There are days in the calendar that are dark, dodgy days.
There are days in the calendar that are dark, dodgy days. One such is the day of the winter solstice, usually December 21, evoked by John Donne in “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day”, one of the bleakest poems in English literature. “Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s … The sun is spent … The world’s whole sap is sunk … Life is shrunk, dead and interred … I am every dead thing.” I read it annually on the day, wallowing in its lightless misery.
Another has to be January 30. Is there any other day with such a gathering of black anniversaries against its name?
Take January 30, 1649. The scene: Whitehall. A scaffold hung with black, its floor covered with black, an axe and block laid ready. A coffin covered in black velvet. An excecutioner in a black mask. Multitudes of silent spectators. King Charles I mounts the steps, regards the block. Then he addresses the crowd with dignity, puts on his nightcap, and declares: “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.” Then he lays his head on the block and a single blow severs it from his body.
(Twelve years later, on January 30, 1661, Oliver Cromwell’s remains are exhumed and his own head is removed and stuck on a spike above Westminster Hall.)
Forward to January 30, 1825, Washington. During a funeral service at the Capitol, one Richard Lawrence, later declared insane, fires two pistols at Andrew Jackson - the first attempt to assassinate an American president.
Then to January 30, 1933, Berlin. Adolf Hitler, nattily clad in top hat and tails, shakes the hand of President Paul von Hindenburg as he is appointed chancellor. That night, Hitler and Goering give Nazi salutes as a triumphant torchlit parade goes by bearing swastikas. His “Lebensraum” speech will follow, and then the Reichstag fire; by March, Hitler will be dictator.
Next, to January 30, 1945, when the cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff, crammed with German refugees, is torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic, with the loss of 9,400 lives, including 5,000 children - the worst single-ship maritime disaster in history.
Next, to January 30, 1948, New Delhi. As Mahatma Gandhi arrives for evening prayer, Nathuram Godse approaches and bows. Someone tries to put him off – “Brother, Bapu is already late” – but Godse, a Hindu fanatic, pulls out a Beretta automatic pistol and fires three times at point blank range.
Next, to January 30, 1965 - exactly 50 years ago today - when the dead march sounds through the streets of London, the gun-carriage trundles, cranes dip in salute, as a million people attend the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.
Next, January 30, 1968, South Vietnam, where a surprise communist offensive over the Tet holiday against dozens of cities and military bases - in which the American embassy in Saigon is nearly seized - will fatally undermine American confidence in the Vietnam War.
Next, January 30, 1972, Londonderry, where 13 unarmed Catholic civil rights demonstrators, marching against the policy of internment, are shot dead by British soldiers firing into the crowd, in an event known as “Bloody Sunday”. The British embassy in Dublin will be set ablaze three days later.
And finally to Ivory Coast, January 30, 2000, where a Kenya Airways Airbus, after taking off from Abidjan, plunges into the ocean, with the loss of 169 lives.
“Omen ab eventu est”, says the Roman poet Ovid of those black days in the calendar – “dies ateri” – when absolutely nothing should be undertaken. Bolt the door and stay in bed. He would have marked this as such.