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From Sweeny Todd to Wolf Ribs, via the Tay

1979 was a good year for crime-related happenings, seeing the wild success of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and also the publication of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song - an account of the dismal life of incompetent criminal and double murderer Gary Gilmore, whose claim to fame arises only because he is the first person executed in the US following the reintroduction of the death penalty three years earlier. Offered the choice of death by hanging or firing squad, he chose the latter, ending his days in the deserted canning factory at the back of the prison strapped to a chair. Bizarrely, despite the bullet-damage, a large portion of him lived on as most of his major organs were sent for transplant, including his corneas, which earned him a place in one of the most memorable songs of the punk rock era: Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, words by T.V.Smith, frontman of The Adverts.

Speaking of murdering songs, 1979 was also the year when Sid Vicious, bassist of the world’s first ever punk band, The Sex Pistols, died. He had previously been charged first with stabbing his girlfriend to death, and then with assault, and it was during the party celebrating his release from prison on bail that his mum had a load of heroin delivered, as mum’s inevitably do on such occasions. The following day, despite having been clean and sober for months, poor Sid was dead as the pet hamster from which he took his name. Your family may not be perfect, but think on Sid’s and count your blessings.

1979 also celebrates another famous death, it being two hundred years since James Cook arrived at Karakakoa Bay in Hawaii. Cook was a hugely important navigator and explorer who began life in Marton, Yorkshire, England, son of a Scottish labourer and his Yorkshire wife. He was a haberdasher’s assistant before getting into ships, and joined the navy in 1755, quickly rising through the ranks. He was in command of the Endeavour when it left for the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus, and on the way back again he charted New Zealand, and claimed Australia for the crown, as you do, first footfall at Botany Bay, named because of the huge amount of startling flora and fauna gathered there by the naturalist on board, Joseph Banks. A few years later Cook set off to chart a course around the north coast of America and so ended up in Hawaii where the natives at first welcomed him and his crew in. A few weeks later, however, a subtle change was in the air. Cook had never had much tolerance for uncompliant natives and when the Hawaiians pinched one of Cook’s boats, he gathered his men and went on shore with the idea of taking the leader hostage until the boat was returned. This plan unfortunately backfired, and in the fight Cook was stabbed and died the same day, on February 14th, Valentine's day, a rather sad and ignoble end to a life of huge achievement.

And we absolutely cannot leave 1979 without mentioning that it is one hundred years since the Tay Bridge Disaster, which occurred on 28th December 1879, and will be remembered for a very long time, according William Topaz McGonagall in his stirring ballad on the tragedy, which ends with such good and sound advice:

For the stronger we our houses do build The less chance we have of being killed.

The logic isn’t absolute, unless mortality can be correlated with habitation design, but it has a certain ring about it that is reminiscent of the old nursery tale involving pigs disguised as construction workers and wolves who go around the countryside trying to blow houses down instead of going to the supermarket for a cut of pork like the rest of us do.

Maybe it’s no wonder wolves have been extinct in Britain for 300 years, although there is talk going on at the moment of reintroducing a small population to Glen Affric in Scotland, where, some have argued, they will ignore houses built by anthropomorphic pigs and instead help to keep the population of deer down to an acceptable level. It is not an argument that holds much sway, and smacks of replacing one problem with another. Back in the old days predations of wolves were common enough for January to be called Wolf Month, because that was when starving packs attacked cattle, sheep and even humans, from whom they usually steer well clear. On the plus side Beeton’s Dictionary of Natural History (published in 1871) tells us that wolf flesh is palatable enough when cooked, and the ribs are considered quite a delicacy. Mmm, lovely…

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