A time for tales of survival


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Not long ago, a friend told me she was having problems with foxes in her garden. Having taken over a rotted tree trunk as a ‘breeding earth’, or den, they were making a nuisance of themselves.

My friend lives in Kilburn, in north-west London, but her experience is common to neighbourhoods across the city, the well-kept and the grubby. Foxes find easier pickings in cities than they do in the countryside: they are endlessly adaptable, and the more that we, as humans, opt to live in cities, the more foxes do too.

Visiting my friend, I had seen those foxes cavorting in the sun, snapping at fresh green blades of grass, charming but pesky. The fox situation came at a difficult time for her, when she had other things to be worrying about, and something about this unsought dilemma of what to do about those foxes captured my imagination. 

It was the spark for the title story of my collection of short stories, In the Time of Foxes. It seemed fitting, because even before then foxes had been popping up, unbidden, in the stories I was writing. 

One appeared in a story set on a sheep station in the Australian high country. I had also written a fox reference into a story about a young woman fleeing a cult — this story drew on Japanese folk tales about kitsune, shapeshifting fox spirits.

So the fox became a sort of spirit animal for the book. All the stories take an interest in the arts of survival. This is, of course, a very fox-like quality. Foxes are an extraordinarily successful species. Aside from humans, they are the land mammal with the greatest geographical spread of habitats. They are furry conquistadors, taking up residence wherever people build towns and cities.

I think this is why we have so many myths, folk tales and fables about foxes — because human and fox worlds have for so long overlapped. 

There is the old adage that, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ — a quotation from the Greek poet Archilochus. In my book, this idea is tested in the story ‘Animal Behaviour’, about two animal rights activists with a dangerous secret. 

The fact that foxes live where we live — that they live among us — is part of the fascination. This is something that the London author Jon Day touched on in Homing, his book about raising and racing pigeons. Pigeons are feral rather than wild birds, and not especially romantic. This makes them, writes Day, ‘what biologists call ‘synanthropes’: creatures that live alongside rather than apart from us, thriving in the environments human beings have created for themselves.’ 

Foxes fall into this category, especially in Australia, where they are an introduced species (and therefore doubly feral).

And perhaps the arts of survival — of reinvention, shapeshifting, adaptation — all have something a bit feral about them. They’re scrappy skills, backed-into-a-corner skills. 

The stories in the book unfold in far-flung settings — from Wollongong to Moscow, the Atlantic coast of Spain to a future colony on Mars — but they’re all concerned in some way with attempts at survival, large or small. This makes them very human stories, from the film director in Hackney with a fox problem in her garden, to the English tutor who gets too close to an oligarch, to the freelance journalist on Mars coming face-to-face with his fate.

My hope for the book is that it makes for a compelling read while saying something about the times in which we live — that it speaks to our potential for adaptation and reinvention, capacities which, as it turns out, we need more than ever. 

Because right now we could do worse than have the fox as our spirit animal.