The Hillingdon Fox

The Hillingdon Fox was a novel for teenagers published by Turton & Chambers in 1993 (a short-lived but much admired Anglo-Australian firm run by Aidan Chambers and bookseller David Turton), and in mass market paperback in Penguin’s Plus series in 1993. An educational edition was later released by Longman. This article was written for the Australian magazine, Rippa Reading.

About three years ago I was standing, one summer’s day, outside the school where my friend Alan used to teach. I was admiring the roses in a flower bed in front of the building. ‘You know,’ Alan said, ‘there’s a time capsule buried under them.’

‘Under the roses?’

‘Yes. It was meant to be there for seven years, but unfortunately it’s already been dug up twice by accident; the gas board and the water authority. We’re just waiting for the electricity board to come and unearth it for a third time.’

I said, ‘There’s a story in that. If I ever use it, I’ll dedicate the book to you.’

As so often happens with a good idea, it was a long while before I knew what to do with it. A few months later I was asked by Aidan Chambers if I would write a book for his new publishing company and a year after that, when it was time to begin thinking about what I would write, I knew that I was at last going to use the time capsule. The question was, how was I going to use it?

Clearly, a plot based upon a time capsule that resurfaces too soon would be full of possibilities, but the time scale needed to be changed. The original capsule was intended to be retrieved by the people who had buried it (they wanted to see, when they left school, what they had been like as children) but maximum embarrassment could arise if the thing were to contain material that was not meant to see the light of day until far into the future – say in a hundred years – and yet reappeared far too early. What could people have concealed that they would not want revealed in their own lifetime?

Then I realized that as well as seeing the time capsule dug up, we needed to see it being buried, too. I do not much like writing in the diary form but I began to see that not only might the capsule contain a diary, but that half of the book should be the diary itself, written by someone who intended to place it in the capsule. The other half of the book, then, would be the diary of someone now responsible for retrieving it. These people ought to be linked in some way – brothers … And the diaries ought to appear alternately throughout the story, so that the reader would see two sets of events happening, as it were, at the same time, although many years apart.

I had the layout, I had a theme, I was even beginning to envision some of the characters. I still didn’t have a story. Many a good idea goes down the drain through lack of that small detail. The book was promised to Aidan in early 1991, so I was planning to begin the first draft in late summer, 1990. Then I had a brainwave. I would keep the second diary myself, a genuine day-to-day record of real events covering one month. I was due to fly to Canada for three weeks on September 16; right, I would begin writing on August 16. I reckoned that as soon as I got going the rest of the story would fall into place and it did.

At the end of July President Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Kuwait and suddenly half the world seemed to be on a war footing. I saw that the earlier part of the book, the first diary, must also be about a war, and so that diary is kept for a month during the spring of 1982, when the UK went to war with Argentina, over the invasion of the Falkland Islands.

After that there followed a period of intensive research; accuracy was going to be all important, and yet the heart of the book was neither the Gulf War nor the Falklands War but a certain fox that I had seen one May morning in 1987, lying dead by the roadside in Hillingdon, on the way to London. It was the fox that gave me the title – and, in a way, the plot.

None of this really tells you much about the book itself, but if you ever wonder where authors get their plots from, this is a fairly representative example of where I get mine. And if you also wonder about those dedications at the front of books – well, this is one of the reasons why. Look in The Hillingdon Fox and you’ll see that I kept my promise to Alan.