Being a Beast

Kenneth Allsop Memorial Talk by Charles Foster
Bridport Literary Festival
Electric Palace, 12 November

By Martin Maudsley

After our own beastly-themed ‘Meet the Creatures’ kids’ event at the Lyric Theatre in the morning, it seemed entirely appropriate to spend the afternoon listening to veterinarian, barrister and writer Charles Foster’s account of ‘Being a Beast’.

Despite not (yet) having read the book, its title and premise were intriguing and I relished the opportunity to hear about it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. It seems that getting inside the heads of other animals has been something of a life-long quest for Foster, and his opening narrative about an obsession with a blackbird in the garden of his childhood immediately drew me in. From then on, with regular questions and comments from on-stage presenter James Crowden, he discursively outlined the book’s contents through explorations of five species of British beasts, namely: badger, deer, otter, fox and swift.

From the outset Foster expounded his dislike for anthropomorphism, and his attempt in this work to try to get under the skin of his chosen other-than-human subjects without sentimentalism, which he described as ‘corrosive narcissism’. His alternative method can perhaps be described as a biological version of method acting – living for extended periods, as far as possible, within the habits and habitats of each particular beast. It’s clear that Foster undertook the project with unusual, perhaps unique, doggedness – living in a hole in a hillside, assuming nocturnal habits, lying in cold river-water, loitering in urban parks “with intent to be an urban fox” – all requiring admirable stamina and staying power, and Foster’s account briefly hinted at both suffered depredations and novel sensations.

However, despite the hugely visceral nature of the enterprise that he was describing, I found it strange, and somewhat disappointing, that the talk itself was not more engaging or effusive; tending instead towards rather dry discussions of ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour) and ethics (he has written widely on moral philosophy).

There was precious little exuberance on display at having undertaken such amazing experiential endeavours or relish in telling the tales that accrued, and on the whole humour was surprisingly lacking (except perhaps in the dry-as-an-old-fox-bone sense). As the talk progressed, the pervading mood was that of the author’s dismay and disillusionment, both in failing to achieve what he set out to do (objectively understand the mind-set of another animal) and that his own affection for each animal species was lessened rather than deepened through the process of such first-hand animal encounters.

However, the conclusions from his ‘being a beast’ adventures, as outlined at the very end of the talk, are interesting and important. First, that we use very little of our own innate animal instincts (in particular, we have subjugated all our senses to the dominant one of vision). Secondly, that as humans we are “happiest when we properly connected with the things from which we have come”. This is evolutionary psychology, and Foster used the illustration of humans feeling cosy around a roaring fire because it satisfies our primitive need to defend ourselves from predators in the wild.

Despite the presentation feeling a little like a beast of burden, I suspect there is nevertheless much to be enjoyed and chewed over in the book itself – I might have to read it to satisfy my own animal instincts….

By |November 21st, 2016|Books, Martin Maudsley, Review|0 Comments

Satish Kumar

satish-kumar-photoBridport Literary Festival
Electric Palace 13 November
BR Rating ****
By Sam Barker

If there were a day for a saint, it was Saturday the 14th. In the rain and the wind, with new words such as ‘Bataclan’ staking a new place in reality, nearly 450 Bridport people came to hear Satish Kumar talk about his new book, Soil, Soul, Society.

A former Jain monk, who walked from India to Moscow to London and Washington DC, who practises peacefulness and environmentalism, Kumar sat on the stage as the living antithesis to the night of the 13th. One day earlier, only half the tickets had been sold. Come Saturday morning, everything had changed; people kept arriving, standing in the aisles, crowding into seats, bringing whole families to hear him speak.

Sitting on a chair beneath the stage lights, Kumar was at once diminutive and immense. An eighty-year-old man with the face of a benevolent eagle, he laid down the philosophy behind his book. His ethos is a reversal of the Maslowian hierarchy which says progression starts with the fulfilment of personal needs and ends with self-actuation. Instead, Kumar puts care for the soil at the core of well-being, followed by care for the soul and for society.

“Be the change that you want to see in the world,” he intoned. “Suppress your ego…be attentive…practise peace and non-violence every day.”

Someone posited a Manichean perspective during the questions that followed: “Didn’t he have the impression that a struggle between good and evil is taking place?”
“People are not evil, they are just unenlightened,” said Kumar. Light and dark both have their place in the world. Plurality is to be celebrated – no religion is better than another, respectfulness and celebration of difference are better than the compulsion to evangelize.

There were moments when English seemed too mean and guttural to express Kumar’s meaning. Twice, he switched to either Urdu or Hindi, and the lyrical otherness of the language resonated more deeply than the words that were more clearly understood.

When it was over, Kumar walked up the crowded aisle and it seemed that people were compelled to touch him. Outside, his book sold out almost immediately. Its message is unusually pertinent now.

By |November 16th, 2015|Books, Sam Barker|0 Comments

Dogalogue by Gill Capper

Dogalogue CoverDogalogue, which began life as a blog-on-a-dog by Gill Capper, Bridport Review’s interviewer-in-chief, has just been published as a book. Funny, poignant and beautifully written, it is all about Bridport, its people and dogs, with a cover design by Claudio Munoz of Puncknowle, who draws cartoons for the Economist. The book can be bought at Waterstones, Girls’ Own Shop, Animal House and the Fox and Worthington Gallery. It is also available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon.

• Gill will be signing copies at Animal House, South Street, on Wednesday 10 December from 11am to 1pm.

By |November 29th, 2014|Books, Exclusive, Review|1 Comment

Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare 1 Horatio ClareElectric Palace
15 November 2014
BR Rating **

By Nick Pitt

The author’s latest book, an account of two long voyages on cargo ships, mixes journalistic examination with poetic evocation, dealing with the business of shipping, the lives of sailors and paying homage to the vastness of the oceans. It has received critical acclaim, and Clare is an engaging and earnest man, but this event, with Clare in conversation with Nick Fisher, lacked sparkle.

By |November 15th, 2014|Books|0 Comments

A.N. Wilson

AN Wilson1 AN WilsonThe Electric Palace
14 November 2014
BR Rating ****

By N.J. Pitt

W.G.Grace, H.G.Wells, A.N. Wilson. With his tweed jacket, green waistcoat and a voice straight from High Table at New College, Oxford, Andrew Wilson, to rudely strip him of his initials, seems a figure from another age. But as a near-packed audience at the Electric discovered, his mind is razor-sharp and agreeably playful.

For generations, Wilson convincingly argued, we have got Queen Victoria all wrong. That is partly the fault of those forbidding statues and partly the fault of her censoring children and the editors of her published correspondence. After trawling through the original correspondence in German and English archives, much of it unpublished, even suppressed, Wilson has revealed another Victoria. She was not the stiff, formal, pompous figure-head of empire but at heart a girl, fun-loving, rather shy, with a great capacity for friendship. Her leanings were liberal, for she was not at all a social snob and she expressed her “disgust” at racial prejudice. She loved small children, dogs, music, theatre, eating and drinking.

The archivists at Windsor Castle are the latest defenders-of-the-myth, but they appear to have been easily outflanked by Wilson. In particular, they are keen that Victoria’s German connections should be played down. However, as Archbishop Tait noted with surprise after visiting Osborne House in 1869, the language spoken at the dinner table and afterwards in the billiard room was invariably German. As Wilson notes, the Royal Family’s embarrassment about their German origins is misplaced. Their great matriarch was essentially German; she was also the best of them.

By |November 14th, 2014|Books|0 Comments