'Handsome' Islington fox inspires orchestral score

Gaspard the Fox and Zeb Soanes

Gaspard the Fox and Zeb Soanes - Credit: Zeb Soanes

A "handsome" Islington fox has inspired a trio of children's books and now an orchestral suite.

Gaspard sprang from the imagination of Radio 4 newsreader Zeb Soanes after a real life fox turned up regularly on his doorstep.

After collaborating with illustrator James Mayhew on two children's books; Gaspard The Fox and Gaspard Best In Show, Soanes has now penned a third adventure; Gaspard's Foxtrot.

This time he invited Hackney composer Jonathan Dove to set the story to music - a project inspired by Prokofiev's "symphonic fairytale" Peter and The Wolf. When pandemic restrictions lift, Soanes hopes to narrate his story live with the Docklands Sinfonia at The Barbican next year.

But before that there's a world premiere recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for 60,000 schoolchildren complete with puppetry and animation.

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"It's been an interesting creative process. Both James and I have a passion for music and sharing orchestral music with young children and said wouldn't it be good to combine the two. I contacted Jonathan Dove one of our greatest composers who has written a lot for children. He has always loved foxes and found them magical and said he would love to write about a fox as a central character.

"Because it was conceived as both a book and a concert, rather than the score being an afterthought  – the challenge was to write in a way that inspired both James’s illustrations and Jonathan to write wonderful music."

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The story sees Gaspard follow his dog friend Finty and owner Honey to a classical concert in Hyde Park where he is thrust centre stage when a familiar face steps out to lead the orchestra. The book includes an illustrated map of the London landmarks Gaspard spots from his red Routemaster.

The Shipping News reader adds: "I decided to take him on a musical journey. I try not to stretch the bounds of reality, the stories are based on a real fox and rooted in a real environment. Everything needs to be just plausible, so when I saw a photograph of a fox on the top floor of a sightseeing bus gazing out at London I thought 'you couldn't make this up'."

Gaspard's "fox's eye view of London" follows the route of the 38. "It's a gift it takes you from my home in Islington to Victoria. I put in the things I love on that route, the spire of St George's Bloomsbury, the James Smith Umbrella shop which used to sell dagger canes and swordsticks, and the clock of Fortnum and Masons. For this musical adventure Jonathan has created a tapestry of sound from the buzzing of bees and the roar of traffic to scurrying tube mice and polka-dancing pigeons."

Gaspard's Foxtrot is out on March 4 published by Graffeg Books

Gaspard's Foxtrot written by Zeb Soanes and illustrated by James Mayhew is out on March 4 published by Graffeg Books - Credit: Graffeg Books/James Mayhew

During their "three way collaboration" Dove asked Soanes for more "peril" so he added a line about Gaspard feeling homesick.

"Jonathan wrote a heart rending passage about him pining for Islington. When I first heard the music it was incredibly moving and brought tears to my eyes. Music creates such a visceral emotional response."

With concert halls closed he's delighted that Scottish children can hear the music and story free.

"It's been a labour of love for everyone and it's very much our hope that this narrative orchestral piece, written as a perfect half hour for children for the same instruments as Peter and the Wolf, will become a double bill with bite! With James on stage painting live and a full symphony orchestration, it's intended to make the concert hall experience exciting for children who might not otherwise visit one."

The fox who turned up on Zeb's doorstep turned out to be a vixen who showed him her cubs

The fox who turned up on Zeb's doorstep turned out to be a vixen who showed him her cubs - Credit: Courtesy of Zeb Soanes

As for the fox who haunted Soanes' doorstep, she turned out to be a vixen who led him through a hole in the fence to her den and showed him her cubs. It was too late to change Gaspard's gender, but last summer Soanes recorded YouTube videos and wrote a lockdown story 'Gaspard's Den'.

And he's been made a patron of the Mammal Society for his animal-friendly stories.

"It's redressing centuries old myths about foxes being cunning and sly, they are actually shy and wary of humans. As I see it they have as much right to share the city as we do. The wonderful thing about living in a city is sharing it with wildlife."

Gaspard's Foxtrot (£12.99) is published by Graffeg on March 4.

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