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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – February 2017 (2)

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The Man Who Ate The Zoo – Richard Girling

I have always been fascinated by zoophagy. If there is a creature on a menu that I haven’t tasted before, then I have to try it. Often from a taste perspective I wish I hadn’t but then, as Aeschylus said, experience teaches. I would have loved an invitation to dine with the 19th century naturalist, William Buckland, who regularly treated his guests and family to meals of hedgehogs, snails, puppies and, the speciality of the house, mice on toast, a treat John Ruskin was disappointed to have missed.

With a father like that, it is no wonder that Frank, the subject of Girling’s magnificent romp of a book, would be a convert to zoophagy. As a boy he was forever catching, dissecting, cooking and eating small animals, a penchant that not only got him into the occasional scrape with the beak but also ensured that his lodgings were enveloped in the miasma of stench and decay. At Oxford, like Byron, he kept a bear (sampled after its demise) as well as a monkey and various other pets, treating his contemporaries to a running commentary as to the merits of various creatures as food. Earwigs were horribly bitter, moles disgusting and the head of a porpoise was like broiled lamp wick. He also befriended keepers at the London Zoo who would contact him when one of the animals died to see if he wanted to eat it.

There was a serious point to the zoophagy. Food famines were rife and the hunt was on to see if there were other sources of protein that could be brought to Blighty to feed the malnourished. This led to the birth of the Acclimatisation of Animals movement, of which Frank (natch) was a leading light, that tried to find species that would prosper in our climate and would be tolerable to eat. Elaborate feasts were held to try out kangaroo and sea cucumber. Buckland’s enthusiasm for exotica did have limits. He thought the 1868 campaign to promote hippohagy would not get anywhere, even though it climaxed in a dinner attended by 160 of the great and good who chomped their way through several courses of horse.

Buckland was a great conservationist and, perhaps, his most lasting legacy was the work he did, ultimately as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, to understand the lifecycle of fish and the effect of pollution on their habitat. He would often be found in the rivers themselves, seeing how best a salmon might leap up a waterfall and positioning a jump exactly to suit. Alas, his enthusiasm was his undoing, a soaking fatally weakening his health.

For me, the second half of the book detailing his professional career was not as engaging as the first but that is a minor quibble. Girling’s book is well-paced, light, engaging and amusing and thoroughly recommended, if you have a spare book token over from Christmas.

And why is Buckland now forgotten? Girling posits three reasons. He was a popular scientist – he was a prolific writer using what was in those times an amusing, light touch to explain the wonders of nature. Serious scientists aren’t supposed to be popular. Secondly, he backed the wrong horse. He was not an adherent of Darwin, even though some of Buckland’s observations brought him perilously close to thinking that there may be something in this evolution nonsense but his ingrained faith made him loyal to the idea of a divine master plan. And finally, one of his last deeds was to publish a report stating that fish stocks were inexhaustible and there was no need to restrict fishing. Girling, to his credit, resists the temptation to argue that Buckland was so ill that someone else wrote the report for him. Buckland, to the last, was a creature of his time.

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