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….