2016 has been designated as the International Year of Pulses by the United Nations, which hopes to give the wee bundles of protein and other essential nutrients a big push. This is also the year in which Italian sci-fi film Space Men was set. The star of that 1960 classic was the wonderfully named Rik Van Nutter, whose first wife, Anita Ekberg, had more onscreen success than him - the Swedish-Italian actress starred in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (also released in 1960) - but had less luck as a contestant in the Miss Universe pageant, ending as one of six runners up. The following year, 1952, the Miss Universe crown was placed daintily on the head of Armi Kuusela …

As the winner of Finland's national pageant, Kuusela had received a box of chocolates, a gold bangle and a return ticket to the United States, to take part in the universal contest. After her success and "coronation", she took a round-the-world journey during which she met Filipino businessman Virgilio Hilario, for whom she gave up her crown to marry. The couple lived in the Philippines, Kuusela going into property management in Manila for a while, and had five children. In 2012, Kuusela was awarded the Order of the White Rose of Finland, an honour established by Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim …

Mannerheim was a Finnish military leader and statesman, and president of his country between 1944 and 1946. He spoke many languages - including a bit of Putonghua - and as an officer in the Imperial Russian Army was sent in 1906 through Turkestan to Beijing, to spy on China and assess its vulnerability to attack. At the sacred Buddhist mountain of Wutai, in Shanxi province, Mannerheim met and gave his own pistol as a gift to the Dalai Lama …

Born at dawn on the fifth month of the Fire Mouse Year (that's February 12, 1876, to you and me), Thubten Gyatso was recognised as the 13th incarnation of the Dalai Lama in 1878 and enthroned at Potala Palace a year later. As an adult, he introduced electricity, telephones and the first cars to Tibet, but he refused to kowtow to China, going so far as to invade Qinghai with his army, triggering the Sino-Tibetan war (1930-1932). The conflict was won by the Chinese National Revolutionary Army, led by Han general Liu Wenhui and Muslim counterpart Ma Bufang …

Ma, who ruled Qinghai province, fought the Japanese during the second world war and then the communists. In August 1949, after his troops had been defeated by the People's Liberation Army, the warlord fled to Hong Kong and from here to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. On January 9, 1950, in Cairo, Egypt, Ma launched the Kuomintang Insurgency in China, claiming Chinese Muslims would never surrender to communism. As warlike as he was, Ma had trained to be an imam until he was 19 while his older brother received a classical Chinese education. One book that wouldn't have been among the study materials of either brother, of course, is Learn Chinese in 7 Days!, by Dagny Taggart …

The pen name attached to a multitude of fairly useless language-learning books for sale on Amazon, "Dagny Taggart" first appeared as the protagonist - the operating vice-president of Taggart Transcontinental - in Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. Including elements of science fiction, mystery and romance, the 1957 novel is set in a dystopian America, and was made into a three-part movie (released between 2011 and 2014) set in … 2016!