Lead book review

The year of living dangerously

Atrocities, assassinations and spectacular accidents were just some of the horrors that marked 1922, says Richard Davenport-Hines

8 January 2022

9:00 AM

8 January 2022

9:00 AM

1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year Nick Rennison

Oldcastle Books, pp.244, £12.99

Sixty years ago the Daily Express ran a regular feature entitled ‘Just Fancy That!’ Each short segment highlighted some strange coincidence or weird incident that would hook readers’ interests. Human oddities, unlucky mischances, freaks of nature and improbable statistics were dealt out every day. It made for easy reading, but sometimes gave pause for thought.

Nick Rennison has adapted the ‘Just Fancy That!’ formula to make a handy book for the bedside table in the visitors’ bedroom. In crisp and evocative snatches, he gives monthly summaries of global events, domestic episodes, newspaper sensations, sporting triumphs and cultural acclaim during 1922. He writes in the friendly tone, tinged with the sense of mild wonder that was perfected in ‘Just Fancy That!’ columns.

It was a year of momentous global events. The Ottoman empire perished after nearly five centuries. Mehmed VI, the last sultan, was smuggled out of his palace in a British army ambulance and went into exile at San Remo with three of his choicest wives. Turkish troops committed unspeakable atrocities in Smyrna before setting the city ablaze in a flagitious crime against humanity. The Irish Free State and the Soviet Union came into being. Mussolini took power in Italy, which he declared to be a fascist state.

IRA gunmen shot dead Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on his doorstep, and an obese aristocratic madman did the same to Finland’s minister of the interior. After five days in office, the Polish president was shot at an art exhibition by a right-winger. Walther Rathenau, the German industrialist and foreign minister, was killed in a pistol and grenade attack conducted by thugs who were later honoured by the Nazis. The Irish republican Erskine Childers was executed by a fusillade of bullets, at Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin, after first shaking hands with each member of the firing squad.

Enid Blyton’s first book was published, as was the first of Richmal Crompton’s 38 Just William
books. Two magnificently photogenic men were awarded Nobel prizes: physics went to Einstein, and peace to Friedrich Nansen, the Arctic explorer who became the League of Nations’ commissioner for refugees.

James Joyce’s newly published Ulysses was pelted with hostile reviews. ‘Reading Mr Joyce is like making an excursion into Bolshevist Russia,’ declared the Daily Express. For some reason the Sporting Times also reviewed Ulysses. ‘The contents are enough to make a Hottentot sick,’ racegoers were warned. Joyce himself was warned off the course as ‘a perverted lunatic who had made a specialty of the literature of the latrine’.

The Sunday Express
called for Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend to be burned by the public hangman. The paper missed its chances to fulminate over the performance of Berthold Brecht’s first play, the publication of Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe and the mock funeral of Dadaism held in the Bauhaus school in Weimar.

Lord Louis Mountbatten married Edwina Ashley, heiress of the Cassel banking fortune. Some weeks before the ceremony, and as a taster for their coming wedding night, she let him examine her breasts, which he christened Mutt and Jeff. As a wedding present, Charlie Chaplin wrote and directed a film, Nice and Friendly, featuring (as the credits say) a ‘Superior, Startling, Scintillating, Stupendous, Stellar Cast’. In it, Chaplin and the newlyweds, who act creditably, defeat a gang of jewel thieves. If you have 11 minutes to spare, it can be watched with delight on YouTube.

Several dramas occurred in the skies. After the rudder failed on the Italian-built US army airship Roma, it fell onto a high-tension electric cable and exploded into a furnace of blazing hydrogen gas. The first mid-air collision between passenger-carrying aircraft happened in a bank of fog over Picardie when a machine flying from Croydon to Le Bourget collided with another making the reverse journey with American honeymooners on board. Jimmy Doolittle made the first single-day crossing of the United States from Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego, California. A pilot flew above the crowds at the Epsom Derby in the first known sky-writing stunt. His machine emitted a line of smoke advertising the Daily Mail.

A man called Walter Tatam heard voices while clipping his hedge in Balham. They told him to send a box of Walnut Whip chocolates injected with weedkiller to Sir William Horwood, the commissioner of the Met. Horwood popped one in his mouth and was soon writhing in agony. A police inspector who was sent chocolate éclairs by Tatam had more sense than to gobble them.

An 87-year-old Georgia white supremacist and former slave-owner, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a stalwart of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, became the first woman to be sworn in as a US senator. She was fixated by thoughts of black men raping southern belles. ‘If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say “Lynch!” — a thousand times a week if necessary.’

Rennison has no purpose except to amuse and divert. He is like a wide-eyed tourist ambling through a picturesque and historic city, visiting wide boulevards and slum alleys, and taking inconsequential snapshots of whatever takes his fancy. Yet his 1922 prompts some serious thoughts.

His capsules of history are death-ridden. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land
of 1922, death had undone so many. A century ago, in the aftermath of the Great War, belief in an afterlife was receding fast, even among professing Anglicans. More people than ever recognised death with cruel intensity as a total and final experience.

There was a deep, lacerating sense of life as tragic. Some, like Tatam, went mad with thoughts of the recent cataclysm. A few savoured the consolations of defeat, or pretended to make a virtue of hapless passivity. But the majority decided that the history of the world was an endless tragedy, redeemed only by human bravery and striving. Their belief in heroism raised the quality of their actions. The risk-taking aviators, the assassins, the laureates and valiant record-breakers of 1922 exerted themselves, in their different ways, because of their heightened sense of mortality.

There is a moral lesson submerged in Rennison’s playful selection of anecdotes. Life’s tragedies bind humans together as much as hate and greed, and more tightly than love.

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