Mark Mason

Flavour of the month: October – MI6, guillotines and a Spectator lunch

A selection of peculiar moments in history

  • From Spectator Life
An execution of three French outlaws in 1909 (photographer unknown)

This month’s trivia takes in the reason football became known as ‘soccer’, the reason iPhones have virtual keyboards rather than real ones, and the reason Spiro Agnew once made a hurried departure from a Spectator lunch.

Agnew once attended a Spectator lunch at which one of the other guests was Barry Humphries

  • 1 October 1909 – the Secret Service Bureau was founded. This soon became the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6), its first head being Mansfield Cumming, who operated out of his apartment in the building that now contains the Royal Horseguards Hotel. He signed his documents in green ink with a ‘C’ (both colour and initial are still used by the head of MI6). The chief’s forename was why Ian Fleming chose ‘M’ for his fictional head of the service in the Bond novels. Cumming (whose blue plaque now adorns the hotel) had a wooden leg, and while interviewing potential spy recruits he would suddenly stab it through his trouser leg with a letter opener – if the interviewee flinched they were rejected.
  • 2 October 1958 – Guinea declared its independence from France. The British coin of the same name was so called because originally it was made from gold mined in that region of Africa.
  • 5 October 2011 – Steve Jobs died. The Apple founder disliked buttons, which is why he always wore clothes that didn’t have them (for instance turtleneck tops) – and also why he designed the iPad and the iPhone with touchscreen keyboards rather than real ones.
  • 6 October 1942 – birth of Britt Ekland. The actress refused to do some of the shots for her famous naked dance in The Wicker Man. She was prepared to show her breasts, but ‘for me anything below the waist is private’. So the full-length shots from the rear were performed later by a stripper from Glasgow. The first Ekland knew of this was when the film came out. She was not happy: ‘Her bottom was much bigger than mine.’
  • 9 October 1981 – capital punishment was abolished in France. The last execution had taken place four years before, when Hamida Djandoubi (convicted of torture and murder) was killed by guillotine.
  • 10 October 1973 – Spiro Agnew resigned as US vice president after being charged with income tax evasion. Agnew once attended a Spectator lunch at which one of the other guests was Barry Humphries. Towards the end, Humphries slipped out and reappeared dressed as Dame Edna Everage. ‘From that moment,’ wrote fellow luncher Simon Courtauld, ‘Agnew lost his appetite. We could see that he was inwardly troubled: who is this woman? What’s happened to the Australian guy sitting here just now? … “We should be having a glass of ouzo together, Spiro!” Dame Edna cooed, putting a bare arm around his shoulder. “I would like to describe our meeting today as the Agnew and the Ecstasy.” … [Agnew] mumbled his thanks and made off down the stairs at an impressive pace. Dame Edna followed, waving her handbag and calling lustily for Spiro to wait for her.’
  • 11 October 1944 – birth of Rodney Marsh. As a youngster in the Fulham F.C. reserves, Marsh once took the chance to replace the injured goalkeeper. At the first corner, he tried tipping the ball over the bar with a bicycle kick. Instead, he scored an own goal.
  • 13 October 1925 – Margaret Thatcher was born. Her speech writer Ronald Millar once tried to calm her nerves before an important conference: ‘Piece of cake, Margaret.’ ‘Good heavens!’ she replied. ‘Not now!’
  • 14 October 1066 – the Battle of Hastings took place. Despite the name, the fighting did not occur in Hastings. It occurred seven miles to the northwest, near what is now the town of Battle. Hence its name.
  • 17 October 1972 – birth of Eminem. Two of the musicians on My Name Is are Chas and Dave. The pair, then working as London session musicians, played on the 1975 Labi Siffre song I Got The…, a sample from which forms the basis of the Eminem track.
  • 22 October 1884 – The Greenwich meridian was universally accepted as the one from which all times would be measured. Universally, except for the French, that is – they refused to adopt Greenwich as the prime meridian until 1911. Even then they wouldn’t call it ‘Greenwich’, instead using the term ‘Paris mean time, retarded by 9 minutes and 21 seconds’.
  • 26 October 1863 – the Football Association was founded. It’s from the second word that the term ‘soccer’ originated.
  • 27 October 1939 – John Cleese was born. His family name was originally Cheese, but the comedian’s father tweaked it when he fought in the first world war, to avoid being mocked by his fellow soldiers. He made the change official by deed poll in 1923.