“The 'why' is ultimately to love and be loved. The end of all things has to be about love. But there’s a lostness in us at the moment. It’s the barrenness of it all,” Charlie Mackesy says.
The artist and bestselling author is speaking to Campaign on a miserable day just before England is plunged into another lockdown due to Covid-19. It has been a bleak year. But for many, Mackesy’s simple drawings and quiet musings on vulnerability, friendship and overcoming adversity have been a rare ray of sunshine.
Mackesy released his book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse in October 2019. The collection of drawings and conversations between the four titular characters was an instant bestseller, sparking comparisons with Winnie the Pooh and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
The book rose to even greater prominence during lockdown in March this year. Mackesy's comforting sketches were the perfect balm for a nation undergoing collective trauma. It was number one in The Sunday Times bestseller list for most of lockdown, making it the newspaper’s longest-running number-one hardback of all time. It has sold 1.3 million copies to date. It has also generated international attention, not least with Oprah Winfrey choosing to read the book for a Chicago Public Library video series.
Mackesy has a cult following on Instagram – his posts regularly receive 60,000 “likes” and hundreds of heartfelt comments. His work has been credited with helping children who are being bullied, comforting people going through cancer treatment and preventing people from committing suicide.
“When we made the book in the summer of 2019, we had no idea what was to come. But we all felt a strange sense of urgency around getting it done in time,” Mackesy says. He and his publishing team were up all night in July and August trying to finish it. He is still surprised by its success: “I’m like a rabbit in the headlights. I really, really don’t understand any of this. I’m enjoying it, in a tired sort of way.”
During lockdown, people have sent his drawings to each other. Hospitals have displayed them in wards. Schools have enlarged them and stuck them on their windows. The Army is using them on internal emails. They have appeared on the sides of cafes, Transport For London’s service information boards and even become tattoos. “I get sent pictures of lamp posts in Sydney, Brisbane and LA, with my drawings stuck to them, telling people these are reasons to keep going. I just cry when I see that,” he says.
A sense of being lost
These are certainly strange times. Mackesy is concerned about the impact of the current social barrenness on our long-term mental health and relationships. “Connection is the answer to most things in life but we’ve been forced to disconnect. We are constantly assessing the distance between us. The inevitable outcome is a sense of being lost. This will perpetuate in our minds and behaviour long after a vaccine arrives. We have to have a language to talk about that,” he says.
In particular, he is worried about the long-term impact on children. This is why he agreed to work with Public Health England and a coalition of charities, including Barnardo’s, Place2Be and Young Minds, on the latest ad for mental-health platform Every Mind Matters. The spot features bespoke illustrations from Mackesy and celebrity parents, including Davina McCall, Katie Piper and Edith Bowman, reading lines from his book. The campaign was created by Freuds, Manning Gottlieb OMD, M&C Saatchi and Wavemaker, and included PR, radio, press and social activity.
It aimed to encourage children to talk about their feelings after research from Barnardo’s found that 41% of children and young people are lonelier than before lockdown, 38% said they were more worried, 37% more sad and 34% more stressed. Meanwhile, PHE research found that 69% of parents said their child’s behaviour has changed since the start of the pandemic and 52% said the mental wellbeing of their children has been one of their biggest worries.
Mackesy has seen this anxiety in the thousands of messages he receives from his more than 700,000 followers on Instagram. A recent message was from a mother whose school-age child is permanently terrified of getting sick, constantly washing her hands and checking to see whether she has a temperature. “I just said I hope she’s able to talk to you about it, because the only way out of it is for her to have a language to express her feelings. If you can talk about it, it’s a journey into feeling less like you do,” he says.
He adds: “Doing the ad was special to me, because if it helps someone have the courage to talk about what they feel now as a child, in 25 years they may be happier for it. When we invest in children and their mental health, it’s not just for now, it’s forever.”
‘I suffered in silence’
Mackesy’s passion for this subject is born out of his own difficult experiences, first of which was being sent to Radley College. “I went through trauma when I was at boarding school,” he says. “I suffered in silence. You weren’t encouraged to talk about what you felt. That’s the reason I feel so passionately about this. Had I been able to talk about it, my life would have been very different.”
He lost his best friend in a car crash when he was 18, which had a powerful impact on him. In part, drawing became his way out of the grief.
He adds: “I’ve lost six good friends to suicide. I often think about them. We were all just mucking on through life. I wonder now what we could have done or how life could have been different for them.
“The guys didn’t have a way of talking about what they really felt. I think deep down that’s why I did the book. I wanted to show that an admittance of weakness is not a failure, it’s the most courageous thing you can do. Asking for help isn’t giving up, it’s refusing to give up.”
It’s a message that has clearly resonated with the general public. It was his drawing of this thought – something sparked by a conversation with his friend Bear Grylls about the nature of courage – that prompted a huge response on social media and began his journey to writing the book.
A surprisingly showbiz background
The book may be his most high-profile work yet, but Mackesy, 58, was already a well-established artist before it was published. He started out as a cartoonist for The Spectator and an illustrator for Oxford University Press. He has exhibited his work in galleries internationally and sold pieces to high-profile figures, including the Hollywood actor Whoopi Goldberg. He made drawings on the film set of Love Actually so they could be auctioned for Comic Relief and has produced lithographs with Nelson Mandela.
Mackesy is well connected. His close friends include the high-profile PR Matthew Freud (Mackesy was his best man), film writer and director Richard Curtis and broadcaster Emma Freud, adventurer Bear Grylls and actor Miranda Hart. The pictures he drew for another friend, actor Carey Mulligan, were credited with helping her to overcome stage fright. During a TED talk he describes meeting the Queen and the Queen Mother at a party.
But you would never guess this from speaking to him. When he appeared on Chris Evans’ radio show to promote the book last November, Evans said that despite knowing Mackesy for years, he has never known what he does. That’s not hard to imagine. Mackesy is unassuming, warm and has a gentle manner. He speaks quietly and skips small-talk for deep conversation, with a voice as soothing as the book. His lack of artifice means his words sound heartfelt and avoid appearing saccharine.
‘He was the wisest creature I knew’
The seeds of his book’s characters were sown in his rural upbringing on a farm in Northumberland. “I had an old horse that I didn’t really ride, but I just loved his soft nose. I used to go and chat to him after school and he was very, very calm. He had a great smell. He was the wisest creature, including humans, that I knew,” he says. He was also a huge fan of the children's book The Wind in the Willows, which features a mole.
The four characters from Mackesy's book are all different elements of himself and, he says, humans in general: the shy, suspicious fox, the hedonistic mole, the boy who just wants to know things and the wise horse.
Mackesy believes he is most like the boy, because he has always questioned things. It is only recently that he believes he has found his answer. “The ‘why’ is ultimately to love and be loved. That’s the end of the journey, the end of all things has to be about love,” he says.
During his childhood he spent time with old sheep farmers who lived in cottages near his house. “We’d often just sit for long periods of silence drinking tea and staring at the fire. When I was worried about things at school, they’d always have a gracious answer to it all. That kind, gentle wisdom had a big influence on me,” he says.
He believes that we could all learn from the sheep farmers’ simpler life that you don’t need much to be happy: “You can take deep pleasure in just looking at a leaf. All of heaven is in a leaf.” But in our rushed lives we forget this.
“Strangely, I think often existence is a journey into forgetting the wonder you had at the start. I used to be so full of wonder when I was four. I would stare at a beetle and think it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Now I just go, ‘Oh, it’s a beetle’”, he says.
“I remember my dad telling me his taste buds had been numbed because he ate so much mustard. In a way, that’s what can happen to you,” he adds.
‘The show must stop’
One of the big messages in the book is the importance of self-acceptance and being kind to yourself. He says we need to help each other to do this, particularly in our culture that venerates achievement. Some of his friends’ self-worth have plummeted over lockdown, because “they can’t find anything to hold on to to say what they’ve done”, he says.
“I just tell them, ‘You’re my friend. I don’t care whether you earn a quarter of a million a year or if you have a PHD in hermeneutics – who gives a shit?’ No-one really cares how rich or successful you are, deep down they only really feel am I loved here or not? That’s what really matters,” he says.
He believes friendship, which is another strong theme in his book, is important because it allows us to share feelings. “If we can be honest about our struggles, we will liberate others to talk about them. But in our society we’re so proud. One of the worst sentences I’ve ever heard is: ‘The show must go on.’ The show must stop and honesty has to start,” he says.
Despite social media sparking his book’s success, he believes it can be a toxic force. The problem, he says, is that there is “so much show”. Individuals try to compete with the highly curated “perfect” lives of others and then feel inadequate.
“We get on this treadmill of a conditional approach to existence. Boys look at pictures of those with six-packs and think, ‘I’ve just got an ordinary tummy, therefore I can’t be loved.’ We have to do something about that,” he says.
His antidote to this is to focus on what you have achieved. “Rather than criticising yourself for not having done enough, look at what you’ve already done,” he says.
‘Keep your spirit alive’
Mackesy can’t remember a time when he hasn’t drawn. He has tried other creative pursuits, including acting, making bronzes and producing large paintings. “But for me, making marks on paper is where it all begins and ends. I’m a bit of a luddite. I like things that you can spill and you can’t delete with a click of a button. I like the texture of paper, the different types of fluidity in ink. I like things that exist,” he says.
He adds: “It’s quite a childlike thing to create anything, so it’s important not to lose the love of it. Most good art comes from deep emotion or some sort of liveliness in the spirit. You need to do things that give you pleasure and keep your spirit alive.”
A brief flirtation with adland
Mackesy had a brief flirtation with adland when he was much younger. He used to read Campaign when he was 21 because he wanted to work in the industry. He studied creativity at the Watford Course. “It was truly brilliant. It was a lot to do with the psychology of what we want and need and how we respond to our environment. Ever since then, I view ads from their perspective: 'Ah, you’d get a D for that,'" he says.
Although he didn’t end up staying in the industry – he spent three weeks at a graphic design studio and then “ran away” – he still finds the concept of advertising really interesting and believes there are parallels with the work he does now.
“Art, like advertising, has the power to sway people in any direction you want, for good or bad. Simple drawings can affect someone quite deeply. It’s odd that you can make marks on paper and change a life,” he says.
What comes next
Mackesy splits his time between Brixton and Suffolk. In Brixton he has a standing desk, a mountain of paper and gallons of ink to make his drawings – there are about 50,000 scattered throughout the house. “It’s a five-bedroom house but there are only two rooms that are really functioning because the rest are full of drawings. It’s insane. You either love it or hate it. I don’t mind what you think, it’s just the way it is,” he says.
For every drawing that made it into the book, there are 10,000 drawings that were omitted. “It took a lot of work to keep it simple. The real energy was in stripping it bare,” he says.
Mackesy has not yet decided whether to write another book with the same characters. He is going to wait and see whether he finds a body of work “that would be happy as a book” – perhaps his drawings over the lockdown period. But he is working on a film adaptation of the original book, and the audiobook version he recorded was released last week.
He is currently residing in Suffolk to be close to his mother. He draws cartoons to cheer her up, many of which are displayed on the walls of her cottage. He says he’d like to do a book called “Cartoons for my mum”, which collects some of these together and perhaps raises money for a charity helping those with dementia.
As an established artist, one of the freeing aspects of his book’s success is that his work is no longer being measured mainly in financial terms. “Galleries just want to know the price – they either sell prints or originals. It’s all really financially motivated,” he says. Creating the book was never a financial exercise, so he is excited by this new appreciation of his work as people rip out pages of his book, photocopy or print them for free or just comment on social media.
He says: “I’m thrilled my book is helping people, particularly nurses. We pay them nothing to do such a beautiful job, but they can print out my drawings and stick them on their walls for the price of a piece of paper. I’ll die happy knowing that happened.”
Main image: David Loftus
In text images: Excerpts from "The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse" by Charlie Mackesy