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From windscreen wipers to Chanel No. 5… the anniversaries to watch out for in 2021

Marilyn Monroe applies her make-up and Chanel No. 5 perfume in 1955 - Credit: Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

What will 2021 bring us? Anniversaries, for a start. JONATHAN SALE flags up the notable events coming up to their centuries, bicentenaries, half-centuries and other round-figure dates which we can mark over the year.

January begins with a crucial motoring anniversary, the centenary on the 15th of the day when automatic windscreen wipers reached the UK.  Before 1921, motorists had to cope with the previous version which had to be pulled by a string, like a puppet, as you drove along through the rain. 1521 did not start well for the German Protestant reformer Martin Luther, as on the 3rd we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the day when he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. This was followed by the highly unpalatable Diet of Worms (memo for sniggering children – the city not the invertebrate) in which the Holy Roman Empire strikes back with the declaration of the Edict of Worms certifying him to be a heretic and banning his writings.

February 1971 began well for the women of Switzerland, when on the 7th the men generously  allowed them the right to vote; yes, female suffrage there is a mere half-century old. The 8th will see the centenary of the day when Peter Kropotkin went to the Great People’s Congress in the Sky.  He was an advocate of anarcho-communism but the the fact that he was sentenced to prison in Russia, France and Switzerland suggests that the authorities weren’t. In 1971 Britain was universally baffled on the 15th when decimalisation hit the coinage;  those, of course, were the days when for one new penny you could get, well, two new half-pennies. The 23rd brings the bicentenary of the sad day in 1821 when John Keats, who had been half in love with easeful Death, became wholly dead at from TB at the absurdly youthful age of 25.

March brings an answer to the question Monty Python’s Life of Brian never quite asked:  “What has the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great ever done for us?” The answer came 1,700 years ago, that on the 7th of the month in the year 321 His Highness decreed that Sunday should be a day of rest, plus he abolished crucifixion (switching to hanging instead). 150 years ago, the Paris Commune was set up on the 18th, lasting only a few weeks until it turned violent, at which point the French government turned even more violent in ‘Bloody Week’. Also in 1871, the Albert Hall was officially opened by Queen Victoria on the 29th. Unfortunately for this mother of nine royal children, Her Majesty had been born too early to open or make use of the first birth control clinic in Britain on March 17th 1921.

April 26th 121 AD, saw the birth of Marcus Aurelius who 1900 years later is still celebrated as one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (not being mad helped).  He moonlighted as a Stoic philosopher and people still meditate on his Meditations. He was deified on his death and, better still, was played by Richard Harris in the film Gladiator. On May 27th 1921 what is said to be the first regular scheduled weather forecast could be heard on the St Louis university radio station WEW, though, a century later, we can’t be sure if it was correct.  On the 3rd it will be 300 years since Robert Walpole became a Quite Good, and certainly the first, prime minister in 1721.

May 2nd 1921 was when cinematic history was made by Dream Street, the first full-length feature film with sound. The Birth of a Nation had its critics  – racism etc – but this new silent movie by D.W. Griffiths had been greeted as a nightmare, “a dreadful hodgepodge of allegory and symbolism” when it had been screened in April.  Sound, in the form of a love-song on a synchronised disc, was now added – and it was still a rubbish movie. A century ago, partition on the 3rd left Ireland divided into Northern and Southern parts – with the border posing a few issues still, thanks to Brexit, to be tweaked. This being the fifth month, on the fifth day of 1921 Coco Chanel launched Chanel No 5 in Paris. We know how Marilyn Monroe answered the question “What do you wear to [sic] bed?”  But what happened to Chanel Numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4?

June 10th will mark a day of celebration as the 100th birthday of the Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich;  that’s the same person, aka the Duke of Edinburgh, who was also born a prince of Greece and Denmark but gave that up as it seemed greedy.  On June 5th 1921 French playwright Georges Feydeau, author of  A Flea in her Ear and other farces, met his final curtain. On the 15th it will be 50 years since the then education secretary announced that free school milk for seven-plus school children would be ended;  it is good to know – forgive and forget, I say – that no one brings up the “Thatcher, Thatcher – Milk Snatcher” business any more.

July 8th 1721 was the sad (I suppose) day of the death of Elihu Yale, whose CV is said to include both “philanthropist” and “slave trader”; 300 years ago the real scandal was that he lived with a woman not his wife. Since it is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcel Proust, the 10th would be as good time as any to start at last on the first of the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time. Also in 1871, Britain held its first cat show at Crystal Palace three days later. There will be sad souls who will be raising a glass of schnapps on the 29th to commemorate the centenary of the day when Hitler took over the leadership of the Nazi Party.

August 13th 1521 was when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés captured Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire, and in the succeeding half millennium there has not been an Aztec empire on account of it being wiped out. Walter Scott, whose novels brought Scottish antiquity up to date, was born 250 years ago, on August 15th 1771. Two bicentenary births on the 4th: James Springer White, co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, believed in the coming of Jesus Christ and the importance of the Sabbath but, while the Sabbath came every week, Jesus didn’t.  And Louis Vuitton, of course, was the patron saint of French suitcases.  

September brings the 700th anniversary of Dante, whose Divine Comedy begins with the delicious words “Midway along the path of our life”; on the 13th  of this month in 1321 he came to the end of the road. The first autobahn celebrates its centenary of the 13th;  the Avus Autobahn in Berlin was only just over six miles long and, with a loop at either end to give an uninterrupted drive, it doubled as a race-track, which is what many motorists believe to be the purpose of motorways anyway. The 8th sees the centenary of the first Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, won by a 16-year-old “of white race”.  The same day is sacred to the devotees of the Goon Show, as this was when the much-loved Harry Secombe, alias Neddie Seagoon, was born in 1921.  Perhaps fewer fans, and definitely no connoisseurs of gastronomy, will celebrate  the opening in the same month of the first drive-in eatery, The Pig Stand pork barbecue establishment on the Dallas-Fort Worth Highway.

October brings the half-millennium anniversary of Pope Leo X’s granting to Henry VIII the title ‘Defender of the Faith’.  This process, on October 11th 1521, was supposed to mean that the King would be upholding the sacrament of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope, not to mention opposing the Protestant Reformation, so it is not clear which particular faith it now referred to but British monarchs still keep the “Fid. Def.” bit in their job description. The same day in 1721 saw the death of Edward Colston, another of those hardworking men who multi-tasked as philanthropists and slavetraders. Owing to an ethical planning dispute, his statue was relocated briefly from Colston Avenue, Bristol, to the bottom of the river and a court case in January will take the 300-year-old saga further. In 1971 viewers saw the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, which was like Downton Abbey but more a case of Upstairs, Downmarket.  Also on the 10th, London Bridge was officially open for business – in Arizona, after being dismantled and then mantled again as a tourist attraction. At the end of the month, another London landmark, the BT Tower, experienced structural alterations, this time from an IRA bomb.

November 10th 1871 was when journalist Henry Morton Stanley said, or alternatively did not say (it was after all 150 years ago) to the missing missionary, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” 1921 saw the first Poppy Day, held of course on the 11th;  the then substantial sum of £106,000 was raised and, when the material for poppies ran out, red blotting paper was used instead. In 1971 the Mariner 9 spacecraft began to orbit Mars on the 14th;  The weather was atrocious, with an enormous dust storm swirling over the Red Planet, so photographing the surface had to wait for two months.

December is packed with centenaries, though not necessarily of events worth celebrating.  Leaded petrol on the 9th, for one.  Thomas Midgley Jr. of General Motors added tetraethyllead to petrol and got rid of “knocking” noises in engines but unfortunately turned out to be poisoning, among others, himself.  He later came up with CFCs for refrigerators, which led to ozone depletion of the upper atmosphere. US DJ Alan Freed, born on the 15th, was smart enough to came up with the term “rock and roll” but also dumb enough to be involved in the “payola” scandal, that is, accepting cash for plugging records. Finally, Robert C. Baker, born on the 29th, invented the chicken nugget.

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