News from Slightly Foxed: Frivolous foxes, furtive foxes, fanciful foxes . . .

Frivolous foxes, furtive foxes, fanciful foxes . . .

This month our newsletter is rather more than slightly foxed with a veritable skulk of foxed offerings. Were delighted to share a recording of last years Readers Day talk by our friend, Sir Quentin Blake, theres news of our recent slim and very foxy10th anniversary publication to raise money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital School and we revisit the most famous fox of all with Travis Elborough. 

In other news, were looking forward to getting out and about over the coming months with our first event of the season at Cogito Books in the market town of Hexham, Northumberland. This lovely independent bookshop (featured as our first ‘Bookshop of the Quarter’ below) is at the heart of community life in Hexham, and Claire and her team are friendly, knowledgeable and voracious readers - true booksellers! The event will take place on Saturday 5 July so put that date in your diaries and keep an eye out for more details in next month’s news. 

Other events this year will see us popping up all over the place, from West Meon to Soho and of course our Readers Day will be at the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury this November as usual. We’re still planning the programme and will release more information and tickets in due course.

First though, we’re off to hunt those pesky farmers with Travis Elborough and Fantastic Mr Fox. Tally ho!
Encountering Roald Dahl in covetable, tactile Puffin paperbacks as a child in the 1970s, I suspect I was too wrapped up in the tales themselves to give their actual titles much consideration. Curious as I was – and I was a curious child in every sense of the word – I took it on trust that a book called The Magic Finger would simply feature a digit with special powers. And indeed it did. Ditto with oversized fruit and someone called James in James and the Giant Peach. And I recall being mildly disappointed that the factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was not fashioned solely from chocolate. Now that literalism strikes me as peculiarly wonderful. And, in retrospect, it seems completely bound up in my enjoyment as a young boy of what was far and away my favourite Dahl title: Fantastic Mr Fox – a book that continues to colonize my consciousness, if in rather bastardized form.
    Wistful thoughts about simpler things lost are something of a given in recollections of childhood. A tingle in the cheeks that a long discontinued brand of pickled onion crisps used to bring. The feel of that brittle, almost chalky plastic once used for the hands on Action Man toys. For me this is the stuff that springs to mind, unwilled. Likewise, reflecting on my devotion to Fantastic Mr Fox makes me ache with envy at the innocent wonder I was capable of then.
    No single book was more exciting, more fantastic to me. And it really was fantastic rather than fantastical. That foxes could, and  indeed should, outwit a trio of ugly, miserly, murderous human farmers (the respectively fat, short and lean Boggis, Bunce and Bean) seemed perfectly reasonable. Any disbelief was not so much suspended as abandoned entirely in the face of the obvious moral rightness of the animals’ cause. (Dahl, while himself capable of some dubious to downright offensive ethical and political beliefs, nevertheless understood that to children fairness is a – possibly the – categorical imperative.)
    As a matter of fact, at that age I had never seen a live fox. I grew up in a village on the edge of the Sussex Downs. Cows, vast rustycoloured hulks, shuffled around a muddy field at the end of our road. To me their bovine peregrinations, aimless and masticatory, appeared disturbingly similar to those of the local pensioners: all loose false teeth endlessly working on Murray Mints as they headed, unsteadily, for the butcher’s on the high street. But no fox ever strayed into view or manifested its presence by doing over a dustbin or making off with a neighbour’s pet.
    Today, living in Hackney, constantly woken in the night by the screams of vulpine sexual congress, this seems to me almost unbelievable. I meet foxes wandering down the street three or four times a week, often in broad daylight. They are insouciant, if slightly bony and grey-gilled creatures. Their brushes are thin, their heads a tad oversized. The detritus from nearby takeaway outlets evidently forms a good part of their diet. But they are foxes nonetheless. Back then, as a youngster in Sussex, I had to make do with Basil Brush. And, of course, Fantastic Mr Fox.
    Returning to my copy of the book after a gap of over thirty years, its edges now browned like stewed tea, I find that Fox is not quite as rustic as I remember him. If anything, in 2009, he seems an advocate for advancing urbanization. Although in Jill Bennett’s charming original pen-and-ink illustrations – and one of the lovely things about the first paperback was the dominance of drawings on the front and back covers, with the blurb itself banished to an opening inner page – Fox, clad in waistcoat and neckerchief, could probably have stepped into the line-up of the Somerset folk-band the Wurzels with little trouble. (In Quentin Blake’s later illustrations from the 1990s, Fox’s garb remains much the same. But Blake’s more gleefully antic style makes it difficult to imagine him joining in with the Wurzels’ ‘I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester’ with quite the same ease.)
    To begin with, Fox’s thieving itself seems to reflect an interest in greater consumer choice. ‘Well my darling,’ he asks the wife, before setting out to pilfer, ‘what shall it be tonight?’ His question could easily have been lifted from a Meat Marketing Board advert from that era. And as Jeremy Treglown’s biography of Dahl reveals, in an early draft of the book, Fox tunnels to a supermarket in a nearby town and goes on a shoplifting spree (‘Grab a trolley,’ he instructs his offspring). In this version, it is the supermarket that is the Fox clan’s saviour. According to Treglown, the tale initially closed with Mr Fox assuring his wife that they would never go hungry again as they could simply swipe more stock the following night.
    Even in let-it-all-hang-out 1970, Dahl’s American publishers, Knopf, could not allow such blatant advocacy of larceny to stand. The solution Dahl readily adopted – that Fox, aided and abetted by Badger, would instead raid the storehouses of each of the three farmers staking out his den – was actually supplied by an in-house editor, Fabio Cohen. (Few of Dahl’s best-known children’s books, it emerges, didn’t benefit from substantial editorial interventions of one kind or another.)
    Such relationships between species naturally hold enormous appeal for kids, inclined as they are to view animals as interchangeable, living cuddly-toy friends. In fact it is not unknown for foxes to seek – and receive – shelter in badger sets. But Mother Nature is a harsh mistress and in the wild, hungry badgers will commonly mug passing foxes, using their greater physical bulk to relieve them of whatever kills they’ve made. Similarly, in the centuries before foxes gained a taste for Dixie Chicken Hot Wings, rabbits and weasels, dining guests at the grand feast that forms the concluding part of the tale, were staple fox fare. All of which would have made the kind of inter-animal working and dining partnerships the book imagines rather difficult to sustain.
    In my memory, though, that final gathering, almost Arthurian in its assertion of noble fellowship, with the animals eating heartily and toasting the fantastic Mr Fox with flagons of cider, was . . . well . . . totally believable. The farmers, meanwhile (stupid, stupid farmers), were left hanging around outside till the sky fell in. Typing this today, I can see that over the decades I may perhaps have grafted bits of the ending of George Orwell’s Animal Farm into the mix. However, one detail that I had completely forgotten was that since the beasts at the feast vow to make a fresh life among the tunnels, Dahl effectively condemns his creations to an eternity underground.
    And Fox, as the advocate of this new subterranean world order, comes across as, frankly, touched. (Or, arguably, touched by Dahl’s experience of working on the script of You Only Live Twice in 1967.) ‘We hate the outside. The outside is full of enemies,’ he declares, giving off a distinct whiff of paranoid Bond villain. ‘I therefore invite you all to stay here with me for ever . . . We will make a little underground village . . . And every day I will go shopping for you all. And every day we will eat like kings.’
    Since each of these trips will be to the farms of his erstwhile tormentors, and no exchange of goods or services will take place, he is clearly stealing rather than ‘shopping’. And while it may be nitpicking, I can’t help but see ‘long-term sustainability issues’, if you’ll forgive the jargon, in the Fox master plan.
    If, at the book’s close, Boggis, Bunce and Bean are spending every day and night outside Fox’s hole, ever vigilant, guns at the ready, who is looking after their farms? We can only presume that lesser minions have been entrusted with this task. But surely such minions, with less personal investment in the farms’ futures, would be less rapacious. Let’s face it, with those three almost permanently out of your hair, who wouldn’t slack off a bit? Essentially, without their tight-fisted mitts on the tiller, there is a high chance that each of the three businesses could go to rack and ruin.
    Here Fox too is at risk, since his Robin Hood-style enterprise depends on the farmers remaining on the ball, staying mean and greedy. That is what keeps the storerooms he raids full of goodies.
Without them, the whole ecosystem looks doomed, with Fox and Co. stealing from an ever dwindling pool of farmed resources.
    Perhaps this is what happened in the end. In a never-written sequel, we would have met Fox, or one of his descendants, some years down the line. Faced with increasingly bitter harvests, Fox, Badger and the gang would have had little option but to decamp to the city. Charting their progress, via picaresque scrapes with road-surfacing machines and knife-wielding gastropub chefs, this follow-up volume would no doubt show our heroes contentedly lapping at crushed cans of Diamond White and foraging for leftover potato wedges in the bins of, say, Stoke Newington. Fantastic, eh?
    No? Quite right. Fantastic Mr Fox is fantastic and a fantasy. It is a book that should be supped young; and then with age relished for all its charming oddities. For no matter how much one later forgets, like all classics, once read it remains truly unforgettable.

© Travis Elborough
Extracted from Slightly Foxed Issue 24, Winter 2009

Travis Elborough is the author of The Bus We Loved and
The Long-player Goodbye. His most recent book is London Bridge in America.

‘Like an elegant side-saddle lady of the chase, it’s quirky, very slim and extremely foxy’.
Country Life


Slightly Famous
People’s Foxes

Slightly Foxed is ten years old, and to mark the occasion our friends and supporters have put pencil to paper to create a gallery of vulpine characters you’d be astonished to find poking around your dustbins.

Featuring a riot of entirely original drawings by
 Quentin Blake, Ronald Blythe, Michael Holroyd, Kate Humble, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sam Mendes, Helen Mirren, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Dervla Murphy, Alexander McCall Smith, among others . . .

All profits will be donated to The Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street.

UK: £5
Overseas: £6.50

I have always thought of myself - and therefore of my subjects - as being ‘in life’, indeed books have always seemed to me a form of life, and not a distraction from it.

A Cab at the Door

The writer V. S. Pritchett ended his life crowned with honours, but he never forgot his working-class beginnings in London.  

Pritchett captures unforgettably the smells, sounds and voices of London in the first decades of the twentieth century, and the cast of Dickensian characters who made up his childhood world, from his austere Yorkshire grandparents, to the members of his father’s Christian Science church, and the employees and customers of the Bermondsey leather factor’s where he worked as a clerk until he made his getaway to Paris at the age of 20, determined to become a writer.

It’s impossible to sum up a book of such vigour and originality in a few words. It simply has to be read.

UK: £12
Europe: £14
RoW: £15

Almost sold out

Hand-grenade Practice in Peking

China in 1975 was a strange, undiscovered country, still half-mad from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when young Frances Wood boarded a plane in London to study for a year in Peking.Virtually closed to outsiders for the preceding decade, China was just beginning to make tentative moves towards the outside world when Frances and her fellow students were driven in an ancient coach through the dark silent countryside to their new quarters at the Foreign Languages Institute.

Throughout the following year in an extraordinary Alice-in-Wonderland world where ‘education’ consisted of shovelling rubble, hand-grenade practice, and cripplingly tedious ideological lectures, Frances never lost her sense of humour. Or indeed her fascination for the ancient civilization that lurked behind the Cultural Revolution’s grim façade. This memoir is a unique insight into a mysterious and painful moment in China’s history.

UK: £16
Europe: £18
RoW: £19

The second podcast from last year’s Slightly Foxed Readers’ Day features Quentin Blake, who describes how in recent years his illustrations have escaped on to the walls of hospitals, museums and other – sometimes unexpected – public spaces: an aspect of the life of one of our wittiest and most popular illustrators which featured in his recent book Beyond the Page.

You can listen to the podcast - with visuals from Quentin’s talk - on our website by clicking the image below. We do hope you’ll enjoy it.

We’ll be hosting our fourth Readers’ Day this November and plans are coming together. The event will be held at the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury on Friday 7 November and tickets for the day (including morning coffee and afternoon tea) cost £50.

The programme will be announced and tickets will go on sale next month.

Bookshop of the Quarter

We are delighted to introduce our Spring Bookshop of the Quarter, Cogito Books. This family-run award-winning independent bookshop in the bustling market town of Hexham in Northumberland is a perfect haven for booklovers. Passersby can venture in from the cobbled streets to browse the well-stocked bookshelves and settle down on a comfy sofa – or ease into the rocking chair – with a new book.

The friendly and very knowledgeable Claire Grint does a superb job of running the bookshop, organising a monthly book group, and putting on a whole host of exciting events. We are very much looking forward to heading to Hexham to hold forth at a Slightly Foxed event this summer (details to follow next month), and spending more time in this excellent bookshop.

We may even give the Cogito Reading Treat a go – a heavenly combination of tea, biscuits, and six books personally recommended by one of the booksellers. The perfect gift for a bookish friend or, even better, ourselves!

Cogito Books

Discover The Folio Society’s range of beautiful books

Now with £20 off your first order –a new special offer for Slightly Foxed readers.
For over 65 years The Folio Society has been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of the world's greatest books. Exceptional in content and craftsmanship and maintaining the very highest standards of fine book production, Folio Society editions are created to last for generations.
Go to and enter the code E20PG at the checkout to receive a £20 discount off your first purchase of any of  their titles*.
*Except those in the Limited Edition collection.

Completely Foxed

Ideal for those with a collector’s eye, ‘Completely Foxed’ is, as its name implies, a full set of Issues 1–40 of Slightly Foxed, a year’s subscription for 2014, and eleven slipcases to hold them all.

From our first cautious steps to the growing confidence of a decade in print, ‘Completely Foxed’ will extend across a bookshelf in an elegant arrangement of cream and grey.

If bought individually these would come to £612 including post & packing to the UK ; £711 to Europe and £755 to USA and Rest of World, but we’re offering a discount of more than £100 on the collection.

Issues 1–41 and 11 slipcases will be dispatched immediately, followed by Issues 42-44 throughout 2014.

UK: £499
Europe: £609
RoW: £653

Save over £100

We love to receive news, photos, and stories of our fox on his travels. In recent years he’s been spotted in places as far flung as Illinois, Shanghai, New York, Paris and even the Antarctic. 
This month the Fox has departed our overcast shores for a quiet, sun-dappled corner of the Itria Valley in Puglia.

Many thanks to Gillian Forlivesi for the photo. 

If you’ve taken the fox on an adventure, or spotted a foxed display in a bookshop, we’d love to hear about it, so send us a photo and a short description and keep an eye out for an appearance in our newsletter in due course.

For the full range of Slightly Foxed Editions, Paperbacks, Cubs and all things Slightly Foxed, please visit our online shop.

The RSL hosts regular talks, discussions and readings to which all Slightly Foxed readers are welcome. There are up to 30 tickets for non-RSL members at each event, which are sold on the door on a first-come-first-served basis from 6 p.m. for £8 (£5 concessions).

Highlights of the Royal Society of Literature’s spring season include:
24 April: Living with Shakespeare
Sir Richard Eyre, who ran the National Theatre from 1987 to 1997, reflects on the challenges and rewards of bringing Shakespeare’s  plays to stage and screen.
28 April: Auden and Us
Alexander McCall Smith and Edward Mendelson discuss what Auden has meant to them personally, and the ways in which he continues to speak to us more than forty years after his death.

21 May: On Tove Jansson
 To celebrate Jansson’s centenary, in a discussion chaired by Kate Kellaway, Ali Smith and Thomas Teal look at Jansson’s life and work, and the effect her characters have on readers of all ages.
26 May: Writing On The Wall
Cees Nooteboome, in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith, discusses his writing, his years in Berlin and other parts of Europe, and his reputation as a documenter of the world.
For more information and to book please call 020 7845 4678 or visit
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