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.