August 5, 2013


My Wild Years
by Ben Fogle
400 pages, Corgi

Review by Pat Black

“Ben Fogle – bloody nice bloke” is probably on a number of TV producers’ speed dialling lists. He fronts a lot of TV shows with a nature slant, mostly owing to the rapport he struck up with Inca the puppy on the early reality TV show Castaway in 2000.

He has a kind of puppyish look to him, like a retriever in a bog roll advert – big eyes, blond, polite, inoffensive. The Accidental Naturalist details a life spent among animals, from his days growing up as a vet’s son in London to filming documentaries with the BBC’s natural history unit around the world.

His affection for the creatures he describes seems genuine – from the cantankerous parrot Humphrey/Humphretta his father adopted to the dogs he grew up with in the family home. There are many parts of this book that non-pet owners won’t get, one such section being the simple pleasure of coming home from school as a child and being greeted by a beloved four-legged companion.

Inca the dog more than gets her dues. Not only did she help propel Fogle to stardom, becoming a well-known celebrity in her own right during Castaway, but she helped him meet his wife during flirting sessions with a fellow dog owner in the park. Shouldn’t this practise have a title of some kind - like when smokers chatting up fellow nicotine exiles outside pubs coined the phrase “smirting” in the wake of the smoking ban? I guess “dogging” is out, anyway.

Fogle then recounts his TV days, and rather gamely reprints an excoriating review of Death By Pets, one of his cringeworthy bob-a-job early shows, by Ian Hyland in the Daily Mirror. The upper half of his TV CV includes hosting coverage of Crufts and a long-running series based at Longleat safari park, under the aegis of the Marquis of Bath, one of Britain’s great eccentrics and shaggers. It was here that Fogle first worked with the woman he jokingly describes as his “TV wife”, his frequent co-presenter, Kate Humble.

Both blond, polite and ever-so-British, Fogle and Humble make a good-looking pair on TV. Have they done it? Aw, let’s play nice, Fogle says they’re just pals. They are both happily married to other people and have children. The Fogles called their first son Ludovic, after Kate Humble’s husband, so they are most likely simply good friends and close working colleagues - difficult though this perfectly civilised and entirely normal concept is for my grubby mind to grasp.

A theme that runs throughout the book is the conflict between humanity and nature. It’s a familiar one if you love nature and yet also love steak. The natural world doesn’t care about what it eats or what resource it exploits, and sadly that goes for the majority of humans, too. But some of us do care about the world’s creatures, whether big or small, ugly or beautiful, and ensuring they survive. This leads to that nasty cognitive dissonance we might feel in visiting the farm, petting a pig and then enjoying a bacon roll the next morning. Fogle is shown this in harsh terms when he is made to break a chicken’s neck as part of his training for Castaway; one minute, it’s a bundle of life, all feathers and beady eyes, clawed feet scuttling across the kitchen floor. The next, you’re pulling its guts out prior to roasting it for dinner. The circle of life, my friends. We’re all on the food chain.

Credit to Fogle for looking at the humans/nature paradox through the eyes of people from the developing world, who work hard to survive day-to-day while we in the west offer contempt for their lifestyles - or even worse, gawp at their surroundings as tourists. One senseless story details an endangered African rhino having its horn removed by conservationists to stop poachers killing the animal for it - and yet the poor beast was shot and killed anyway, for the sake of two ragged inches or so of horn still remaining on the end of its nose, which would fetch a fortune for the poachers. Disgusting tragedy – but follow the money.

The division between well-meaning, kinder concerns and the rude reality of having mouths to feed is further illustrated by one chilling night when Fogle and a partner on a turtle conservation project in Central America are chased through the jungle in between flashes of lightning by a local with a machete – most likely in retaliation for their having collected hundreds of the turtle eggs his family survives on.

There are cute encounters with elephants, penguins, seals and domesticated cheetahs and even blue whales, but the book also has terrifying face-to-face adventures with giant crocodiles and sharks. Although Fogle naturally plays up the thrill factor involved in “swimming with monsters”, he again shows us the disconnection of turning deadly animals into a simple tourism exercise in places where poor people often have to share their space with a creature that could ingest them. One story about a mother and daughter who end up with only one arm between them after a terrifying attack by a giant crocodile in the Nile brings this home to you. As does the scrotum-shrinkingly scary tale about free divers off the coast of California in the present day, risking their lives to bring up shells and delicacies from the sea bed while great white sharks prowl the kelp forests.

Short of encounters with grizzlies in North America, in our safe, sanitised western worlds, there’s simply very little risk of this sort of thing happening. Being eaten by a living dinosaur is seemingly something that happens in books and films - but for some people, the danger is a daily reality.

Credit also to Fogle for standing up for the Chagossian islanders’ plight – he’s going against the grain when it comes to conservation efforts here, as the Islands have been turned into a marine reserve, an environmental paradise. It’s just that the Chagossians have been evicted from their own homes and can’t go there again because, well, Britain said so. Can’t there be balance, Fogle wonders? Can’t the Chagossians become park wardens?

Even in a house just like yours, though, there are more prosaic horrors lying in wait. Accordingly, you should be warned: unless you’re a bloodless, cynical git, you’ll need a hanky ready for the end of this book.

Losing a beloved pet is a quite unique example of grief. You get all the pain and shock of the death of a loved one who was present in your everyday life, but no-one would equate it to the passing of a relative. Our pets’ lives are finite, and all things being equal we know fine well one day we’ll wake up and they won’t (unless you got a giant tortoise instead of a kitten off Santa that magical Christmas). You couldn’t say to your boss: “I’m sorry, I had to put Bowser down last night – I’m going to take a week off.” But I can easily recall the soul-sucking, bone-crushing feeling of having to get out of bed and go into work, just three hours after I had a beloved 18-year-old family pet put down. That knowledge that something in life had irrevocably changed; that a light in it had gone out. But I simply had to get on with things.  

It’s just a dog or a cat, to the rest of the world. But for you, the pain is awful – qualitatively different to the death of a person; not for a moment would I suggest it’s on a par. But still an awful, traumatic experience whether you’re young or old.

Fogle’s closing reminiscences in this book brought back some painful memories of the final moments of pets of the past. But they also kindled nice ones, too – an appreciation of beloved four-legged friends I’ve lost along the way. After the shock has passed, it can be nice to remember. Perhaps, the way in which we treat our animals is a defining characteristic of what it is to be human.

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