Charlie Mackesy says famous friend inspired The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse

Sarah Barratt
·10-min read
Photo credit: David Loftus/Penguin Random House
Photo credit: David Loftus/Penguin Random House

From Red Online

His charming drawings and reassuring words have provided a warm embrace for many during the most uncertain of times. Here, artist and author Charlie Mackesy tells Red about his whirlwind year, his animal alter-egos and why, in the end, love will always triumph...

His tender tale of four ink-drawn wanderers sold more than 1m copies last year, never leaving the bestseller list and becoming the longest-running Sunday Times Number One non-fiction hardback of all time. But Charlie Mackesy isn’t all that bothered by the figures.

‘They couldn’t be less relevant,’ he says. ‘The only things that matter to me are the emails I get saying, “This book really helped me.”’ Let’s just say, he gets a lot of them.

Since it was published in late 2019, The Boy, The Mole,The Fox And The Horse has brought comfort and joy to a global community trying to make sense of a ‘new normal’ induced
by the pandemic. The illustrated account of four unlikely friends navigating a wild, beautiful and bewildering world became an instant classic, as appealing to nine-year-olds as it was to nonagenarians; it was the surprise smash hit of 2020.

Nobody was more astonished than Mackesy, who became a debut author with the book at the age of 56, and his bafflement is audible as we speak on the phone at the tail-end of a turbulent year. ‘There are so many levels of surprise,’ he says. ‘That I made the book; that people like it. I wake up each morning surprised.’

The book has been translated into 34 languages and read aloud by Oprah as part of Chicago Public Library’s virtual reading series, but the ‘great privilege’ of Mackesy’s life was learning that the NHS used one of his drawings as an internal screensaver.

‘I wept when I heard that,’ he says. ‘And nurses email me photographs of their wards with my drawings on the walls.’There is one, he tells me, that is particularly pervasive. It’s an image of a boy sitting on a horse beneath a rainbow and the text reads: ‘“What’s the best thing you’ve learned about storms?”asks the boy. “That they end,” the horse replies.’ It has been a source of hope to people all over the world.

Mackesy, now 58, has experienced his fair share of storms, both literal and metaphorical. While creating the book, he explains, he was plunged into darkness when the electricity in his home in Brixton, south London, stopped working. The entire house needed rewiring, but that would have meant halting the creative process. So he pressed on, creating more than 20,000 drawings with the use of only one working plug socket.

‘I hate to say it, but I had this strange sense of foreboding,’ he reflects now. ‘Things didn’t feel right to me and I knew we had to get it done.’ He had also recently lost a close friend, and his beloved dog, Dill, was dying. ‘I was very tired in the making of the book and felt more fragile than I’d ever felt. But being in the midst of a storm made me dig deeper and influenced the message: it was a warning shot across the bows that life is difficult,’ he says.

Born during a ‘cold snowy winter’ in Northumberland, to a naval architect father and stay-at-home mother, Mackesy was an introspective child who, sent to boarding school aged seven, took solace in nature. In the evenings, he’d run out to the hills to lie in the long grass and watch hares dart about in the moonlight. ‘It was far more interesting than watching Neighbours,’ he recalls. ‘Safety is in the animal world. You can trust them. I understood what they were about, but I didn’t quite understand people.’

He describes his boarding school experience as ‘difficult’ and, at 16, he absconded to the local state school, where he found a greater sense of belonging. But when he was 18, tragedy struck:his best friend was killed in a car accident. ‘I went a bit mad,’ he says.

He attempted university twice, leaving after a week each time, and instead travelled to America for three months, where he painted and drew. On returning, he worked as a cartoonist for The Spectator, later being taken on by art galleries in London and New York. From madness came creativity.

In truth, Mackesy’s success as an artist far pre-dates the publication of his bestselling book. He’s too modest to say so, of course, but the facts say otherwise. Collectors of his earlier work (dramatic paintings often inspired by the divine) include Sting and Whoopi Goldberg – and in 2006, he was selected among a handful of contemporary artists to collaborate with Nelson Mandela on ‘The Unity Series’– a collection of prints, overlaid with drawings, illustrating what Mandela meant to each artist.

As for his now-renowned animal characters, they arrived on the scene in early 2018, when Mackesy began posting drawings of them on social media. ‘People seemed to like them,’ he says humbly. Now, he has more than 1m Instagram followers, and below each of his posts sit hundreds of comments from adoring fans, ranging from the gushing: ‘I love this!’ to the heart-rending: ‘I lost my son to cancer, this means so much to me.’ – and it’s not uncommon to read the words: ‘This book saved my life.’

During signings, readers would often queue up to tell Mackesy why his work meant so much to them – inevitably resulting in tales of tragedy. ‘It would put me in a dark space for the whole day. But when you put your work into a public domain, there is a certain responsibility to respond to those who have had the courage to tell you their truth,’ he muses. ‘Now, when I reply to people, I try to find a way of being sincere while having
a boundary with my own emotions.’

Some days are more successful than others, he admits. ‘I feel and love too much. But if there was a red button you could press that would stop you from feeling, I would never press it because that’s not really living – to be human is to feel an awful lot.’

Human they may be, but Mackesy channels these emotions through his animal avatars. ‘Each character is a different part of me,’ he says, remembering something a therapist told him many years ago. ‘We’re all nine-tenths subconscious, and it’s always trying to speak, but we repress it. In creating the characters, mine was saying, ‘This is you.’ I’m still a boy who is naïve and has many questions; I’m a fox who’s been damaged and shies away from intimacy; there’s a wise horse in me – and a greedy mole who’s always trying to medicate himself with cake.’

In one poignant scene of his book, the mole tells the boy that he’s discovered something ‘even better’ than cake. ‘What is it?’ asks the boy. ‘A hug,’ comes the reply, ‘it lasts longer.’ Even over the phone, Mackesy is a discernible hugger. ‘I miss it,’ he says longingly. In lieu of the real thing, he’s been sketching hugs instead. ‘One day,’ he writes beneath each evocative embrace.

While his characters were breaking the laws of lockdown, meandering into the living rooms of total strangers, Mackesy was in Suffolk, staying close to his family and 90-year-old mum.

Photo credit: Comic Relief - Getty Images
Photo credit: Comic Relief - Getty Images

‘She has dementia but reads the book everyday,’ he says. To protect them, Mackesy endured a solitary year, even once lockdown measures were lifted. ‘I do miss my friends,’ he muses.‘It’s painful to know they’re struggling and to feel powerless except to call. None of us are islands. We’re all connected. We all have a shared sense of pain and suffering.’

In the days before his book was published, he would send drawings via WhatsApp to friends who were having a tough time.‘They were quite ruthless,’ he admits. ‘If I said something trite, like, “It’s all going to be okay,” they’d tell me to f*** off. That was good, because it kept me away from clichéd comments. It may not be okay, but what can we do in the midst of it not being okay? Well, we can love each other.’

With Richard Curtis among his closest companions, it’s small wonder that Mackesy is preoccupied with love. One of his ‘happiest times’, he says, was making drawings on
the set of 2003’s hit romcom Love Actually, which would later be auctioned off for Comic Relief. He loves the film, of course, especially the monologue at the beginning: Hugh Grant’s voice layered over a montage of passionate airport embraces, explaining that ‘love actually is all around’. ‘They’re Richard’s words,’ he reveals. ‘It really is how he sees the planet. He’d say exactly the same thing over a cup of tea.’

Conversations over a hot brew tend to be a source of inspiration for Mackesy these days. It was one such chat with another very good friend, Bear (Grylls, that is), that inspired his ubiquitous drawing about bravery. In it, the boy asks the horse what is the bravest thing he’s ever said. ‘Help,’ the horse replies.

Mackesy recalls:‘Bear and I were discussing climbing mountains and I thought,“That is very brave,” but for me, I think the bravest thing I ever did was to ask for help when I was feeling very low.’

When Mackesy was in his 30s, he says he experienced ‘an overwhelming sense of pain’ that he couldn’t understand, but believes that speaking to a professional helped him confront it. ‘The first time I saw a therapist,’ he explains, ‘I felt so naked. But it was a journey I’ll never regret.’

When Mackesy later released his illustration, requests rolled in from the Army, asking to use it to encourage traumatised soldiers to seek help. ‘That was another great privilege of my life,’ he says. ‘In our Western culture, particularly among men, we think it’s shameful or embarrassing to be open. I’ve lost friends to suicide and I know that if we knew how to really talk about what’s going on, some of them wouldn’t have died.’

At its core, he tells me, his book is actually a ‘journey into the minds of four friends’ learning how to connect. ‘It’s strange to think of these four being busy when I’m just at home,’ he adds. ‘They have a life of their own now. I’m not doing anything.’

I beg to differ. Mackesy spent last summer recording an audiobook of his tale in a barn, contending with a cacophony of lowing cattle and farmyard equipment. Still, the result is a soothing narrative, peppered with birdsong and the sound of footsteps crunching through snow.

His characters have even scuttled off the page to become animations, with a film adaptation recently announced. And soon, a fifth creature could be joining the ranks.

‘I’m intrigued by the idea of an elephant, in danger of extinction,’ he explains. ‘I wonder how it feels to know that there aren’t many of you left; to slowly disappear.’ He likens the feeling to growing old, recalling a conversation he had with an elderly woman, who said she ‘remembered the day she became invisible’.

As my time with Mackesy draws to a close, I ask him what the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse would have made of these past months. ‘I think they’d be quite wide-eyed,’ he replies.‘I’m not sure they would understand it,’ he muses. ‘But in their terms, they know all about it, they’ve hit storms. Their answer would be to love each other – and focus on the love rather than the fear of the storm.’ As we wait for our own clouds to clear, perhaps we could all take a leaf out of their book.

This interview with Charlie Mackesy originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Red. The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse is out now.

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