The book, the fox, and the newshound
- Credit: Archant
BBC presenter Zeb Soanes launches children’s books series inspired by his close-up encounter with an Islington fox
Since January last year, an unlikely friendship has been blossoming in Islington: between an urban fox and a BBC newsreader. Zeb Soanes discovered the injured vixen outside his home and fed her until she was well - wafer-thin ham at first, although she now has a penchant for parmesan cheese. A powerful bond formed between the pair while she slowly recovered, and the fox now stops by almost every day to see the man who once cared for her.
Soanes, who is a well-known voice on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme, Shipping Forecast and The News Quiz, named the fox Gaspard. She has since been the inspiration for his upcoming series of children’s books - illustrated by James Mayhew - that bring the city-dwelling creatures to life for younger readers. The first in the three-part series will be published on May 17, entitled Gaspard the Fox.
“She knows the sound of my bicycle and will appear while I’m on my way home and follow me back to the house - where we’ll just sit on the front step and watch the world go by. She might not come tomorrow, so I don’t take it for granted,” Soanes said. “She’s enchanting, quizzical and curious. There is a grace and calmness about Gaspard.”
Soanes explained that when it came down to writing the books, deciding on characters was relatively straightforward as he took inspiration from the other animals that appeared in his garden. There’s Peter the “superior cat” - a haughty character who uses big words in the stories. Finty, a friend’s dog, who is an adventurous and go-getting small Jackapoo (Jack Russell and Poodle crossbreed) as well as Gaspard the fox.
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After visiting the Angel Canal Festival, Soanes decided that it would be the ideal setting for the first book: “there’s the opportunity for contact with humans and the danger of the canal.” In the tale, Gaspard sets out with friends Peter and Finty on a summer evening in search of adventure and supper but ends up falling into the canal. “It’s a story about friendship and being liked for who you are, themes that will run through all the books,” Soanes explained.
The long-time Islington resident began sharing photos of his nightly visits from Gaspard online last year, describing her as ‘the handsomest fox in London’. As her story captivated people far and wide, the fox began to receive letters from children all over the world. She is quickly becoming popular on social media, with her Twitter page attracting nearly 5,000 followers to date.
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“My experience with Gaspard has brought me closer to my neighbours, and created connections with complete strangers who are fascinated by her story. When she introduced me to her cubs it was a heart-stoppingly special moment. I hope this book series will help children better understand foxes and their fascinating lives,” Soanes said.
“Foxes have a reputation of being cunning which dates back to fairytales and early writings. It’s true that they’re very resourceful and opportunistic but they do have this wicked reputation. In the back of the book I’ve included natural history facts about them. They’re natural diet is small mammals, like rats, snails and worms - so it’s not the case that they just rubbish.”
He added: “People talk about getting rid of foxes, but London would actually have an enormous rat problem if we did.”
Soanes’ background is in drama and creative arts, having studied at the University of East Anglia before moving from Suffolk to London to join the BBC as an announcer - then later as a presenter and newsreader. After spending years working on factual programming, such as The Proms and documentaries, Soanes said he is happy to be working on a new creative project: “It’s been lovely to move back to fictional work.”
Soanes and Gaspard The Fox illustrator James Mayhew will be making a number of appearances at festivals and events across the UK and will perform a reading of the story at Angel Canal Festival - where the book is set - in September.