I have been accorded a great honour – I have had an essay published in the latest issue of The Idler. The 43rd outing of this journal is themed ‘Back to the Land’ and has contributions from many amazing friends: Paul Kingsnorth, Simon Fairlie, Jay Griffiths and Penny Rimbaud. Illustrations from Gee Vaucher rub shoulders with (and stand up well to) those of David Hockney.

I had heard about The Idler – but, to my shame, had never read a copy until issue 42 – a delicate offering entitled Smash the System. And now it has mutated from magazine to magazine disguised as a book, there is a risk that many others may too miss out on the opportunity to engage with one of the most radical and anarchic publications we produce. I was going to describe the essence of The Idler, but, in the spirit of the journal, I will let the already well-crafted words of editor Tom Hodgkinson take the strain:

“The Idler is a bi-annual, book-shaped magazine that campaigns against the work ethic. It was founded in 1993 by Tom Hodgkinson and his friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney. The title comes from a series of essays by Dr Johnson, published in 1758-9 in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The intention of the magazine is to return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling into something to aspire towards rather than reject.”

The reason I am in the book is due to the wonderful Gavin – he of The Cloudspotters Guide, the Cloud Appreciation Society and – arriving in the post the very same day as The Idler, The Wavewatcher’s Companion, his very new … in fact as yet unlaunched … and undoubtedly best-selling book. I had stopped in to visit Gavin in Somerset, and while we strummed a couple of the ubiquitous ukeleles (I am not sure where the ukelele comes into the Idler ethos, but it is a recurrent theme), determined that there was a need for a deeper exploration of the importance of hedgehogs to a vision of an improved society – and where better to exposit than The Idler.

Yes, ukeleles – we bought one for Mati, but I think I have played it more. When presented with a chart for the chord shapes it is fairly easy to transfer most of what I know on the guitar into uke … And the ukelele featured, improbably, at the launch of Back to the Land.

I went because it sounded like a strange gathering of fascinating people – though most of the ones I know did not turn up. But that did not stop the event being memorable. Not least because I now know what Rough Trade is … a record shop (I thought it might have been some sort of night club). The evening was opened by Tom on the uke, next up was Ian Bone, the founder of the gentle campaigning (dis-)organisation, Class War. And then came the noise … it has been a long time since I have felt my teeth rattle in my head. I had heard of Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction (and their off-shoot, Zodiac Youth) but had not had the pleasure of hearing them (and, to be honest, I had managed to get them mixed up with Doctor and the Medics …) They were supposed to be joined by Adam Ant (who I had heard of) – but he failed to materialise – as did the love-reaction’s bassist. But this did not deter Mr Mindwarp from pulling out the stops, grabbing his crotch and making my ear-drums whimper in powerless protest to the onslaught (oh and if you follow the link to the myspace page, the music should carry one of those parent-advisory stickers – so if you are of a sensitive disposition – you have been warned).

An intermission, of sorts, from The Asbo Kid … again composed of people I had heard of – James Atkin and Justin Welch – and we came to the main act (or at least the most extraordinary) – Tom back on his ukelele giving a rendition of the Sex Pistol’s classic love song, ‘I am an anarchist’.

I left with my ears ringing, weaving in between the Brick Lane curry touts and down by Verdes – where I looked up at the windows above the shop in the hope of catching a glimpse of my hero – before being gently coerced into eating free (and rather excellent) falafels in the next door cafe (as they celebrated their first year).

By the time I got to the coach back to Oxford I was shattered and in need of something. You know that feeling when you just cannot quite put your finger on what it is you need? Well, I was there for most of the journey. And then I just tried my luck with my ipod – Richard Strauss, the Four Last Songs. Somehow that was what I needed – something to sooth my battered soul. It does not feel like it was that many years ago that Zodiac Mindwarp would have met my needs – and the me of then would have been astounded to find the me of now brought to the brink of ecstasy by songs for the end of life.

Oh – and the point of this post? Order a copy of The Idler – eye/mind/heart-opening and beautifully presented.

I have just had  call from my agent, Patrick Walsh, who had picked up a copy of the Guardian on his way back from the airport (he has just spent two weeks cuddling baby elephants with Daphne Sheldrick in Kenya) … and he was so excited. It is the possibly the best review my book has ever received … even if it does describe me as having an ‘endearing battiness’.

He picks up on the fact that this could be first and only book ever published to be endorsed by both Ann Widdecombe and Jeanette Winterson … oh, just read it and imagine how warm my cockles are feeling!

You can read it online at:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/27/prickly-affair-charm-hedgehog-warwick

Or, because I care for the state of your fingers, here:

Oh, come on, I thought. A whole book about hedgehogs? All right then, bring it on. After all, it is one of the purposes of this column to introduce not only you, but its author, to unfamiliar or unlikely subjects. And, speaking personally, I have very little opinion about hedgehogs, except for the usual idées reçues about how Gypsies are said to bake them in clay, how on earth they mate (very carefully, ho ho), and don’t they all have fleas?

Well, after reading this book, not only am I significantly better informed about the little spiny creatures, I feel considerably better disposed towards them. I am now hedgehog-conscious.

I am also much more aware of certain pockets of life in this country. One of the charms of this book is the endearing battiness of its author – but in contrast to the benign loopiness of some of the people he interviews, he is a calm and sober commentator.

You wouldn’t think so at first, though. The picture we initially get of Hugh Warwick is that of a wet, smelly and somewhat obsessive naturalist up at all hours of the night, wringing the rain out of his beard and chasing carefully after hedgehogs with tracking devices on their backs. These are luminous, so that a courting pair appear as “an amazing dance of two sprites, one circling the other, with periodic leaps and sneezes like waltzing glow-worms with hay-fever”. (Although female hedgehogs spend a lot of time fending off the attentions of ardent males – I make no comment – there is still quite a bit of noisy hedgehog sex in here, including an anecdote from Bremen, where police officers called to investigate some strange noises found “two hedgehogs described unusually eloquently by the police spokesman as being ‘loudly engaged in ensuring the continuity of their species’.”)

Hedgehogs are eccentric themselves, so it should come as no surprise that they attract the devotion of the oddball. There will be few other books, if any, which are endorsed, as this one is, by both Ann Widdecombe and Jeanette Winterson. (Which is not to say that either of them is odd, but . . . well, you know what I mean.) In fact, you could fill up the New Statesman’s “This England” column for a year with material from this book. Meet Barbara Roberts, chatelaine of Withington Hedgehog Care, who tries out all the drugs she uses on her charges herself first (“Well, Metacam tastes really quite nice, but they hate one of the antibiotics and I can see why”); or Elaine Drewrey, mother of the lead singer of the band Swing Out Sister, who has the messiest house Warwick has ever seen. “Anyway, no hedgehog has ever complained about the state of the house and that is what matters to me.”

Americans, of course, have to do things bigger than everyone else, so when Warwick goes to the International Hedgehog Olympic Games, prepare yourself for a parade of lunacy beyond the imagination of any satirist. Never mind Zug Standing Bear, who, after an eye-opening time examining American atrocities in Vietnam, used to be one of Gerald Ford’s bodyguards and now has a champion hog called Buttercup – he’s a regular guy. Check out Dawn Wrobel, who communicates telepathically with her hedgehogs and asserts that the creatures call themselves “star children”. (As Warwick says helplessly at this point: “I would hate it if people thought I was not an open-minded sort, I really like to think I am, but . . .”) And just wait till you get to the business about the Rainbow Bridge. Credulity, even with the intermediary of sceptical paraphrase, can only be stretched so far.

So what is not to love about this book? It is funny, generous, kind, learned (a lot of ancient hedgehog lore), thoughtful, ecologically minded and – this is quite important, actually – unsentimental. (The way badgers eat hedgehogs is somewhat unsettling, but then that’s the natural world for you.) I would never have imagined that a book on this subject would have me reading lots of bits of it out to anyone who would listen. But that’s what happened here. It achieves its purpose: and in its charm lies its success.

A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog by Hugh Warwick 304pp, Penguin, £9.99

I have a little thrill of excitement as I realise that it is only five weeks until the launch of the paperback of A Prickly Affair …  a Penguin paperback no less …. and I thought that it might be nice to let you have a preview of the cover:

You can get it from Amazon if you want, better still, ask your local bookshop to stock it  … or just book me to give a talk and I will bring as many as I can carry!

Oh – and if I did not already love Jeanette Winterson … wow!

To some this may seem unsavoury, but to me, it is a necessary component of life … self-promotion. I think that I was raised to shun such extreme behaviour, but somewhere along the line I shed the middle-class reserve (probably around the time I learnt to think for myself, and realised that ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’).

So, here are just a few of the reviews that A Prickly Affair and The Hedgehog’s Dilemma (one and the same) received … and if you are so moved, please go to Amazon and write more.
Jeanette Winterson
“the most glorious mad book… a charming book and will take your mind off everything.”

New Scientist
“…an autobiographical yarn … that is at once humorous, touching and obsessive… An oddly satisfying read.”

The Guardian
“…unfailingly entertaining… Ultimately it’s a book about our relationship with hedgehogs as much as it is about hedgehogs themselves.” “Save a hedgehog and you might just save the world.”

Jay Griffiths
“This is an utterly charming book, it is funny and gently serious.”

Libby Purves (Midweek)
“The perfect antidote to the economic crisis.”

The Spectator
“This is a useful and entertaining book, and unsentimental.”

The Daily Telegraph
“Hugh Warwick, an otherwise normal father-of-two…”

Oxford Times
“You end up learning an enormous amount about hedgehogs without really noticing, and laugh quite a lot, too.”

Hay Book Festival programme
“A truly eccentric global story of hog lore.”

LA Times
“There’s more than a whiff of the legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell here — his humor, his affection and his never-ending curiosity.”