Tim Bowditch
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The Dolittle delusion: what motivates human beings to live like animals?

Wearing a custom-built goat exoskeleton, sucking down worms like a badger – two new books describe extreme adventures in becoming beasts.

The English-speaking world has long had a love affair with literature that attempts to describe experience from the point of view of another species. Henry Williamson is perhaps the best-known British chronicler of the beast’s inner world: his early forays, particularly Tarka the Otter (1927) and Salar the Salmon (1935), are considered classics of the genre.

Another notable transatlantic expression of the form is by the Canadian journalist Fred Bodsworth. Last of the Curlews (1955) is about the intimate lives and loves of a pair of birds called Eskimo curlews, which were hunted to extinction during the 20th century. It deploys something of Williamson’s formula – forensically detailed evocations of place, blended with scientifically accurate descriptions of animal behaviour – to elude the accusations of anthropomorphism that are so often levelled at books of this kind. Like Williamson’s Tarka, Bodsworth’s novel sold millions around the world, has never been out of print since first publication and was turned into an award-winning film.

The evergreen popularity of the two, which also share, incidentally, the ambi­guous border territory between so-called adult and children’s literature, prompts an important question. Why should grown men and women wish, Dr Dolittle-like, to converse with the animals and gain imaginary access to their inner lives? The question seems all the more compelling when we ­reflect, with the historian J W Fortescue in the original introduction to Tarka, that “we are and must continue profoundly ignorant concerning even those who are nearest to us”. So, why bother with beastliness?

Thomas Thwaites thinks he has part of the answer. In a new book, GoatMan, he describes the discovery of a Palaeolithic art object in the Swabian Alps in 1939. It was carved from mammoth ivory and, when reconstructed 30 years later, proved to be a human figure with a lion’s head (it was the centrepiece of the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition of Ice Age art). It is about 40,000 years old and one of the earliest sculptures found anywhere on Earth.

Thwaites argues in his original, engaging if rather quirky book that the merging of human and animal identities, as expressed in the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, illuminates a perennial aspiration of our kind. Much of the enterprise was motivated by functional considerations, a way perhaps to predict animal behaviour and improve hunting success. Yet not all of these energies can be so easily explained. It took a modern sculptor three months of uninterrupted ­effort to replicate the lion-man piece using Palaeolithic tools.

The energies turn out to be important in ways that are not practical, but that spread from a broader, deeper impulse within us and that go to the heart of our earliest religious practice. They persist in modern shamanism. They bear upon our contemporary concerns for animal welfare and even upon environmental politics. They are, in short, at the core of our humanity.

The author of GoatMan, however, is no shaman, nor is his quest for his totem animal quite so elevated. Rather, it came about when he sought funding for a design project, concerned with fashioning an artificial exoskeleton and prosthetic suit that would convert a typical human biped into a four-legged herbivore. His original idea had involved becoming an elephant, but even on the drawing board that scheme proved impractical. So when the grant-giving organisation took a shine to his idea, Thwaites persisted, but switched from elephants to goats, and then offered to walk across the Alps on all fours.

If his venture is comic in shape and the book’s underlying tone whimsical and chummy, there is something satisfyingly daring in the way he sets about exploring the nuts and bolts of goathood. Thwaites provides a detailed survey of the animal’s physiology, its structural differences from our species, its adaptation to arid montane environments as well as the history and impact of goat domestication.

Most impressive of all are his attempts to get to grips with the caprid digestive tract, aided by a professor at the Structure and Motion Lab of the Royal Veterinary College in London. Hands-on participation in the post-mortem dissection of a dead goat is illustrative of the author’s admirable and gutsy approach to the whole project. It turns out that a goat’s genius resides in that complex stomach, which has four separate foreguts and a symbiotic flora – various bacteria, fungi, protozoa and so on – that can convert indigestible plant cellulose and lignin into sugars (the flatulence of domestic livestock also produces more greenhouse gases than all the world’s road vehicles, ships, planes and trains combined).

In Thwaites’s drive to go goat, he even fashions an artificial equivalent of the creature’s foregut, into which he can spit grass that he has pre-masticated. He initially planned to turn grass into something vaguely edible by adding enzymes that replicate goat digestion and cooking the mess under pressure, and thus fuel his transalpine trek in true goat fashion.

All this suggests the impressive exploratory spirit underpinning GoatMan. Yet, for all its concern to assemble the technical details of goat biology, the book never goes beyond the external facts. Thwaites makes little effort to construct either a psychological pathway or a vocabulary that would allow access to the inner life of his goat. Nor do we ever encounter a person who has taken a holiday from his human nature. Thwaites is just a man in a goat suit.

Charles Foster does a better job of inhabiting and invoking the otherness of animals in Being a Beast. In achieving this alone, he makes a welcome contribution to the nature genre, which is so often a description of the author’s own emotional life. Foster tried that narrative model but rejected it; as he argues: “I walked round with a mirror in front of me, describing myself into a notebook and calling it nature writing.”

What makes his book successful is that he has pondered the issues of our shared psychology for years. He is a veterinary surgeon with a professional understanding of the endocrine system that undergirds the emotional lives of both beast and man. He is also a trained lawyer, with a penchant for medical ethics. Thus, he has a great deal of related technical expertise and puts it at the disposal of his foray into animal identity. The book is a treat simply for its blending of these separate, specialised vocabularies.

Foster divides his text into five parts as he tries on the identities of different creatures: the badger, otter, fox, deer and swift. Without detailed explanation, he assigns each of his animals to one of the five elements of life. That his badger corresponds to earth and the otter to water is logical, but why should a fox be emblematic of fire? Or the deer made to serve as a second symbol of earth? We never learn.

Nor does Foster explain his own biases, though he does at least openly confess to a prejudice against otters. It seems that this is mainly on the grounds that the species consumes 40 per cent more food than other animals of comparable weight. According to Foster, otters are “tyrannised by horrific thermodynamic arithmetic” and he dismisses Willamson’s portrayal of Tarka as a joyful creature. There are joyful badgers and swifts, he argues, but otters are just “snarling, roaming, twitching bundles of ADHD”.

The great animal love of his life, the one in whose psyche and spirit he immerses himself most completely, is the badger. With one of his six children, Foster goes to dig out a surrogate sett on a friend’s Welsh hill farm. There, father and son live underground as badgers would – sleeping in a hole in the ground and wandering the woods on all fours. Consuming the food of the totem beasts is a stock means of inner identification. As a badger, he takes to sucking down worms “like spaghetti”; as a fox, he grazes on craneflies laying their eggs (“Think of a ticklish rice-paper garnish that turns to vanilla slime”).

One of the most telling parts of his being a badger is a prolonged attempt to navigate blind by sense of smell, which replicates the prime sensory experiences of the highly myopic brock. Foster and son become connoisseurs of the distinct odours possessed by various parts of their territory. The elaborate vocabulary he devises to pin down each elusive fragrance (“orange rubbed on leather to your left and mushroom risotto with too much Parmesan to your right”) is a bit like the pressure cooker that is intended to turn Thwaites’s pre-chewed grass into fodder for himself. It is an expression, on the one hand, of their extraordinary commitment to explore the life of another creature; on the other, it often collapses the whole enterprise. For, in these sophisticated metaphors, as in Thwaites’s complex cooking kit, we see not the authors’ basic animal natures but their intricate humanity. It hints at the impossibility of making a complete psychic voyage into the other while also narrating the process to an audience. In short, you can possibly be the other; but you certainly cannot tell it.

If I have a disappointment, it is that both authors try to resolve the problem so often by playing it for laughs. At times each book comes to resemble a more conventional work centred on the misadventures of the eccentric, which is a very limited, very English stereotype. You sense them feeling for the next gag and shaping the text in the interests of the joke, rather than opening it out to get at the full intellectual possibilities.

Not to suggest that wearing a goat suit and walking the mountains, or digging a sett and slurping worms, isn’t funny. Both are. But there is a greater depth to the questions that the authors raise and that only Foster attempts to tackle seriously, making his the richer work.

He argues that if we give up trying to stand in the shoes of nature, and vice versa, we become “wretched bypass builders or badger baiters or self-referential urbanites”. Let’s face it: the consequences are far worse than that. This a planet where four-fifths of fish stocks have been harvested to or beyond sustainable levels; where half of the world’s temperate forest has been felled; where, according to the WWF fund for nature, half of all wildlife has been lost in four decades; where there are a billion more people every 12 years. The only thing that can reverse these processes is that we imagine our world as more than ourselves, and find a way to value those other parts of life.

In a sense, what doesn’t matter is that we attain some credible metempsychosis with the beast. For how can we really know what it feels to be a lion, or a goat, or a badger? We probably cannot. But what counts is that we make the effort and act in the certain knowledge that the badger possesses consciousness, exactly as we do. Technically it is called “theory of mind”. And the more we have of it, Foster points out, the better we “appreciate the interconnectedness of things” but also the better human beings we become. In short, being a beast allows us to become more truly ourselves.

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human by Thomas Thwaites is published by Princeton Architectural Press (208pp, £14.99)

Being a Beast by Charles Foster is published by Profile Books (246pp, £14.99)

Mark Cocker’s books include Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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