#32 – Hagfish

Pleased to meet you, I’m a hagfish.

“I never forget a face, but for you I’ll make an exception” – Groucho Marx

You’ve probably never heard of the Hagfish, let alone know that there’s a day of the year (coincidentally, today) named after them. It probably doesn’t help their cause that they leave at the bottom of deep oceans and sea across the world, nor does it help their case that they are monumentally ugly. However, the latter reason proves that they can be heroes too. Why? I’ll explain.

Look to your left. Now look back. If you’ve run away screaming in terror thinking a sea-captain has gone all Brundlefly on you, then I don’t blame you. Hagfish are even less attractive than their name implies, and that’s saying something – coming from the Essex coast, I’ve encountered a lot of decrepit sea hags in my time. Meeting a four-foot long eel with a face like a cauliflower duck isn’t going to fill your day with joy.

Neither will its eating habits. While most normal animals enjoy finding some prey and noshing on the meaty skin to get to the juicy innards, the hagfish does this in reverse – it will crawl into its chosen target through their mouth, gills or even anus when they are dead or, even more disconcertingly if you have a mental image, dying, and eats away at the succulent organs within. In the end, all that is left is a floating bag of skin filled with bones.

Even one of its more impressive features is quite repulsive – when being targeted itself by predators it secretes slime. By the bucketload. If you don’t quite get how much, just look at the images in this interview with a slightly scary man who sounds like he would like to take a hagfish home, keep it locked in a basement for 7 months and then marry it. That’s a lot if slime.

It’s final feature is not ugly and actually quite impressive – the hagfish doesn’t bleed when cut and as such, these cuts don’t get infected. As a result, scientists have been looking at the slime for medical purposes, though have yet to find anything.

None of these reasons, though, show how the hideous hagfish can be a hero. The answer comes from the day that’s been named after them. They are used as an example for ugly animals every year, for disfigured creatures everywhere. While this may be promoting beauty on the inside in nature, they are still taunted. They have to be the face of ugliness across all the animal kingdom, while creatures such as the shrivelled and equally penis-like Naked Mole Rat and the California Condor remain relatively unscathed.

So thank you on behalf of other ugly animals (and whatever Shane McGowan is), hagfish. While they can’t hack the mental scarring, you’ve had to bear the brunt of it all. Just please don’t go on a rampage of revenge and eat us – humans don’t look good as sacks of skin filled with bones.

#31 – William Addis

He probably didn’t look like that in prison

“You’re a pink toothbrush, I’m a blue toothbrush; have we met somewhere before?” – Max Bygraves

If there’s one thing that’s good about waking up, it’s brushing your teeth. Let’s face it, in the morning, your mouth tastes like the arse-end of a drain and no matter how much you try to distract yourself, the festering flavour pesters and lingers. So as comfortable as your bed is, you’ll eventually realise that you need to brush your teeth to get all the bits out of hard to reach places and refresh your mouth at the same time.

But what about the old days? How on earth did they get that happy feeling in the morning? If you guessed salt and rags, you win the prize (it’s some salt and rags). While toothbrushes had been around in some forms in history, they were not mass-produced tools and as such barely anyone had one. This is why we have prisoner William Addis to thank for starting the revolution. Wait, prisoner?

Yes, I never thought we’d be heralding a man held at Her Majesty’s pleasure as a hero, but here we are. His crime wasn’t too bad – he provoked a riot in 1770. It’s not like he murdered anyone or threw a child down a well or anything. Well, presumably not. But in committing his crime he set himself and the rest of us up for a more hygienic life.

The morning routine wouldn’t be quite the same with salt and rags, would it?

While in prison, he tried to work out what he’d do upon release to recoup lost earnings and you know, pay for living and such. In the midst of this is presumably realised he was British and that cleaning your mouth with a communal prison rag probably wasn’t good for him, so he got thinking. He took the bone of a chicken from one of his meals and bored holes into it. He was obviously an alright prisoner too, because when he asked the guards for some bristles, they didn’t bat an eyelid and even gave him some glue. Either that, or they weren’t too bright, which is equally possible.

Addis tied the bristles together and glued them onto the bone and viola, the tooth bone-bristle-stick was formed! Possibly much to the confusion of Americans everywhere, the inventor of the modern-day toothbrush was British.

The first mass-produced toothbrush hit England in 1780 and suddenly Addis was crapping money, until he died in 1808, leaving his business to his son. The company, named Wisdom Toothbrushes, still exists today. Not bad for a convict.

#30 – Henrietta Lacks

Strike a pose

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

We’ve dealt with heroes who have since departed the world before, but never with one who became a hero in death. You probably have in your head that it would be someone who diligently decides that his or her fate is less important than those of other people (something I’ll get on to in another exciting installment) and sacrifices themselves for the greater good, but unlike the thighs of a Soho hooker, it’s doesn’t have to be as easy as that. This is the case of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta had a less than ordinary childhood, with her mother dying through childbirth and as a result of her father not being able to take car of the ten children, she ended up with her grandfather. She ended up marrying her first cousin and gave birth to five children in her lifetime. By 1951, she had started noticing lumps in her body and was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix. At this time, a biopsy was performed, with a part of the cervix taken out for biomedical research. After going through all the hoops and tight ropes found in the US medical system, she died at the age of 31.

Without sounding crass about the rest of her life, this is where things get interesting. You see, those parts of the cervix that were removed had research carried out upon it, and it surprised everyone – the healthy cells were living. That’s actually surviving outside of the body on their own – previously the cells would only survive two or three cell divisions. This was the first time this had ever been achieved. The scientist behind the research, George Gey, isolated a specific cell and managed to maintain a healthy line through roller tubes.

Screw you, Polio!

The cells were suddenly hot property and Gey was sending samples of the cells to scientists across the country with instructions on how to grow them properly. The cells were named HeLa after Henrietta and were commercialised. It would probably take less time to list what diseases HeLa hasn’t been a contribution in the fight against, but you can thank Henrietta for polio vaccines, IVF, research into cancer, AIDS, toxic substances and radiation, as well as genetics research and the manufacture of many drugs to combat more common illnesses like influenza and STDs.

Unfortunately, this is where the story goes a bit off kilter, sorry folks. You thought it was all sunshine and roses, but no, there was a steaming turd on the lawn all along.

No-one could work out why Henrietta’s body was so special, so contact was made with her living family to garner blood samples to see if it was genetic. Her family, completely ignorant of what had occurred with HeLa agreed – remember that cervix tissue that was removed from her body. Yeah, that was done completely without telling any member of her family and more samples had been taken from her dead body to cope with demand. Her children, who couldn’t afford medical insurance sat with nothing from their mother’s ‘immortal’ cells while a multimillion dollar industry had been built around the HeLa cells by the pharmaceutical industry.

No insurance for you!

The real kicker though? This has been deemed legal time and again in the US courts. Even though they were taken without consent, judges declared that by dying, she gave up her right to ownership of the cells. You can debate the whys and wherefores all you want, but it would strike anyone as odd as to why Henrietta died without a tombstone to commemorate her – even the location of the plot is uncertain – while the big pharmaceutical companies made a mint.

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was set up to help aid her great grandchildren as well as descendants of research subjects from other medical trials that… didn’t go so well. Suffice to say, being injected with an STD isn’t that good for you

#29 – The Animals of Farthing Wood


“Don’t panic, don’t panic” – Mrs Rabbit

CBBC back in its heyday was great fun to watch. Whether is was because of Andi Peters in the broom cupboard with Edd the Duck or watching Ant go blind on Byker Grove, there was something for everyone.

The schedule was laid out for younger more colourful cartoons earlier in the afternoon for all the 5-8 year olds to marvel over, followed by arty shows like SMArt while later in the afternoon came gritty-for-kids-television programmes like Grange Hill, for those who had spent the hour after school shooting up cocaine or beating up the ugly kid.

It was a schedule that made sense, given that primary schoolers really didn’t want to be seeing a lot of anger, death and drama when they got in from school and would much rather watch Dave Benson Phillips cover a man in goo or some teenage turtles eat some pizza while being groomed by a giant rat. It just made sense.

…after death…

Well, apart from one show. A show that wasn’t afraid to talk to its viewers like they were mature 5-8 year olds who read The Guardian and liked fishing. Perhaps the most vicious cartoon on children’s telly boxes at the time and probably since; a happy colourful cartoon called The Animals of Farthing Wood. It had your usual characters; serious, forgetful, slapstick, moany, morally confused, nasty and sarcastic, was very colourful and had lots of animals traipsing around having adventures together. How on earth could it be so vicious?

Well, it may have had something to do with the huge body count. You don’t see death a lot in CBBC-land, which is why something like a boy going blind because his friends are really bad at paintball (seriously, it’s their own teammate!) is so infamous., but the ways and amount of deaths over the two series (two, definitely two. There were only ever two… that mattered and were decent) was mesmeric.

To see animals burn to death, shot repeatedly, caught in traps, run over, eaten and strangled at 3:40pm on a weekday afternoon takes balls to schedule and was infinitely better value than a short stumpy fox with a hand up his arse. In one episode, you see some field mice decide they want to stay in a place on their travels. They bid their farewells and leave. Later, on of the travelling animals wonder how the mice are getting on. Cut to perhaps the most horrific scene in a cartoon where you see a gore bush covered in blood – a butcher bird appears with a baby mouse in its mouth and impales it on the bush, and then follows by showing grieving mother mouse crying her eyes out.

…after death. Also, I’m hungry now.

This is just the most extreme example, but throughout the show, the scenes are just as bad. As Mrs Rabbit is being eaten by a blue fox at the wildlife sanctuary the group were travelling to, she continuously screams “don’t panic, don’t panic!” for a good 30 seconds until she is a lifeless rabbity carcass.

My other favourite death in the series was Mrs Pheasant. She and her husband were a bickering couple right at the start of the adventure. Unfortunately for them, they wandered into a farm with the group and got stuck in a barn over night. Mrs Pheasant was keeping watch for the farmer and on trying to alert her friends, she was shot. Her husband, Mr Pheasant, was sure she had died, but wanted to go look for her in case. On his return to the farm, he saw her alright; roasted and cooling down in the window. At which point, he is also shot. And presumably eaten with some excellent stuffing.

The show was not afraid to push this point home and I feel it needs to be commended for that. It got a preachy about other things, such as human intervention in the wild, but the deaths were just deaths that people dealt with and moved on from, like in real life. Also, it had a fantastic theme song.

#28 – Nancy Wake

Quite stylish for a Kiwi

“We’re ‘La Resistance’, we want to save Terrance and Phillip and stop the war and stuff” – Stan, South Park – The Movie

Most wanted. It’s a title that many criminals might aspire to but will never meet because they’re just not very good at what they do. Hell, Osama was only top for so long because he hid in a cave (and Pakistan) for 10 years. It’s a fearsome title though, with the people at the top usually being terrible people.

That is, until, you look at the most wanted lists of dictatorships at war. And sitting pretty at the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted in 1943 was a New Zealand-born, Australian-bred woman by the name of Nancy Wake. Quite an accolade for someone who ran away to New York after inheriting £200 from an Aunt, and then trained as a journalist in the UK.

After settling in France with her husband, the area became occupied by the Nazis, which is a bit like going on holiday only to find that the cast on The Only Way Is Essex and Jersey Shore are staying next door. For six years.

Undeterred, she became involved in the French Resistance, and for three years helped smuggle a thousand or so people out of France and out-of-reach of the Gestapo. She herself, though, seemed to be completely out-of-reach to them too; she constantly evaded capture, even with the Gestapo tapping her phones and intercepting mail delivered to her. As such, she received the nickname of ‘The White Mouse’.

This is not a good representation of Nancy's 500-mile cycling trip

It seems the Gestapo were not too fond of a young woman meddling with their affairs, like a wartime version of Scooby Doo, and placed a £5million Franc bounty on her head as she went straight to number one on the Most Wanted. It’s unknown whether Tony Blackburn presented a show on this, but all sources point towards ‘likely’. She fled in 1943 after being betrayed by her cell and ended up back in the UK. Her husband was not so lucky and, unbeknownst to her, was caught, tortured and eventually killed by the Gestapo. Fortunately for Wake, he refused to give her up.

So, you’ve escaped France from the Nazis after being top of the Most Wanted list and nearly caught multiple times in three years. What do you do now? Well, of you’re Nancy Wake, you sign up to be a Special Operations Executive and go back. Yes, she went back, as if to taunt Germany for not capturing her in the first place.

During this time, she recruited more people to the Resistance, allocating arms, cycled 500 miles through German checkpoints to retrieve replacement radio codes after her area’s was destroyed in a raid by the Germans and killed an SS sentry with her bare hands. This woman had balls.

Obviously, she received a ton of accolades after the war; the George Medal from the UK,  three Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance, and later made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from France, as well as a Medal of Freedom from the US. It took Australia a further 59 years to recognise her achievements (not the first time they’ve ignored a national hero for so long). Nancy died August 7, 2011.

#27 – Marathon Spectators


My lovely lady doing her part

“Your legs will forgive you… eventually” – One of many signs in the crowd

As many Londoners may have noticed by the inconceivably busy Underground, escalated police presence and the complete nutters running in the streets, the marathon took place yesterday. And, for the third time, I plonked on a set of trainers, and ambled to the start line with them.

My fiancée says I’m an utter moron for doing so and I probably am, but if you do it once, it can get bloody addictive. Not that the pain right now makes me want to run; every single one of my muscles has reneged against me and I have about as much mobility as an 80-year-old with one leg. It’s not even the achievement of finishing, though the goody bag at the end makes up for a lot (jelly snakes!)

No, the main thing that keeps me coming back is the crowd. Yes there are around 36,000 people running year in, year out raising money and awareness for charities or to prove something to themselves, which is cause célèbre in itself, but they’re heroism is sung, and it’s the crowd that do it. Every year you can’t move in the capital for the supporters lining the streets offering woops, cheers, words of encouragement, and in some cases, cans of beer to the runners. Then there’s the volunteers giving you water and that much-needed bottle of isotonic sports drink every few miles, each offering their own support and unique words of wisdom

This guy really deserves a beer

They spur you on when you’re at your lowest, they keep you high when you hit a peak. There were points in the race where my body felt so relaxed and even tingly just hearing and looking through the crowd. The main factor for me, though was the support I received when trudging home with another marathon injury (three times, three injuries) incurred early on the course while attempting to avoid falling onto an idiotic woman’s child in a pram as she shouted “Leeroy Jenkins!” and ran across a very busy road because she couldn’t wait five minutes for a gap to appear.

As such, I was limping from mile 1o (at some points I even considered stopping), but the joviality and support of the crowd kicked in and I carried on to the end (just).

I’m sure many people have the same experience (with the crowd, not prams) and this is a shout-out to the personal and general support they give everyone for one Sunday in April. Thank you guys!

#26 – John Hunter

Imagine the year is 1780 and you’re ill. Perhaps you’ve got a problem with your appendix, or a large cyst on the back of your knee from sitting on a coach for years. The outlook isn’t good. They’re either going to bleed you close to death or they’re going to chop of your leg.

Medicine, and especially surgery, had hardly moved on since the times of ancient Greeks. Barbers still offered surgery, but only things linked around the 4 humours or amputation.

However this all began to change in the 18th Century, and one of the men at the heart of it was John Hunter. A man who was pretty damned incredible when you look at it.

Hunter had grown up on a farm in Scotland and had spent a lot of his youth running away from education to look at bugs and small animals. He was fascinated with how things work. His brother, William, had moved to London in order to climb the social ranks and become a doctor. John moved to London and became Robert’s assistant.

I don’t want to go too long into John’s early medical days – they were fascinating, gory and involved starting a trend in grave robbing that would become an epic issue sweeping the country.

What I want to talk about is his fascination with innards. Lovely.

Because Hunter hadn’t studied any of the common views in medicine (indeed, he could barely read or write) he liked to learn by doing and he wanted to know how every animal worked.

He lived in a house in Earl’s Court with hundreds of animals. Pigs and zebras and jaguars and llamas wandered around his stately grounds. People would stop and stare at this weird little zoo. Especially the mysterious cameleopard – an animal no one in the UK had ever really seen before.

One day a jaguar escaped his garden and terrorised the sleepy village of Earl’s Court – Hunter was overjoyed when the townsfolk brought him back the dead animal. He dissected it, removed it’s vital organs for his museum and boiled the carcass down to preserve the skeleton.

In fact – Hunter’s incredible love of animals coupled with his shady dealings with corpses meant he became the inspiration behind some massively famous works of fiction:

And whilst he was gaining a reputation as being a renegade surgeon, refusing to follow the opinions of others, he was becoming more and more respected by the normal people. Indeed many people used to seek him out personally, despite the lack of recognition from the Company of Surgeons. He tried to cure Casanova’s syphilis (by pouring mercury down his urethra!), he was there for the birth of Byron, he tried to cure the madness of King George.

But his greatest achievement was his museum.

Hunter’s museum was not open to the public. In fact it was only open at all 2 days a year when he would let respected nobles and surgeons in to gaze at his collection of wonders. The bodies of countless animals. Body systems and organs all beautifully dissected and preserved.

Yet… this museum could have got him hanged, for the layout was not in animal order – but in a way that was far more heretical.

Lets look at skulls.

Hunter laid out all of his skulls by order of appearance. So his bird skulls were together, leading through to lizards etc. The shocker was that at the far end of his display, monkey skulls merged into ape skulls merged into human skulls.

He therefore theorised that maybe…. just maybe… Adam and Eve had been something more ape like, from which humans and monkeys had descended. This was a theory that he never wrote down (he wasn’t stupid) – but these early ponderings on evolution are evident in a lot of his studies, especially his studies on hermaphrodite cows

These are probably views he told his pupils (his controversial views meant he had a great many pupils).

One of his pupils was an Erasmus Darwin. Grandfather to a certain Charles:

Sadly, Hunter died of Angina in 1793, but it was his own bloody fault. In order to study whether syphilis and gonorrhoea were the same disease, he infected himself with the disease to view the symptoms…

He thought it went away…. of course it didn’t. It just festered in his body making him weaker and weaker until he died.

If you want to learn more about Hunter (I haven’t even talked about the way he stalked and terrorised fairground freaks so as to add their corpses to his collection) and be a little bit grossed out – visit the Royal College of Surgeons in Holborn and check out his museum. A lot of it was destroyed by his peers after his death, or hit by a bomb in ww2. Although less than a third of it remains, it is still epic and fascinating.

If you’re after something a little more pleasant and a little more alcoholic. Why not go to the Moon Under the Water in Leicester Square – he used to live there and it was custom built by Hunter to be the original home of his museum (in fact, there is a statue of him in the central square – but you can’t see it because of all the bloody 2012 roadworks).

So there you have it. John Hunter. The man who moved surgery away from ancient history and who realised that understanding how the body works was a key step to fixing him.

We’d all be dying a lot more without him.

This is a guest post by CJAmazing. Follow his adventures through Empire’s Top 500 movies here.

#25 – 15 Storeys High

The new Levis advert wasn't up to much.

“All the energy of a rat trapped in a can?” – Errol
“Imagine that…” – Vince

BBC Three (formerly BBC Choice) has done a lot of bad things; if they’re not chucking pop-psychological crap down your beleaguered, raw throat, they want you to bash your head against a kitchen work-surface and drink the fluids that pour out. Or as they called it, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Follow that with a course of Danny Dyer: I Believe in UFOs for dessert and you have all the makings of the worst TV channel known to man. Ok, second worst; I doubt anything is as pointless as ITV2.

However, sometimes the channel manages to spew out something excellent. The animated Monkey Dust was a great satirical sketch show heavily based in dark humour while Last Man Standing, which showed off some great tribal sports in a competition for athletes. However, the best thing to come from the channel, pipping Don’t Tell The Bride to a close second, is 15 Storeys High and is probably one of the best British comedy shows you may never have seen.

Set in a tower block of flats in London, it may not sound overly special; it has a pessimistic, easily irritable and cynical character in Vince, while his counterpart Errol is his exact opposite in nearly every way. Typical odd couple pairing, you’d say, and you’d be right.

However, it’s what’s done with the writing, directing and acting that sets this show apart. Sean Lock, probably better known for his stand-up/panel show appearances plays Vince supremely and utterly believably, mainly because the character is an exaggerated version of himself. It’s Errol (Benedict Wong), though, who steals the show, whether through his naivety when getting a job at a fish market, or accidentally destroying the wallpaper in the bathroom.

Less funny than a cat in a wheelchair

Even through it’s unique style – flicking to different flats through the episodes just seeing what’s going on elsewhere  in the building – and absurd, dark humour excelled on the digital channel, the BBC decided to let the show flounder. You can hardly say a broadcasting company is confident in a show when it sticks it in the arse-end of a Sunday night on BBC 2, despite laudable critical reviews and a BAFTA nomination.

As much as I like the BBC, they are perpetually scared of anything that veers away from the normal on their flagship channels; this is why we’ve been stuck with the insipid My Family for what seems like 63 years, while other crap like Miranda will probably be allowed to continue in the same vein.

I would, though, like the thank the BBC for killing the show off. Odd, I know, but hear me out. Just like Fawlty Towers, the series will now never get tired, lazy or start to second guess itself. The Mighty Boosh was great for series 1, and quite good for Series 2. Then it was allowed to continue and very quickly the jokes became tiresome and I wanted to use Noel Fielding’s hugely pointy chin to slice and dice every single person in the cast into itty bitty pieces.

I will never go off 15 Storeys High because all that I’ve seen is high calibre and can’t be spoiled for me. Well, not unless Sean Lock turns out to be Jim Davidson. Because that would ruin everything.

#24 – Henry Blogg

Men in flatcaps: heroes

“I’m on a boat, I’m on a boat, everybody look at me”  – The Lonely Island

The Old Man and the Sea is perhaps the most boring book I have ever read. It didn’t help that our English teacher at the time couldn’t make a box of fireworks with knives in look exciting to a room full of 12-year old boys, nor did it help that he hated me with a passion.

I’m still not entirely sure why; it all stemmed from when he left aforementioned 12-year olds alone in a classroom for an hour while he went home to get papers that he’d forgot. In the meantime, chaos reigned. In the melee, I was stabbed in the head with a compass. On the teacher’s return. he saw chaos, me in pain, added 2 and 2 together to make a cactus and blamed me for the whole incident.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. The Old Man and the Sea put me off ever wanting to go out on boats. Not because I dislike water but because my boredom threshold is staggeringly low. Kudos then to anyone who can spend any amount of time of their lives boating, but even more so to anyone who can do so for 53 years. What’s more, this man is the classic hero; he saved people’s lives and expected no thanks in return. This man was Henry Blogg.

From humble beginnings as a crab fisherman, Blogg first served on a lifeboat in 1894 and became coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat in 1909, his appointment based on his judgement skills and determination. These would come in handy eight years later, when the crew had to make two rescues in very quick succession of each other. In far from perfect conditions, the lifeboatmen saved the crew of the Pyrin and head back to shore.

Couldn't he have written about an evil talking octopus instead? Or a singing rastafarian crab? Or the king of the ocean?

Just as they arrived back, a Swedish ship was blown into two by a naval mine; the 16 men on one half of the ship set out on the remaining boat to shore, but capsized outside of the breakers and safer water. Blogg’s men created a human chain to rescue the stricken men. When it came to the other half of the ship, Blogg and his team tried to push their boat back into the water to rescue them, but were continuously thrown back by the sheer force of the sea. However, they persevered and eventually made it to the ship, and completing 24 hours of continuous rescue. Michael Buerk, eat your heart out.

These sorts of skills were constantly shown by Blogg; he guided his lifeboat crew to many successful rescues, including landing on a ship in rough tides, picking up the crew, and surfing off the ship again – twice, as the waves had prevented him staying anywhere close. Close to his retirement during the war, he led a rescue to the SS English Trader where his team endured heavy waves which washed five men overboard, including Blogg, all of which were picked up (although one of the crew did eventually die), but continued the rescue effort to no avail and were forced back. When they returned, they were able to save the remaining 44 people on board.

He eventually retired in 1947 at the age of 71, when at the time the retirement age was 60 and had a life boat named after him. In his lifetime, Blogg saved 873 people and was awarded 4 silver and 3 gold medals by the RNLI, as well as the George Cross and the British Empire Medal; more respected accolades than Wayne Rooney will ever, ever achieve.

Perhaps his life was set from a young age, considering his father was a coxswain of a lifeboat himself in their hometown of Cromer, perhaps he chose what he wanted to do. Either way, he saved many, many lives and earned very deserved accolades. Now he has earned his place on my blog. Alas, my former English teacher never will. Shame.