The man who made friends with a fox
Zeb Soanes and a preview of Lavenham Children’s Literary Festival
When reporters for a national newspaper discovered that BBC radio presenter Zeb Soanes was encouraging an urban fox in the fashionable area of London where he lived, they dedicated two pages to ‘exposing’ his behaviour. But instead of being outraged, the neighbourhood rallied round and Zeb scored a book deal.
The result, Gaspard the Fox, is a charming, humorous, children’s story about friendship and kindness, celebrating foxes and their friends in the city. Zeb, who was born and grew up in Lowestoft, is a familiar voice reading the news on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Six O’Clock News, The News Quiz and The Shipping Forecast.
“I discovered the fox one day when I came home from work,” he says. “It seemed to be struggling with a bad leg, so I saw what was in the fridge and gave it some ham. It slowly got better but it continued to visit. It was strikingly beautiful, so I took pictures and put them on Twitter. Suddenly people all over the world were responding.” Zeb was inspired to devise a series of adventures for the fox, turning to his theatrical training and his love of words to tell the story, and enlisting another Suffolk boy, award-winning illustrator James Mayhew, to create the pictures.
“I hadn’t written anything for children before,” he says. “I just wrote the story I wanted to tell in the hope that it would strike the right note. I didn’t think about the age group, or checking for appropriate vocabulary.”
Zeb studied drama and creative writing
at UEA, where one of his tutors was the poet laureate, Andrew Motion. After graduating, he worked as an actor and freelance at Radio Norfolk, eventually joining the BBC in London. “I always loved Radio 4 when I was a student and I’d be cooking to The Archers. As a touring actor, I’d go to sleep on a floor somewhere, listening to The Shipping Forecast on a transistor radio, never thinking I would end up doing it. My grandmother’s family here are all fishermen and it is true public service broadcasting – life and death information.
“In radio, words are my trade. If you don’t say something, it doesn’t exist. But I’ve learnt, in writing Gaspard, that I can use James to describe things. I don’t need to say what colour the door is, for example, because the pictures do that. It’s been fun working together.” James’ illustrations have an elegant, nostalgic tone, and he says working on the book, being able to draw from life, has been a fresh experience.
“Most of my books have magical things happening in the stories,” he says. His Katie books, for which he is best known, were first published 30 years ago and tell of the adventures of a young girl stepping into the scenes of paintings at The National Gallery.
“But Gaspard is a story rooted in the real world. It gave me an opportunity I’ve never had before, which is to build something from real observation, going to real locations, seeing real foxes.” James and Zeb are keen to tell children the facts about foxes. They have visited schools, libraries, bookshops and festivals all over the country with the story of Gaspard, and will be at the Lavenham Children’s Festival in November. Travelling has given them an opportunity to compare memories of their Suffolk childhoods.
“My memories of growing up in Suffolk are halcyon,” says Zeb. “It could have been a 1950s rather than a 1970s upbringing. It was very Swallows and Amazons with lots of outdoor play. Our parents would leave us to our own devices, knowing that we would be back in time for tea at six.”
“I lived in Blundeston, a small village with just one bus a week to Lowestoft,” says James, “so I cycled everywhere. I’d go to the marshes outside Blundeston and I’d take an easel and oil paints. It was wonderful for me to have all that space and time to go off and explore, and imagine and dream, and draw.”
Collaborating on the book has enabled the friendship between author and illustrator to grow. “We’ve come to realise how many connections we have,” says James. “We both went to the same school in Lowestoft, the same library. We’ve grown up with the same books. We like the same illustrators, and aesthetics for children’s books.” Anyone who enjoys the adventures of Gaspard the Fox will hope this meeting of minds and talents has a long and fruitful future. N
Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew will be talking about Gaspard the Fox (published by Graffeg) at Lavenham Children’s Festival on Sunday October, 21. lavenhamliteraryfestival.co.uk
Zeb Soanes and Gaspard in London
Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew
Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew at Southwold Books