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The barrister who became a badger: why did Charles Foster decide to live like an animal?

He ate earthworms as a badger, tore open binbags as an urban fox, and was hunted by a bloodhound as a deer.

“I have become The Man Who Eats Worms,” Charles Foster shrugs, sorrowfully. “It’s not really a very interesting subject. It doesn’t tell you anything about how badgers experience the world.”

This combination of self-deprecation and a quest for deeper purpose is what defines Foster, the 53-year-old barrister and Oxford medical tutor who decided to shed his professional human trappings and live like an animal.

It also defines the book he has written about his experiences, called Being a Beast – a wild blend of nature writing, memoir, philosophy and scientific study.

A copy sits on his dining room table, nestled among sheet music and exercise books. Foster lives in this treasure trove of a house near the centre of Oxford – bedecked with stuffed animals as well as children’s collages and paintings – with his wife Mary, who is a GP, and their four young children.

The beady eyes of fox heads peer at visitors who arrive in the hall. A glaring otter surveys the kitchen worktop. Across the room, a gull perches, suspended, beside Foster’s conservatory-cum-study, which has a view of a leafless tree. Everywhere you look is a jumble of earthy miscellany – boots and globes and veterinary magazines. It’s probably closer to being a wilderness than most suburban terraces.

As he clatters around making coffee, Foster looks momentarily devastated when I admit – as a lifelong Londoner – to not being particularly outdoorsy.

“We all live in the wild,” he says. “We are necessarily wild animals, even if we choose to wear clothes instead of skins.”

But Foster wanted to go further, dropping from his height of 6ft 3in to the ground to live like, and among, the animals.

Eating earthworms, licking slugs and scuffling around on all fours – noses to the ground – he and his then eight-year-old son (or cub) Tom lived nocturnally for six weeks as badgers in a Welsh wood; his farmer friend dug out a sett for them in the hillside with a JCB.

In the East Lyn river, Foster thrashed around as an otter, catching the occasional unlucky fish in his mouth, and failing to notice a leech attached to his lip for an hour as his face numbed from the cold. The winter depressed him, and his jacket was stolen from the riverbank. His otter experience was not his highlight.

He had more luck as an urban fox in London’s East End, where he slept in backyards, prowled the streets, and rooted around people’s bins, eating leftovers he covered in mixed spices to avoid the taste of strangers’ saliva.

Foster used to live in the East End, but he didn’t like it much and moved to Oxford seven years ago. Foxes proved better Londoners than he was. “The foxes showed me a London that was old and deep enough to live in and be kind about,” he writes. “They negotiated an uneasy peace between me and the East End.”

But they weren’t all good. One vixen stole a chicken leg from him – a moment he delighted in, finding it his most authentic experience as an animal. “There was that eye-to-eye connection, in which, fancifully or otherwise, I thought there was reciprocity,” he recalls. “There was that I-thou relationship, which all my theory about the natural world has told me, but it’s often difficult to feel.”

Foster also paraglided to be closer to the swifts he so admires, and attempted to be hunted as a red deer in Exmoor. His friend set a bloodhound on him. Foster tore across a field and through a wood, only for the dog to catch up, take one look at him, and turn away back to its master.

It’s difficult to imagine Foster’s adventures on this cosy weekday morning, chatting to him over coffee with his donnish persona, woolly jumper and jeans, just before he heads in to college.

“It upsets me very much,” he sighs, when I bring up how his academic life contradicts his animal ambitions. “I’m being hypocritical in sitting at a table and drinking out of a china cup.”

Indeed, Foster calls his book “an admission of failure” to achieve his aim, which is to relate to nature and our animal ancestors on a sensory – rather than cognitive – level.

He believes humans are “trapped into a visual way of looking at the world”, and derides nature writing as “a colonial enterprise” in which we impose our gaze on the land. He describes the “outrage” and “arrogance” he felt when he reverted to standing upright after six weeks as a badger. “It seemed presumptuous,” he sighs.

Foster was once one of the humans he now wishes had more empathy with nature. He used to hunt and shoot voraciously. Every winter, he stalked deer in the Highlands. He shot wildfowl in Kent. He bought his daughter a shotgun when she was ten, and wrote a monthly column in The Shooting Times.

“The fact that I did it when there was no nutritional justification is something of which I am now very ashamed,” he admits. “But the reason I took up hunting was because I wanted to continue to have that relationship with the natural world which I had experienced in its greatest intimacy when I was a child.”

As a young boy growing up in Sheffield, Foster kept nature diaries and became obsessed with a blackbird in the back garden. He seems envious of how much closer – “literally! They’re closer to the ground” – children are to animals, and “worries sick” about his children “unlearning everything” they sense about nature.

But Foster is more of a campaigner than the whimsical naturalist he is in Being a Beast. His purpose has become more political since it was published.

“We act towards the natural world with a lack of empathy, which, were we to express ourselves like that towards humans, would be regarded as frankly psychopathic,” he laments.

“I would like people to think, when they’re about to bite into their steak, is this tantamount to cannibalism? This steak is part of the buttock of a fairly near relative.”

Being a Beast by Charles Foster is published by Profile Books.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How Roger Moore made James Bond immortal

Roger Moore, James Bond actor, has died at the age of 89. 

Unlike every other actor to play James Bond, Roger Moore was already a star when he came to the role. Not a star of motion pictures admittedly, although he had topped the bill in some minor films, but a star in television. The lead of the adventure series Ivanhoe (1958-59) and The Saint (1962-69), the latter of which brought him international fame and reportedly made him the highest paid actor on television.

It was a far cry from his beginnings. Although he lived much of his life abroad (it has been said, for tax reasons, something the actor himself denied) and was regarded by many as the archetypal English gentleman, Moore began life as a working-class Londoner.  Born in Stockwell in 1927, the son of a policeman and his wife, he grew up in a rented three room, third floor flat in SW8, and attended Battersea Grammar School. There, he later insisted "looking as though I was listening", was the only subject at which he excelled. Battersea Grammar was, despite the name, then an overcrowded local school boxed in by the buildings and sidings of Clapham Junction Station and made dark and noisy by the still expanding railways.

As both Moore and his friend and fellow film star Michael Caine have observed, their backgrounds in urban South London are almost identical, something that has never fitted with public perception of either of them. The difference was, as again both noted, that when it came to National Service Moore, unlike Caine, was picked out as officer material and trained accordingly, in the process acquiring the accent he would carry for the rest of his life.

The common, near universal, ignorance of Moore’s origins (although he himself was never shy of them, writing about his family in his various books and discussing them in interviews) says something significant about Roger Moore the public figure. Despite being a household name for decades, an international film star and latterly a knight of the realm, he was, if not misunderstood by his audience, then never really quite what they assumed him to be.

This extends, of course, into his work as an actor. Moore was often mocked by the unimaginative, who saw him as a wooden actor, or one lacking in versatility. Often, he was somehow self-deprecating enough to play along. And yet, the camera loved him, really loved him and his timing - particularly but not exclusively comic - was extraordinary. To see Moore work in close up is to see someone in absolute control of his craft. His raised eyebrow, often mocked, was a precision instrument, exactly as funny or exactly as surprising as he wanted it to be.

It is more accurate, as well as fairer, to say that Moore was typecast, rather than limited, and he made no secret of the fact that he played his two most famous roles, Simon Templar in The Saint and James Bond 007 as essentially the same person. But he would have been a fool not to. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli’s EON productions wanted Templar nearly as much as they wanted Moore.

They had thought of the actor for the part of 007 as early as 1961, before casting Sean Connery and before Moore had played The Saint, so it was not just his success as Templar that made him suitable. Yet both producers knew that audiences in both Britain and America loved the way Moore played Templar, and that if that affection could be translated into ticket sales, their series would be on to a winner.

It was a gamble for all involved. George Lazenby had already tried, and as far many were concerned, failed to replace Connery as James Bond. When it came to 1971’s outing in the series, Diamonds Are Forever, David Picker, head of United Artists, which distributed Bond films, insisted that Connery be brought back for an encore before EON tried a third actor in the role, re-hiring Connery at a then record $1.25m and paying off actor John Gavin, whom EON had already cast. That’s how high the stakes were for both the Bond series and Moore’s reputation when he stepped into the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die. The film was a huge success, so much so that EON rushed out its sequel, The Man With The Golden Gun the next year, rather than after two years as it had planned.

The reason for that success, although the film has many other good qualities, is that Moore is brilliant in it. His whip-thin, gently ironic and oddly egalitarian adventurer, capable of laughing at himself as well as others, is a far cry from Connery’s violently snobbish "joke superman". It’s been said that Connery’s Bond was a working-class boy’s fantasy of what it would be like to be an English gentleman, while Moore’s was essentially the fantasy of a slightly effete middle-class boy who dreams of one day winning a fight. It’s a comprehensive reinvention of the part.

That’s not something that can be achieved by accident. One shouldn’t, however, over-accentuate the lightness of the performance. Moore’s Bond is exactly as capable of rage and even sadism as his predecessor. The whimsy he brings to the part is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the character’s range.

Moore expanded Bond’s emotional palette in other ways too. His best onscreen performance is in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which the then 53-year-old Moore gets to play a Bond seen grieving at his wife’s grave, lecturing allies on the futility of revenge ("When setting out for revenge, first dig two graves") and brightly turn down a much younger woman’s offer of sex with the phrase "Put your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream". None of which are scenes you can begin to imagine Connery’s Bond pulling off.

Moore was not just a huge success as Bond, he remains, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful lead actor the series has ever had. He was also successful in a way that guaranteed he would have successors. What he gave to the part by not imitating Connery, by not even hinting at Connery in his performance, was a licence to those who followed him to find their own way in the role. This, along with his continued popularity over twelve years in the role, probably the only reason the series managed to survive the 1970s and the EON’s finally running of Ian Fleming novels to adapt to the screen.

Actors have received knighthoods for their craft for centuries, but when Moore was knighted in 2003, there was some push back. Moore was understandably seen as not being in the same category as an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson. But the citations for Moore's knighthood indicated that it was for his decades of charity work with Unicef that he was being honoured. It’s yet another of the misconceptions, large and small, that aggregated around him.

Moore himself was always clear that it was the profile playing James Bond had given him that made his role with Unicef possible, let alone successful. When asked about pride in his charity work, he always responded that instead he felt frustration. Frustration because as with, for example, the UN’s iodine deficiency programme or Unicef’s work with children with landmine injuries, there was always so much more work to be done than could be done.

It was an answer that, along with his energetic campaigning, at the age of 88, to ban the use of wild animals in zoos, pointed to the biggest misunderstanding of all. Moore was known for playing frivolous characters in over the top entertainments and this led to him being perceived by many, even by those he enjoyed his work, as essentially trivial. Ironically, such an assumption reveals only the superficiality of their own reading. The jovial, wry interviewee Sir Roger Moore was, beneath that raised eyebrow, a profoundly serious man.

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