A Brush with the Law

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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 rusty-coloured 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.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © Travis Elborough 2009

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