This is a true story about a zebra and a man…

by Anna Vaught, 26 September 2023

Have you ever wondered how far animals can communicate, if the sea can hear and if the landscape bears pain and loss? Our questions may be legion. Why was The Ark of the Covenant lodged, for a while, in a corner of south-west Wales? Why do Rhesus Monkeys have a fondness for oysters? And what do hummingbirds hum? Is it true there is an Ethiopian silver thaler in the mud of the upper Daugleddau estuary in Pembrokeshire? Why do fascists show off in planes and when fencing? And which London lemur had a deckchair? Why should the aristocracy hobnob with Nazis when we have plenty of home-grown monsters?

Then, who was Matthews the Monk? And was there really an Allied Operation Zebra? Can the hardest heart learn? Who was the big idea behind some of Dylan Thomas’s finest poems? And what has this to do with Kit Marlowe, a dog called Rex and a clutch of chinchillas?

SO many questions.

So, The Zebra and Lord Jones is a book of mysteries, riddles and jokes – a true story and just a hint of a shaggy-dog tale for fun; a joyful exploration of grief, landscape and the wars that men make, because that is what they do: they are still doing it now. A love story, an examination of wealth, class and privilege, of why most days it is better to be Welsh and why one lonely man stole an escaped zebra in September 1940.

You will meet many real people and discover true things, times and places, and yet the world tilts on its axis and you see strange and beautiful things from the corner of your eye. I hope you can feel the magic, taste what is in the air and enjoy the more… preternatural elements of the book. It is magical realism, after all, which is a wonderful medium for exploring dark, difficult things, for hinting at things which are difficult to express and for exploring what happens, generation after generation, through trauma: war; not being loved; being crushed and lonely, brutal, bitter and desperate, and handing it on.

I hope you find it a beautiful book, but it is also unforgiving and brutal in places, and I want you to read all the end material and then you will see who told you the story.

Let’s tell you some more about what happens. A listless toff, the Baron of Jesmond (known to you as Lord Jones – it’s all explained), is in London attending to insurance matters following potential damage to extensive family property during the Blitz. It is September 1940. He meets an escaped zebra (this is based on a true event, because when London Zoo was bombed, the zebra escaped, ran away and was commemorated in a painting, running against the flames – you can see the pictures and hear a bit more about this here on the BBC.

Little loved by his fascist sympathiser parents, something in the man softens: he is lost, as is the zebra. He is soon to be dispatched to south-west Wales, where the family has extensive property and stabling (the name Lord Jones is given to him by the mocking locals); the zebra follows him, and on impulse he takes it with him. He steals her. Or perhaps she steals him.

What then ensues is a new episode in Lord Jones’s life, with a zebra and her child in tow; he manages to fall in love passionately with the housekeeper Anwen Llewelyn, the natural world, finds himself at the centre of a spy ring, because locals are spying on the family knowing his parents to be fascist and Nazi sympathisers; he is further softened by interactions with local people and a young evacuee boy called Ernest and, extraordinarily, spends Christmas with Haile Selassie, who, in exile (also true) comes to attend the Ark of the Covenant which had been smuggled out of Abyssinia (as was) when Mussolini invaded. (This was a rumour – and it probably wasn’t in Wales.)

While the book sweeps from London, to Dunkirk, to Lake Ziway in Ethiopia, to Lisbon and Dresden, its focus is largely on a small corner of south-west Wales. Why? Because it is where the good things happen. I have recreated the home on the Daugleddau in Pembrokeshire where my grandmother and great-grandmother lived – itself full of magic and storytelling and mystery. The story is an account of all this and of the lives of Lord Jones and Anwen Llewelyn and the love story which unfolds; of spy plots and an international spy investigation involving zebra keepers; of war, loss and grief. An account of real events and people – Mosley, the Mitfords, Hitler, Goebbels, Haile Selassie and several others – plus the true story of the zebra and that tiny quay on the Cleddau in Pembrokeshire. To me, this was always where the magic started; so I made it a book where miracles and cold facts met, shook hands, became friends – overseen by a zebra or two.

I hope you like the sound of the book. It’s a sweeping love story, a curiosity, an engaging fable, but at its heart it holds tough facts about the ravages of landscape, fascism, war, class, tolerance and prejudice, trauma and intergenerational trauma, colonisation and the suppression of indigenous culture. It’s playful, keeps you guessing, and it gave me the chance to live with my own grief and heartbreak – I wrote it often during the night, so you see, it was made in difficult circumstances – and it has a special touch of nerdiness in its scholarly footnotes and end material, and I hope readers love it.

One more thing: the zebra. She is real, and she did indeed escape from London Zoo when her enclosure took a direct hit during the Blitz. I first saw her in Carel Weight’s Escape of the Zebra from the Zoo during an Air Raid, 1941.* THERE is the very zebra the book is about! Now, in the papers it says she only got as far as Camden – but what did they know?

Ten Questions for book groups

  1. Why is Mother important to Lord Jones, and why is he important to her?
  2. What is your opinion of Earl Ashburn and Lady Ashburn? Did you expect — or hope! — that they would change in some way?
  3. How important is the theme of landscape in the book?
  4. Do you feel differently about zebras having read the book?
  5. Did you think the zebras would be given her back to London Zoo?
  6. How much of this is true? What about the footnotes?
  7. Who was the narrator? Why do you think that?
  8. What were your favourite scenes, and which were least satisfying for you?
  9. Is it a convincing love-match between Anwen and Lord Jones?
  10. Did you enjoy the way that the book wove in real history with magical realism (see point 6)?


* For copyright reasons we can’t include the picture(s) here, but you can see them, and hear a bit more about that story, here on the BBC.



Paperback, 224pp

ISBN: 9781804470367



A listless aristocrat, Lord Jones, finds himself in London during the Blitz, attending to insurance matters. A zebra and her foal, having escaped from the London Zoo during a bombing, cross his path, and he decides to take them back to his estate in Pembrokeshire. Little loved by his fascist-sympathiser parents, something in Lord Jones softens, and he realises he is lost, just like these zebras.

The arrival of the zebras sparks a new lease of life on the Pembrokeshire estate, and it is not only Lord Jones but the families his dynasty has displaced that benefit from the transformation. Full of heart and mischief, The Zebra and Lord Jones is a hopeful exploration of class, wealth and privilege, grief, colonialism, the landscape, the wars that men make, the families we find for ourselves, and why one lonely man stole a zebra in September 1940 – or perhaps why she stole him.

‘I loved The Zebra and Lord Jones – it’s quirky, touching, original and heartfelt; a real breath of fresh air in the publishing landscape.’ — Joanne Harris