Country Matters on Booksquawk
Being A Beast, Adventures Across the Species Divide, by Charles Foster
256 pages, Profile Books
Review by Pat Black
I wouldn’t like to ask for this one over the counter at Waterstones. Imagine having to repeat yourself to the person at the till:
“No, it’s Being – A – Beast.”
The inquiry would go out on the public address system across the entire shop (which, naturally, would be the busiest bookshop in the world at that point): “Gentleman at the till wants Being A Beast, that’s Being A Beast… This guy here wants to Be A Beast…”
I picture something going terribly wrong somewhere – or, an evil gremlin getting involved. Perhaps it would be sniggering Rob – there’s always a sniggering Rob – who wrote and illustrated the shelf-stack index card blurb for Fear And Loathing with his own marker pen.
Soon, a beautiful girl appears at the counter. “Was this the book you wanted, sir?”
Front cover: Jimmy Savile.
But, this book isn’t concerned with that kind of beast. Charles Foster’s natural history effort seeks to go that little bit further than his peers in an increasingly crowded field. He wants to know what some of Britain’s most famous creatures actually experience. He wants to go as close as he can to the lives of badgers, foxes, otters, stags and swifts. He wants to run, eat, sleep, pee and poo like these animals.
Surely, you think to yourself, this is a wind-up.
It might be a wind-up. Foster’s tongue is firmly in his cheek throughout, but Being A Beast is not just a journey into English whimsy, guided by someone who has worn tweed on purpose.
There’s some scholarship on show, a physiological examination of how animals process the world through their senses, and how they differ to us in that regard. Foster carefully steers between the Scylla and Charybdis of nature writing: anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. He comes to the same conclusions as John Lewis-Stempel in Meadowland. We can never know precisely what goes through a badger’s mind, but there’s surely an equivalent, something both species can relate to. Most of us have eyes and ears and tongues, same as our fellow mammals. We share many characteristics with fish and birds. And we’ve all got to eat.
Foster says the experience of people who have synaesthesia (they might “taste” colours, or process sounds visually) is as close a match as we can get to trying to express the sensory world of the animals – the fox creeping through gloomy alleyways; the otter zipping after fish in the water; the badger prowling the forest floor by moonlight.
Sadly, Foster doesn’t engage with the animal kingdom by going Full Furry. It surely crossed his mind to don a giant badger or fox suit. When he heads into the forest accompanied by his son, I imagined them walking hand-in-hand in a cute parent-and-child badger onesie combo. Would that make it a twosie? Hmm.
Nor does he go naked, reasoning – persuasively – that most animals have highly specialised “natural” clothing that helps them survive the outdoor environment, which humans lack. This did beg a question from me: why are humans naked? But that’s for someone else’s book.
There’s something to learn in each of the sections. For example, badgers are highly social animals, with long-established hierarchies, even down to the generations that came before them whose bodies are incorporated into the walls of their setts. We are shown how the fox’s body is perfectly calibrated to the horizon to allow it to look around while it is depositing droppings. The otter’s world is always on fast-forward, its metabolism a nightmarish electrical crackle of activity. And then we are shown how far the swift travels in service of its unknowable rhythms.
There’s no disguising the foolishness of this enterprise, and Foster is happy to address that, recording the opinions of everyone around him as they tell him he must be off his head. Foster gets a farmer to dig him a trench near a forest, covers it over with branches and acts like a badger. He builds a den in his garden and comes out at night, like a fox. He dons neoprene and turns over submerged stones in rivers with his nose. He is chased through the Highlands of Scotland by friends with dogs, in an attempt to become a stag.
Sadly, he does not don Acme-style wings and leap off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote style, in an attempt to become a swift. They are things of permanent wonder, it seems. We’d best look to the poets for guidance there.
It’s very silly, but done in deadly earnest, and thankfully Foster gets the picture before he comes to any harm. Perhaps the most dangerous moment is when he becomes an urban fox, and a policeman comes across him while he is sleeping in some bushes. The conversation they have is straight out of a badly-dated sitcom (“Are you trying to be clever, sir?”), but Foster does come close to trouble more than once. Discretion might have been a better bet when he decides to stay in his badger sett during an immense, best-since-records-began storm. Later, when he mentions how lovely a woman looks through her bathroom window, as spotted from an alleyway, you’re bound to raise an eyebrow or two.
How animals eat, and how they go about obtaining their food, is the part that stuck out the most for me - but not for any palatable reason. If you’re squeamish, I’d recommend avoiding the next few paragraphs.
This book is disgusting. It opens up with the sensation of biting into an earthworm. Earthworms are a key part of badgers’ diet, and so they must become Foster’s, too. He ruminates on the different tastes of worms in different parts of the world. French worms are a gourmand’s delight, you won’t be surprised to hear, but some, unearthed close to urban landfill sites, taste of nappies.
Foster encourages his son to eat worms, too.
Scoffing creepy crawlies is not a problem. Biting into minnows which have bellies full of larvae similarly presents no difficulty. Foster can identify the types of maggot that can be found in different sources, whether that’s dead animals or dung, and encourages his children to do so as well. It’s all good nourishment.
So, too, is the stuff that humans throw away in the city, which foxes thrive on – half-eaten portions of rice in takeaway containers, chicken legs, spare ribs, and of course, dead pizza, enough to pave a city with. Strewth, we waste so much, Foster thinks, nibbling on a rancid spicy chicken wing.
As he roots through bins, Foster wonders at the human phobia of other people’s saliva. I think you might find basic hygiene reasons are behind that one, fella, which are similar to the reasons we don’t eat out of bins unless we really have to.
He’s undoubtedly playing with us here, but there is food for thought. Only, you might find you’ve lost your appetite somewhat.
Matters of dung are delved into with both hands – and kneaded, stretched, tenderised and sniffed. Foster seems to violate a basic rule by shitting where he eats in his sett, but I’d guess he had researched that one already and was quite happy with the decision.
While he lives as an otter by the riverbank, Foster and his four children take part in sprainting – leaving droppings, to mark territory. They all endeavour to identify each other’s spraints based on known characteristics of the members of the brood, as well as what the family was eating over the previous day or so.
The Foster pack’s momma bear is curiously absent from Being A Beast, but it’s not a stretch to imagine her thoughts and feelings on this and other matters.
And of course, in nosing through the long grass, Foster encounters a lot of dog turds. I half-expected him to stumble out of the vegetation like some English Rambo, smeared with the stuff as camouflage. “I wonder why we don’t use it as a natural skin cream? After all, it’s packed with nutrients.” He doesn’t say or do this, of course, but he is swimming along the same pipe. It would be no surprise if he did so.
So, the book’s an acquired taste, you might say. It led to one vivid nightmare where I was helping myself to squirming worms, as Foster does, like they were peanuts in a bowl at a party. I could well imagine their horrid final moments, their frantic struggle for life on my tongue. More tragic still (though slightly less disgusting) are worms who simply give up, just at the moment before they are crushed between two human molars. They stop moving, Foster informs us. They accept their fate, and their lowly place in the food chain.
In the stags section, Foster outlines his previous life as a hunter. After term time was over at his prestigious university, he would pack up and head to the Highlands. There, he would stalk and destroy magnificent red deer in sprawling estates, his progress steered and his shooting prowess flattered by tough but deferential wee Scottish men with terse accents and flat caps.
Now, Foster’s apology for this behaviour in his youth is explicit, and he is similarly transparent about his subsequent environmental enlightenment and his love for animals. He has no desire whatsoever to shoot anything now. Indeed, the section where he tries to be a stag could be seen as expiatory, as he reverses roles and tries to live his life as a hunted animal.
Foster is apologetic about his past life in blood sports, but he is not ashamed of it. He used to love it; he relished the sharpening of the senses, the tingling sensation of closing in on prey after hours of patient stalking.
I don’t know the guy. I don’t know where he came from. But Charles Foster appears to be a successful man in real life, a barrister, well-qualified with the relevant paperwork from Oxford or Cambridge. I presume he is paid well. Was it natural selection that allowed Foster to research, write and publish books about his crazy whimsical journeys through the British countryside and other parts of the planet? Some innate talent honed across the generations? Was it hard work - sheer graft - that pulled him up by the bootlaces? Did he survive and prosper by his wits, intelligence and raw instinct? Or was something else at play - some natural resource enjoyed only by a few?
That’s not to belittle his character, wit or intelligence. Foster is rough and ready enough, charging into canals with his clothes on after pub sessions, and making friends with live Glaswegians. But his progress calls to mind a treacherous observation I could not suppress about the lovely Roger Deakin: that it takes lots of money and spare time to become a gentleman author of natural history books. We’d all like to have a house in the country with a moat around it.
This, I am aware, is chippy on my behalf - my own flaw as a simple mammal. But the thought persists, and I have to let it run free. I can say no more without sullying my own happy experiences of nature writing, and those who write it.
Let’s not leave things on an uncomfortable note. This is a fine book, lots of fun with plenty of laughs. Crucially, it teaches without being didactic, a very difficult trick. It falters a little during the final section on swifts, but Foster has done enough by that point to allow us the indulgence of his travels in the bird’s slipstream.
I’ve read some truly great books as part of this journey through the fields and meadows, taken while there’s still some blue in the sky – and this was another one.
It’s colder, today. There’s a change in the air. Things are on the turn.