The silly season? History shows summer hardly takes it easy

Summer, a time for taking life easy and the news is all froth. Except that history teaches us otherwise.
Construction workers James Burton, left, and Stuart Kirk pose with their copies of the least ever News of the World at a cafe in central Manchester on July 10, 2011 in Manchester, England. The 168-year-old newspaper is being closed amid phone hacking and bribery allegations. Getty Images
Construction workers James Burton, left, and Stuart Kirk pose with their copies of the least ever News of the World at a cafe in central Manchester on July 10, 2011 in Manchester, England. The 168-year-old newspaper is being closed amid phone hacking and bribery allegations. Getty Images

"Summertime, and the livin' is easy," as the song goes. The languid months of July and August, when the world kicks off its shoes and heads to the park or the beach.

Cities such as Paris and Rome empty. New Yorkers head for the Catskills or the New England Shore. Here, the suffocating heat of summer sends those who can afford it to cooler climes, while for the rest of us, the pace of life contracts as the thermometer rises.

In the English-speaking world it is sometimes known as the "silly season", whose beginning is marked by the time when government and the legal systems shut down and schools break up.

For newspapers, the dearth of real news forces them to give undue prominence to stories that would otherwise struggle to rate even a paragraph in other seasons. It is a time to spot UFOs, lake monsters and giant vegetables that resemble celebrities.

Not the summer of 2011. For weeks now, the news has taken on dire tones. The world economy seems teetering on the brink of a second recession, with America's once cast-iron credit rating devalued for the first time in history.

In Syria, the government's onslaught against its civilian population has ratcheted up another bloody notch with hundreds dead, while in Norway, a deranged gunman slaughtered nearly 80 people.

In Britain, city centres burnt for three days in a orgy of rioting and looting that had no easy explanation. Even the smaller tragedies seemed to loom larger; the death of the singer Amy Winehouse was hardly unexpected but no less distressing. Surely there has never been a less silly season than this one. Except that history tells us otherwise.

There was no silly season in August 1914, when the great powers of Europe staggered into a conflict that would eventually engulf much of the world. Nor barely 30 years later, when a second world war ended with the first and only use of atomic weapons on civilians.

In 1990, the summer torpor was displaced by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. August 1961 saw Cold War tensions pushed to boiling point by the building of the Berlin Wall. Deeper in history, the citizens of Pompeii were obliterated by Vesuvius on a bright summer day.

July and August have also seen notable political change. In August 1966, Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

July 1776 saw the new Continental Congress of the United States vote for independence from the British crown. In July 1952, a group of army officers ended the rule of Egypt's monarchy, while French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison in July 1789. The Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon from office in August 1974.

In the summer of 1492, one great adventure began with Christopher Columbus setting sail west across the Atlantic, if to little fanfare. Five centuries later, another great quest ended with millions watching live on July 20, 1969 as man walked on the Moon.

The list of well-known figures who failed to make it through the long summer break is equally long. Marilyn Monroe ended her life with an overdose of sleeping pills in August 1962. Elvis Presley was found dead in a pool of his own vomit in August 1977. General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan died in plane crash on August 17, 1988, while few will forget the last day of the month in 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales perished in a car crash.

A glance at the calendar down the centuries shows that almost every day is marked by a headline event. Too many to list them all, in fact.

Here, then, are the highlights of what might better be called the serious season.


Significant dates in the months of July and August, from before recorded history to events that continue to shape the world today.

July 2 1776

Members of the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia vote unanimously for the independence of "the thirteen United States of America". Two days later, the Declaration of Independence is adopted.


July 10 1943

Under the command of General Dwight D Eisenhower, more than 160,000 American, British and Canadian troops storm the beaches of Sicily, beginning the liberation of Europe from the forces of Nazi Germany.


July 10 2011

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch shuts down his UK tabloid The News of the World after it became engulfed in allegations of phone tapping and bribery.


July 14 1789

Defying the rule of Louis XVI, Parisians storm the Bastille, where political prisoners are held, and begin the French Revolution.


July 16 1999

John Kennedy Junior, the son of the late President Kennedy, dies along with his wife and sister-in-law when the light aircraft he is piloting crashes into the Atlantic off Martha's Vineyard.


July 17 1918

Four months after his abdication, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family are taken to the basement of a house where they are being held by Bolsheviks and executed by firing squad.


July 20 1969

With the words "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," the US astronaut Neil Armstrong steps on to the surface of the Moon from the Eagle landing craft. An estimated 500 million people watch the event live on TV.


July 22 2003

Uday and Qusay Hussein, the much loathed sons of Saddam Hussein, are shot dead after brief firefight with US special forces in Mosul.


July 22 2011

A bomb is detonated near the office of the prime minister in Oslo, killing eight people. Two hours later, 69 people at a youth camp organised by Norway's Labour government are murdered by gunman Anders Behring Breivik. The 32-year-old, who has a background of extremism, is arrested and charged with both crimes.


July 23 1952

Calling themselves The Free Officers Movement, a group of young officers guided by Gamal Abdel Nasser, depose King Farouk I of Egypt.


July 23 2011

Amy Winehouse, a singer-songwriter with a string of hit records, but a record of drug and alcohol abuse, is found dead in her home in London.


August 1 1914

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo sets in motion a chain of events that culminate with Germany declaring war on Russia. Two days later, Britain and France are at war with Germany. When an armistice is declared in November 1918, the First World War has claimed the lives of 16.5 million people.


August 2 1990

In the early hours, Iraqi forces invade Kuwait, with Saddam Hussein declaring it the 19th province of Iraq. Operation Desert Storm, a coalition of more than 30 nations, liberates Kuwait in February 1991.


August 3 1492

In the evening of August 3, an expedition of three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria under the command of Christopher Columbus, sets sail from the Spanish port of Palos. Columbus is determined to prove there is a sea route to India and the East but instead opens the American continents to European conquest.


August 5 1962

The actress Marilyn Monroe is discovered dead from an overdose of sleeping pills at her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles.


August 5 2011

Standard & Poor's, a financial services agency, downgrades America's long-term credit rating from AAA, the highest available, to AA+. Global markets plunge, at one point wiping nearly US$4 trillion from stocks.


August 6 1945

Hiroshima becomes the first city to be destroyed by an atomic weapon, dropped from a US air force B-29 bomber. About 70 per cent of the city is destroyed, with 90,000 dead. Three days later Nagasaki is also hit by an atomic bomb, On August 15 Japan surrenders unconditionally, ending the Second World War.


August 6 1966

Sheikh Zayed becomes ruler of Abu Dhabi. Five years later, the United Arab Emirates is born.


August 6 2011

After police shoot dead an unarmed man, violence erupts on the streets of Tottenham, north London. Over the next four days, rioting and looting spreads across the capital and to other cities, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham. Businesses are firebombed, hundreds arrested and the prime minister, David Cameron, is forced to return home from holiday and recall parliament.


August 9 1974

Facing almost certain impeachment by Congress for his role in the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon becomes the only American president to resign from office.


August 10 2011

Former Syrian government officials join several Gulf nations in calling on President Bashar Al Assad to end his campaign of violence against those calling for political reforms, which has left hundreds dead in the first days of the month. Syrian navy warships bombard the city of Latakia.


August 13 1961

Police and army units from the German Democratic Republic close roads and install barbed wire that cuts off East Berlin from West Berlin, replacing them later with a concrete wall. Orders are given to shoot on sight anyone attempting to cross the barrier.


August 16 1977

Bloated by drugs and overeating, the body of Elvis Presley is discovered on a bathroom floor at his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He is 42 years old.


August 17 1988

After watching a tank demonstration, General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, along with senior army officers and American officials, leave ahead of a storm on a military flight to Islamabad. The aircraft appears to go out of control and plunges into the ground, killing all on board. Sabotage is claimed, but never proved.


August 20 1988

Iran accepts a United Nations brokered ceasefire ending an eight-year conflict with Iraq that claimed the lives of nearly 2 million soldiers and civilians.


August 24 AD79

Vesuvius erupts, burying the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herclaneum under volcanic ash. About 16,000 people are buried alive or perish in superheated gasses up to 700ºC.


August 26 1883

Krakatoa, a volcanic island in Indonesia, explodes with a force 13,000 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The explosion is heard as far away as Australia, while the ash cloud lowers global temperatures by 1.5ºC.


August 27 1979

Earl Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India and a relative of the British royal family, is killed by the Irish Republican Army when a radio-controlled bomb destroys his fishing boat off the west coast of Ireland.


August 31 1888

In the early hours, the body of Mary Ann Nichols, 43, an alcoholic and sometime prostitute, is found with her throat slit in London's East End. Four more murders take place by early November, attributed by the popular press to "Jack the Ripper".


August 31 1997

Pursued by paparazzi photographers Diana, Princess of Wales, is fatally injured in a car crash in the Pont del I'Alma road tunnel in Paris, along with her lover Dodi Fayed. Her funeral, six days later, is watched by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide.


Published: August 20, 2011 04:00 AM


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