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.