Thursday, July 10, 2008

Menacing the Queen's flamingoes

One of this week's four novels for review (copy filed this morning; hooray) was Blake Morrison's South of the River, a 21st-century exercise in the sub-genre known for a century and a half as the 'condition-of-England novel'. Looking at the lives of five London citizens during the first five years of Tony Blair's leadership and the way their lives are shaped by the forces of history big and small, good and bad, local and national, the novel uses foxes as a kind of unifying leitmotif and postmodernish plaything, from the urban foxes of London's yards and gardens through the foxes hunted across fields by packs of hound and whooping English gentlepersons in red (known as 'pink'; go figure) coats on horseback to the magical and uncanny kitsune of Japanese folklore.

And as I was about to begin writing the review I indulged in a bit of classic avoidance behaviour and did a quick tour around my blogroll instead, rewarded immediately by Stephanie's first post from her London trip -- in which she reports that she 'went for a late-night fox-watching walk ... round Coram Fields.' I'd read about London's foxes before but I don't think I'd realised they had become quite so much a part of the urban landscape as to make this bit of synchronicity likely.

From my own rural childhood I associate foxes with destruction but also with elegance, brains and slightly magical properties: creatures that terrorised lambs and had to be done battle with but that were also, somehow, worthy adversaries. (As a child in the 1950s and 60s one was obliged to map one's Eurocentric children's books palimpsest-wise onto one's antipodean experiences, so the Aesop and Beatrix Potter worlds had to be somehow aligned with real experience, no matter how lumpy the fit.) One of my earliest memories is of seeing a fox insouciantly strolling across the open ground outside the farmhouse's backyard fence, and eyeballing me boldly -- I was about two -- as it passed, brush held alertly at three o'clock.

Reading reports of small children being attacked by foxes in contemporary London, something that features in the novel as maybe-more-than-an-urban-myth, I'm starting to wonder whether I didn't get off a bit lightly; this critter only looked at me, although I must say it was a strange, fairy-tale bit of eye contact. (Yes yes, I know, the fox has got my toddler, etc. The Chamberlains do in fact get a mention in the novel.) The little buggers really do look through you, in an ancient, witchy, I-know-all-about you kind of way.

So I Googled London+foxes and came up with all sorts of stuff, among which my favourites are the following:

1) 'Menacing the Queen's flamingoes, chewing on pet rabbits, and generally making a stink, the sly beasts have become common in the capital.' (Under the heading '10,000 Foxes Roam London', in National Geographic News.)

2) 'Foxes have even sneaked into the Houses of Parliament, where one was found asleep on a filing cabinet.' (Same article; this one made me wish I could draw.)

3) And finally, this. The woman with the camera is almost as delightful as the critters she is filming.


meggie said...

We seem to have foxes living amonst the urban housing too.
Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I know it's supposed to be for kids, but I've always loved "Grandad's Gifts" by Paul Jennings.


genevieve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
genevieve said...

(Ahem) as I was saying...there have been foxes in the increasingly builtup eastern 'burbs of Melbourne for at least forty years, thanks to a combo of industrial estates and backyard chicken runs and rabbit hutches - I have had one run through my yard, probably because the yard behind us runs across three blocks and is a safe escape point.

And the London fox thing was also a motif of that film with Juliette Binoche and Jude Law, the name of which escapes me at present.
'Menacing the Queen's flamingoes' is going to get you some interesting google hits, PC.

Speedicut said...

The common explanation for pink referring to the red coat, is that Pink was the name of the tailor who originally made the coats. This neatly sidesteps the notion that use of the term also acted as a social marker. For more details:

Also, having spent some time in TAS the destructive, "slightly magical properties" of the fox are very much to the fore down south. Last I heard, and despite a multi-million dollar eradication program, there was still an active debate regarding their presence in/on the island state.

Anonymous said...

I've recently seen foxes in the carpark at work (Mawson Lakes), near my house (in part of the Black Hill reserve at Athelstone), and running across my 20 acre paddock at Robertstown - this last in the middle of the day. I'll let the Robertstown one live until I move up there, as I'd rather a fox than rabbits gnawing at my baby trees.


helen said...

Every morning last term when I got up for rowing training, there would be urban foxes in the quad - we had mumma fox, dadda fox and baby fox :) The kit was very small when I first saw it - about the size of a chihuahua - but it seems to have moved out now, and I only see the big ones.

Oxford has big green spaces in the centre, which probably encourages them. We also get deer, hedgehogs and lots of birds I can't identify. One hedgehog got into the building, and then into a student's room. She's Mexican and had never seen one before so threw it out the window. Luckily she's on the ground floor so it just ran away.

(This is skepticlawyer by the way, I seem to have misplaced my old google account).

Suze said...

I once walked up a busy street in south London with a fox walking nonchalantly ahead of me.
We had a hedgehog in our London garden for a couple of months, then I saw a fox running along the back walls and never saw the hedgehog again - that was sad.

Ampersand Duck said...

That mummy fox has the equivalent of a saliva-licked handkerchief, desperately dabbing each child that comes near. It's a lovely video. And I do enjoy the commentary, with its sense of the bleeding obvious :)