Show Hide image

“D’ye want to see what I have in me bag here?” asked the tinker.

Frightened, I shook my head. “Of course you do,” he grinned, opening the sack.

I shall never forget my first experience of hedgehog husbandry. Nine years old, a solitary child out foraging in the woods, I met a tall, thin man in a leather cap and an ex-Army greatcoat, a hessian sack gripped tight in his left hand while he carefully combed the undergrowth with his right. He had wild, reddish brown hair and even wilder whiskers, so I knew him right away for one of those folk my parents referred to as “tinkers” – and, like me, he was clearly searching for something. It was a weekday, the woods were deserted, the nearby farm road quiet – and he was probably glad of that, for nobody of his tribe ever had much to be grateful for in their dealings with housebound folk. Still, seeing me coming, and sensing an opportunity for some fun, he immediately bade me good morning.

I didn’t want to speak, but I knew I had to be polite – and of course, I was dying to know what was in the sack. He studied my face, his expression good-humoured, his eyes bright. “D’ye want to see what I have in me bag here?” he asked, his smile as much a challenge as a show of innocence.

I shook my head. He laughed. “Of course you do,” he said, hoisting the sack and opening it slightly. “Come on. They won’t bite you.” I wanted to hurry away, but I couldn’t. Part of me was afraid to look because I was certain, now, that something was alive in there. But my curiosity was larger than my fear. Besides, I was reluctant to offend the man – so I walked slowly over to where he stood, and looked into the sack.

The “bag” contained four hedgehogs, the plump sand-and-silver bodies newly unfurled and treading air in the hoisted sack like novice acrobats. I was confused, because I did not understand what use a grown man might have for such a thing. Until I met that tinker, I had imagined that hedgehogs were invincible to all but the cleverest and most persistent foxes (and badgers, because badgers, I knew, could eat anything). So at that moment, when I realised what was happening, I felt my eyes brim with tears and I wanted to punch the tinker, hard, then grab his sack and run for it, scattering the newly liberated hedgehogs in my trail. Instead, I just stared. Afterwards, I learned from a neighbour how hedgehogs were cooked, the live balls of spine and flesh encased in clay and baked so that, when the casing was cracked open, the spines came away cleanly, leaving the cooked meat intact.

I don’t know if hungry people still comb the woods and headlands for such wild fodder, but if they do, the pickings are probably slim, for nowadays the common hedgehog is frighteningly scarce. In a report for the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, David Wembridge estimates that, while “hedgehogs were once abundant throughout Britain, with an estimated population of perhaps 30 million in the 1950s”, that number has now fallen to around one million, and the decline is set to continue for all the usual reasons: irresponsible pesticide use, destruction of hedgerows and permanent pasture and, perhaps most significantly, loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by new roads, housing and other developments.

Now, looking back, I feel ashamed of how I judged that man in the hungry Sixties. He didn’t eat all the hedgehogs, just took a few, when he had no other recourse. The men who do the real damage, the respected agribusiness and development entrepreneurs, probably dine on truffles and Beluga caviar.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
Show Hide image

Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game