November 2011


The research I am doing for the next book – on the iconography of hedgehogs – is allowing me to call some delightful things work – for example, I was forced to watch these two clips of an extended sketch from Monty Python.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jmnspyj-eY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhV856sXf3w&feature=fvwrel

Anyone with an interest in hedgehogs, violence, corruption or sarcasm would be well-advised to settle down for a short 15 minutes.

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I have come to the end of my mid-life crisis. It has taken two years, but I have finally made it. I have also come to the end of the active writing part of my new book – The Beauty in the Beast. It will be published by Simon & Schuster in May next year – and I have just had a sneak preview of the cover, which has left me quivering with excitement … I will check with the publishers, but if I am allowed to share it with you, I will.

But the end of my mid-life crisis … it began in November 2009 when I did three things for the first and last time. I did my first and last stand-up comedy. I did my first and last 5 Rhythms dance class and I got my first and last tattoo.

All fine, you might think, no fast women and loose cars. But the plan had been to keep it to that month. Oh, what a failure … so … I have been trying, with some degree of success, to make people laugh, defining my new hedgehog lecture as ecological standup; I have been dancing with the wonderful Chloe de Sousa ever since and … and on last Thursday I travelled to Leeds to get my second, and most definitely LAST, tattoo.

The first, and last, tattoo was of a hedgehog as part of extInked – about which I have written before. This final tattoo is the culmination of The Beauty in the Beast – a book that has taken me on a year long journey around the animal obsessives of Britain. I have been meeting people very like myself, with passions for other species – so I met the adder man of Norfolk, the mid-Wales badger man, the water vole woman of Shropshire and the otter woman of Devon. Fifteen people in total were tasked with trying to seduce me away from the hedgehog – and the winning species, well, I agreed that I would show my commitment by getting that animal permanently tattooed on my body.

And here it is, the wonderful Ink vs Steel‘s Simon Caves had been so impressed with extInked that he offered to ink me up for free. I think I am possibly the only person in a tweed jacket to have entered their premises, but they made me feel at home and this is the film I managed to shoot … an indication either of my extreme fortitude under the assault of the needle, or the lack of nerve endings in that part of my leg.

Here endeth my mid-life crisis … no more tattoos … almost definitely no more tattoos … but if I did, just as an exercise, hypothetically speaking … what should I have next?

Rare is the time that I find myself in agreement with Les Stocker at St Tiggywinkles wildlife hospital (well, okay, not that rare, it is just that I am still smarting from some rather snooty behaviour) – but this report on the BBC news website about the attempt to promote African Pygmy Hedgehogs as pets in the UK is spot on … While it did what the BBC is obliged to do, and give two sides to a story, it clearly came down on the side of sanity.

As I have said before, on here and in my book, those extremely cute little hedgehogs – mash ups of Atelerix albiventris and Atelerix algirus –  in fact, here is some proof of quite how cute

(this one was called Matilda, sharing a name with my daughter) – they should not be encouraged as pets in the UK.

In the USA and Canada, should mainly focus on the welfare of the hedgehogs being kept in captivity – though I am still keen to address the issue of keeping wild animals at all … how long does it take a wild animal to be bred into a domestic one? It is about 20 years since the first ones were exported from Nigeria to the USA. Are these still wild animals? Could they survive back in their original habitat? I don’t know.

But in the UK there are two additional problems. First, numpties who think they can make a fast buck by trying to sell wild European hedgehogs as pets to other numpties who think they would rather not pay the £150 for the pleasure of a spiky nocturnal pet. It will happen if the craze catches on.

And secondly, the inevitability of boredom … there is a reason why the craze of keeping pet hedgehogs in the USA crested quickly and then quickly died. These are not great pets for most people. And children, especially, will get bored. And what to do? Many will be released into the wild (why not, there are hedgehogs out there already says the numpty) … where they will die, or be found and handed into one of the already overburdened wildlife rescue hospitals around the country. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has a list of active carers on their website – it would be interesting to know how many have already received unwanted pygmy hedgehogs. I know of at least six.

And what do the carers do? They cannot release the hogs, and they do not want to get involved with selling them on … so they are left with  them.

So – please – please – however cute they may be – think about how much more wonderful the experience is of seeing a wild animal snuffling around your garden at night – and put your time, money and effort into doing what you can to save our native hedgehogs (for example Hedgehog Street), rather than becoming side-tracked by the selfish desires to mount a potentially damaging must-have-pet craze.

The lessons I best remember often involved laughter. Humour is a great gateway through which it is possible to lead a host of interesting and often complex ideas, bypassing the natural desire to resist.

When I started talking about hedgehogs, most often to the Women’s Institute, I found there were a few moments that the audience would laugh. I found that most appealing as, selfishly, it made me feel pleased to get that reaction.

Now I am not talking the sort of life-limiting laughter that will come from a good stand up comic, more it was animated smiling. But it still made me feel good.

But I was greedy, I wanted to hear more laughter and in a fit of madness agreed to do a little bit of hedgehog stand up at a friend’s party in Somerset – a big party, there were bands and lots of promises of extra performances like mine. In the end it was just me, and the music. I consider that night to be a key part of my mid-life crisis. First and last ever stand-up, first and last ever tattoo and first and last ever dance class – all in November 2009.

It was one of the scariest things I have ever done and I vowed never to do it again (along with the dancing and the tattoo … BUT … I have been dancing every week since then and am getting my second, and last, tattoo in two weeks!) … and now I am preparing to do something similar again, at the wonderful Idler Academy in west London.

Why am I putting myself through this?

The answer requires an admission. While Springwatch was on the BBC earlier this year I found a moment when I had a choice to watch it or Top Gear … now, I care not one jot about cars. I have one and use it as rarely as possible, but I know so little about them as to be a liability. My wife reminds me of the time when a mechanic came to fix the car we were borrowing from a friend and asked me how big the engine was. Apparently holding ones hands about a metre apart and saying, ‘about this big’ is an inadequate answer.

And I love nature, I love wildlife and will watch it for hours.

So why would I want to watch a programme about cars rather than nature? Because Springwatch was embarrassingly dull and Top Gear was entertaining. Worse, actually, there was obviously an attempt to make the nature programme entertaining my trying to get people who were not naturally comical to partake in a crude homage to Benny Hill (if my memory serves me correct).

I am no fan of Clarkson and his kind – in fact was thrilled to be present as a friend of mine stuck a custard pie in his face a while back … here is the photo I took.

But I would love it if that sort of nature programme could be as entertaining.

Now I am glued to the new Attenborough epic, but who wouldn’t be. It is an aesthetic triumph as well as benevolently informative. But I think there must be a space to wallow in the sort of fun it is possible to have with nature – nature does not need all of its promoters to be earnest. Sometimes you have to let the fun in.

Which is why I am trying to do the funny again … I even created a genre ‘ecological stand-up’ and was thrilled to be in the vanguard (only to discover THIS happening a few days before … darn those clever funny folk for stealing a march on me).

So, come to the Idler Academy on 22nd November and see if it makes any sense. I have been trying to picture what I do – and the best I have got to yet is the weird offspring from an unlikely union of Sir David A and Mark Thomas … trying to get the funny into taxonomy. And please share this – anyone who might like a laugh at the madness of hedgehog-lovers while learning why hedgehog love is key to the salvation of humanity should be told …

To be honest, the title should probably be A LOT of self-promotion and bonfires, but that seemed somehow wrong.

To get the nitty-gritty of this dealt with first – there are a lot of bonfires planned for this week and some of these will exact a miserable toll on the country’s wildlife. If you need proof of that, pop along to a wildlife hospital and take a look at the few who survive being roasted. So the British Hedgehog Preservation Society makes a very big point at this time of year to ask you all to just check before you light your fire.

I did a piece on BBC West Midlands a while back where the slogan they were generating was, I think, ‘poke a bonfire, save a hedgehog’ … and as long as you use the handle end of a garden fork, that is great. Try and see if you can lift it a  little and look underneath. Better still, collect all your fuel in one place and then move it to the bonfire the day you are going to light it.

In 2009 the hedgehog lovers at Spontex have got in on the act, securing bouncers to protect a large fire, stopping hedgehogs unwittingly installing themselves in the wonderful shelter …

(photo by Fay Vass – BHPS boss)

Spontex have a good history of idiosyncratic hedgehog-related advertising as my previous post has shown …

So please, check out your bonfires before you light them. Hedgehogs face enough of a threat from everything else we do, so please give the pile a poke before setting it alight.

And now the payback – I have asked you to consider the dark misery of roasting hedgehogs, now I offer you some relief …

I am performing my almost ecological-stand up routine at the Idler Academy on November 22nd … and I want (to be honest, NEED) an audience of enormous proportions … and that is only partly because the amount I get paid is relative to the number of tickets sold … it is also because I want to instil my brand of hedgehog-love deep into the hearts of as many people as possible … and also to introduce new people to the wonder that is the Idler Academy … So, please, book tickets and tell your friends. It will be fun …