20 random things I learnt in 2020

It’s been a difficult year.

Number #1: Jesse Norman’s dad invented Polly Pockets

Jesse Norman was the first transport minister my work at DfT fell under. Two things are interesting about him: he is a qualified pilot (but, no, aviation wasn’t part of his ministerial brief), and he owes his wealth to his father’s entrepreneurial success as the owner of the company that launched Polly Pockets.

Liz Taylor, MGM Publicity Still, ca. 1950, Public Domain

Number #2: Liz Taylor was late at her own funeral

The Independent reports: “In a typically playful final instruction the actress’s flower-strewn coffin arrived at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, yesterday 15 minutes after the announced time, fulfilling, her publicist said, a wish “to be late for her own funeral”.

Number #3: People used to install aerials even if they could not afford a TV because…

…it was considered status symbol, according to this legendary Londoner interviewed in 1977. Listen to the whole speech, as it really deserves it.

Number #4: Cross-border Catholic dioceses

The fact that Catholic dioceses on the island of Ireland are very old caused a few of them to be split between the Republic and the UK. According to Wikipedia, “one archdiocese and three dioceses straddle the international border; two dioceses are wholly in Northern Ireland.”

Number #5: The Manchester Bee, or a lesson on why you should be careful of being snarky on Twitter

An American journalist took issue at people posting picture of their tattoos depicting bees because of anatomical issues in the bees depicted; except the tattoo was of the Manchester Worker Bee, a symbol of the city, and the tattoo had been made as a sign of solidarity in response to the terror attack. She was chastised on social media, but she did apologise (genuinely).

But this story made me reflect on how the style of conversation on Twitter is encouraging people to be quick-witted and snarky, which might be conducive to losing empathy.

Manchester Bee art in the Northern Quarter CC BY-SA Duncan.Hull

Number #6: Coulrophobia

My friend Mauro Franchi made me discover the existence of the word for “extreme or irrational fear of clowns”, which I find entirely rational. Ridi, pagliaccio!

Number #7: 80% of the London Underground is, in fact, overground.

The power of branding, innit. Source: the Evening Standard, via this map by ESRI.

from the Evening Standard

Number #8: Pavarotti starred in a trashy PG-rated film

The New York Times review of the film, “Yes, Giorgio”, said: “Its sexual innuendoes will not disturb children, although adults may find them alarming.”

No, Luciano!

Number #9: Lord Chesterfield, in the 18th century, used to read Latin poetry on the toilet then rip out the finished page to use as bog roll

As revealed by Greg Jenner. However, Wikipedia presents a slightly different story: “The rise of publishing by the eighteenth century led to the use of newspapers and cheap editions of popular books for cleansing. Lord Chesterfield, in a letter to his son in 1747, told of a man who purchased ‘a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina; thus was so much time fairly gained’”

Number #10: ‘Can you provide comments to this 300 pages document by COP Tomorrow’ is an acceptable ask in the magic world of the civil service

Ok, sorry. I had to let it off my chest ;-)

Number #11: CIA used a fake scrotum to let agents hide a radio

Because, why not. (Yeah, the video below is age-restricted for a reason).

This guy was in charge for a bit

Number #12: The letters of last resort

After 2020, knowing about this almost feels well planned and cheerful:

“The letters of last resort are four identically-worded handwritten letters from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the commanding officers of the four British ballistic missile submarines. They contain orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government, […]”

And what if it were a virus instead?

Number #13: The name Nigel suddenly lost popularity in 2016

I wonder why.

Chart by Anna Powell-Smith, using ONS data

Number #14: Arthur Henderson, second leader of the Labour Party, was MP for Barnard Castle

He represented the seat after a by-election. I can’t find much information about his eyesight, but he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934.

Arthur Henderson, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Number #15: Guess who Ernst of Hanover had to ask permission to marry?

Because of a hilarious set of historical treaties and rules, Ernst of Hanover had to ask Queen Elizabeth — yes, our Queen Elizabeth — permission to marry Princess Caroline of Monaco, in 1999. This is because he’s a descendent of King George II of Great Britain, and in order to make his marriage valid in the UK he had to comply with the Royal Marriages Act 1772 (repealed in 2013). Oh, and notification had to be served to France because of a different treaty (France could, in theory, object).

His family is not new to interesting stories. His father, born in 1914, was created a British prince by King George V, but all British titles were lost shortly after due to the Titles Deprivation Act 1917. But yes, Ernst still had to get permission to make sure his marriage was legally recognised in Britain, just in case he needed it.

For more details, watch “The Crown”.

Number #16: British Overseas Territories have some hilariously appropriate mottos

Some of them are close to being passive aggressive. Bermuda’s, home to the notorious triangle, is “Quo fata ferunt” (“Whither the Fates carry [us]”). The British Antarctic Territory’s is “Research and discovery”. Falkland’s is “Desire the right” (this is surely a jibe at the Argentinian junta). Gibraltar’s is “Nulli expugnabilis hosti” (“No enemy shall expel us”).

Pitcairn has, sadly, no motto.

Number #17: I’ve learnt that there is a thing called “Lazy Susan”

i.e. a rotating tray. Sadly, Wikipedia reports that “it is likely that the explanation of the term lazy Susan has been lost to history”.

A lazy Susan in a Chinese restaurant CC BY-SA GeorgeLouis

Number #18: The Tree of Ténéré

The Ténéré Tree was a solitary acacia […] that was once considered the most isolated tree on Earth — the only one for over 400 kilometres. It was a landmark on caravan routes through the Ténéré region of the Sahara Desert in northeast Niger, so well known that it and the Arbre Perdu (Lost Tree) to the north are the only trees to be shown on a map at a scale of 1:4,000,000.


The Tree of Ténéré was knocked down by a drunk Libyan truck driver in 1973.”

Its remains are now on display in a museum.

Tree of Ténéré (1961) CC BY-SA Michel Mazeau

Number #19: Pull out all the stops!

‘The popular expression “pull out all the stops” originates from organ music (especially hymn accompaniment), and this technique is indeed occasionally used, the effect being known as the Full Organ.’

Source: the Wikipedia page about last verse harmonisation in church music, something I quite dislike

Number #20: Operation Hope Not

Another interesting naming was that of Churchill’s funeral’s code name, “Operation Hope Not”, something truly British. It started in 1953 as requested by the Queen.

‘As remarked by Lord Mountbatten, Churchill “kept living and the pallbearers kept dying” such that the plan had to be revised several times in the years before his death in 1965.’

Funeral procession in London, 1965, Public Domain, Wikipedia

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