Just back from the Bristol Festival of Nature and now preparing to go head-to-head with the wonderful Kate Long in a face-off between hedgehogs and water voles … who will win? Why not come and join the fun! Then it is off to Edinburgh with extInked to reveal my leg to the unwitting visitors to the Botanic Gardens.

The Bristol event was a lot of fun and a clear reminder that behind the impressive viewing figures for Springwatch and other BBC wildlife programmes there are real, active people who have a passion to learn more about the world around them.

Before my talk I was interviewed on the BIG SCREEN …. never before have I been so large!

 

You can just make me out in the top right hand corner!

But it was after my talk about The Beauty in the Beast that the real business began – and it was a salutary lesson. I got a good audience and they asked sensible questions, but when I settled down in the tent with the wonderful People’s Trust for Endangered Species crowds swarmed in …. the reason?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simple – I was ‘with hedgehog‘ … the lesson learned for me is that however good a talk I give I can never compete with the thrill of meeting a real live hedgehog. This one, Holly, was being looked after by Mary from Hedgehog Rescue. I do not want to become a hedgehog carer, I simple do not have the capacity to manage that demanding job. And I do not want a ‘pet hedgehog’. But I also recognise that the amount of information I could impart to an audience would be enormously increased if I had grabbed their attention with a real live spiky hog …. so has anyone got a brilliant solution to this conundrum?

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?

This is a little bit more sophisticated use of the web than usual for me … but I have the video of the tattooing – or rather 30 seconds or so … this was with the four pointed device that was used for shading and was, to use the language of the midwife, a little uncomfortable … but not so bad as to make my hand shake. So, if you are of a sensitive disposition, look away now …

To get to the ‘tattoo parlour’ – a temporary affair above the gallery, cordoned off by a red-rope barrier from the crowds, I was lead up the back stairs by Jai, master-mind of the madness that was about to begin. I was in the first batch of three – out of the 100 to be tattooed over the long weekend.

I think that Jai was probably more nervous than I was – so much to worry about, from media, to health – even so, there were a few butterflies tumbling as I walked out into the glare of the stage. I shared a quick smile with Kate, who was also about to get her first tattoo – before we took our places.

Many people I know already have tattoos, so the details will be well appreciated, but for me, this was a first, and probably last, opportunity to experience the art.

Simon – already fairly well covered with a wide array of images, was to be my artist. A quick shave of my lower left leg, a swab down with some fancy gel that allows the image on paper to transfer across to the skin … so that is how it is done … not just the freehand genius, they have help! And then, after attaching a fresh needle to the Heath Robinson tattooing machine, he began. He dipped the needle into a small pot of ink – preparing his quill.

As I had sat down I had realised there was quite a crowd come to see the start of the show, but found I was facing away from everyone. Not sure what it would have been like looking out at everyone.

I tried to relax, but there was a slight moment of bracing as the needle, buzzing like a gentle dentist’s drill, first touched my skin. Remarkably un-uncomfortable – though there was a strange taste in my mouth that started almost immediately and lasted for a couple of days.

It was such a benign experience that I picked up my camera and started taking photographs … proof of the calmness came in the steadiness of my hand – no flash and no shake. As my back was turned towards the crowd, the only way of finding out who was looking was by taking photographs over my shoulder – you can understand that I did not want to move too much while Simon was needling my skin.

And then it was all over – so quick. He had been dabbing away at flecks of blood and excess ink – along the way and the result looked remarkably complete. Yes, a little bruised, but otherwise fine. But that was not it … there was another component to the process – to be photographed with a 120 year old camera – big plate film, masses of detail I am sure. And not of the tattoo, but portraits of each of the ambassadors.

All 100 are done now – and I am hoping that we can arrange some sort of reunion – and as I discussed in a piece in the Guardian, possibly linking up with people doing this in other countries to present a block of wildlife ambassadors at the next meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

So, to the healing – the instructions were simple – get hold of nappy cream and cling film … I was so disappointed that when I left the restaurant with a friend all the supermarkets were closed, I just wanted to imagine the look of confusion when all that was bought was beer, nappy cream and cling film.

After three days of that, it was on to coco butter – and there is general appreciation for the tattoo – in fact more than that. People are surprised at how cute it is … there is an association between tattoos and anger I think, so it is pleasing to have an image that subverts this. There is no attempt to repel with the hedgehog – it is there to attract.

Is that it? Will there be any more? Well, the night of the tattoo, back at my friend’s flat and her partner asks about my next book idea – the one where I track down people with animal passions similar to my own, but for different species … and Ian’s thought? “You are just on the hunt for the next tattoo, aren’t you?” Well, that has set something stirring in my mind …. will just have to wait and see.

I have been putting an awful lot of work into raising awareness about my impending tattoo … in fact so much that I might have failed to mention it on the blog … Well, my first (and last) tatttoo is due to be applied to the lower part of my left leg at 8pm on Thursday 26th November … i.e. tomorrow. I thought that I should spread the word through the usual channels of the media – and so far it has been a bit of a damp squib, but then along came The Wellington News …. yippppeeeee …. who have faithfully copied a press release what I wrote. So please – help me spread the word. ExtInked, the project that is organising the tattooing, is just so inspirational.

And wish me luck tomorrow.

hx