All this happened in the time it would take a man to have a quick breakfast.

Less than an hour later, a second wave of attackers came in. This time it was left to the dive-bombers and the high-level bombers. When they withdrew shortly after 9 a.m. four of the eight battleships of the US Pacific fleet had been sunk and the remaining four so severely damaged as to be useless for action. Sunk, also, were three destroyers and four smaller vessels. Three light cruisers and a seaplane tender were heavily damaged. One hundred and eighty-eight aircraft were destroyed on the ground and sixty-three made unserviceable. Over two thousand American sailors perished with their ships and the army casualties amounted to at least six hundred.

In one stroke, America had ceased to be a power in the Pacific.

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A Salvation Army of just 88 soldiers went into battle in 1878

Posted in Bible, Historical articles, History, London, Philanthropy on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about the Salvation Army originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Salvation Army mission, picture, image, illustration

Booth’s People’s Mission Hall at 272 Whitechapel Road (top) was a refuge for those trying to escape from poor society’s rampant alchohlism which Booth rightly recognised as a disease. Pictures by Pat Nicolle

Twelve hard, gruelling months had passed since that hot summer’s day in 1865 when William Booth had taken charge of the Christian Tent Mission in the East End of London.

Night after night he had staggered home, often with his clothes torn and nursing a cut in the head where mud, stones or a firework had struck, hurled by a jeering mob.

With a wife and six children to support, Booth was himself facing poverty. Only his passionate desire to help the destitute and degraded, and the loyal, encouraging support of his wife, Catherine, had kept him going during these months of hardship. Sometimes, even Booth found his ardent faith flagging under such burdensome struggles. With only sixty supporters standing beside him after one year of work at the Tent Mission, his moments of near-despair were understandable. A few men and women had left him to follow their destinies. One of these was a young medical student called Thomas Barnado who had helped Booth at many of his meetings. He left the mission to concentrate on the rescue of London’s orphan boys, and to found an organisation which was to become famous throughout the world. Booth had seen an inspired faith and determination in this young man, and when he wished his friend goodbye, he added, with great foresight: “You look after the children, and I will look after the adults. Then, together, we will convert the world.”

But many of those who left Booth during that year were men and women who had found the dangerous atmosphere of the East End intolerable. Their attitude was forgivable. At almost every meeting, a violent incident would take place, and Booth himself needed a private bodyguard to protect him from aggressive roughs and urchins.

Soon, however, Booth’s movement, which became known as the Christian Mission, began to spread beyond the East End to the suburbs of Bromley and Croydon.

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Pele is one of the greatest footballers in the history of the beautiful game

Posted in Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about football originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Pele, picture, image, illustration


In 1958, the 17-year-old boy’s dark, smooth face was alight with joy and excitement as he helped his Brazilian colleagues carry a huge Swedish flag round the Stockholm soccer stadium.

They were paying tribute to the host country of that year’s World Cup finals, whose team they had just beaten 5-2 to win the world championship for the first time.

The boy among the men of that happy Brazilian band had two other reasons to celebrate, besides the gold medal clutched in his hand. He had scored two sensational goals – and he had become the youngest ever to play in a World Cup final.

Nobody knew it at the time, but he was to become the only one of that team who, 12 years later, would be dancing and prancing round the Aztec stadium in Mexico City with the golden World Cup again in Brazil’s grasp – this time for good.

Three wins in four World Cups gave Brazil permanent possession of the Jules Rimet trophy – as the first World Cup was officially called – and only one man could claim to have scored in the first and also in the fourth.

His name was still the same on the official teamsheet – Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But in 12 years he had made another name a magic word in football – Pele.

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