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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.

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.