Style of Wight caught up with Charlie Mackesy just before the publication of his new book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse: illustrations on the nature of life, love and friendship
By Jo Macaulay
One of Charlie’s best friends lived on the island and as a boy he would stay with him. “We used to swim in the sea and muck about and climb trees. It was lovely. I love the Isle of Wight, it’s gorgeous, and has an ‘other worldliness’ about it, which I like as you can clearly see from my books; it’s what the book is. It’s a very natural place, I like the ocean and it’s surrounded by it,” explains Charlie.
Style: How did you get the idea to begin these new illustrations with words – a departure from your previous work?
Charlie: The first drawing was ‘Kind’. I was with lovely Bear Grylls, one of my oldest friends. We were mucking around in a tree and his son was on a precariously thin branch and he was chatting to us. I thought it was a great place to do a drawing of someone sitting on a branch, asking questions, so I drew him. Then with the words, we were asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and I was thinking about the idea of kindness, so I just wrote ‘Kind’. That was probably the first conversation they had.
Style: Who came first? Was it the cake-loving mole? Or was it one of the others?
Charlie: The boy and the mole. It’s very difficult to explain why these things happen, they just do! The mole is quite comical, particularly his hunger; it’s important to me to have lightness in a book, to have real honesty. While you’re discussing big things it’s important to have funny things with it. It seems right that the mole is always interrupting their profound conversations with his desire for cake.
Style: How did you decide upon the animals? Can you tell us a bit about how they evolved?
Charlie: I’ve always drawn horses, I’ve always loved moles, and in my years of illustration I’ve drawn all of them in different guises for other people. Then I just decided to do them for myself and put them all together. The boy and the horse I’ve drawn as a subject for years and years. Funnily enough the fox is one of the animals I’ve drawn least and a good friend of mine, Scarlett Curtis, wanted a tattoo made of a fox and came to my studio one day and asked if I could draw her a fox. So I drew lots of foxes in various guises: standing, running, sitting. Then eventually I drew him next to the boy and thought it was an unlikely combination to see a boy sitting with a fox, because as a boy I was always terrified of foxes, they always represented fear, and I wanted a creature that was fearful in amongst all the cuteness.
Style: And what parts of you, and all of us, does each of them represent?
Charlie: The boy represents the bit of me that wants to know why we’re alive and what we’re meant to be doing and doesn’t really know much. The mole is me, always hungry, thinks I’m clever but I’m not, thinks I’m wise but I’m not, always wants to eat stuff. The fox is, like I suppose we all are, hurt in some way; it’s the bit of me that’s quite withdrawn, fearful of trusting. The horse is the bit of me, which everyone has, which is the slightly wiser, spiritual side, but also vulnerable. So they all represent different parts of us, or me.
Style: Do animals have a special place in your heart and why?
Charlie: Hugely so. You can trust them, you can deeply love an animal and yet they’ve never said a word to you, which says a lot for silence. There’s a purity to animals that human beings seem to have lost; they haven’t wrecked the planet for instance. We have so much to learn from them. I think being brought up on a farm I spent a lot of time with dogs and sheep and horses and cats and rabbits and you name it, wildlife. I spent huge amounts of time in the evenings not watching television but sitting on the hillside just staring. Every night I’d walk for miles across the Northumbrian hillside, just watching badgers walk across the field or watching foxes chase rabbits. All of it fascinated me, a bit more than people did if I’m honest, that whole world, it was a world you could enter and be part of.
Style: I think you have a lot of questions about life, as do we all. Is your book an attempt to answer those questions?
Charlie: I don’t know whether it’s an attempt to answer them, it’s an attempt to stimulate the conversation around them. I’m not a great one for saying this is the answer. I do think that love is a good purpose, and meaning is found in having a purpose, and I think our ultimate purpose is to love and be loved. The reason why the book has big gaps is for the reader to pause and think and hopefully fill in bits themselves. For instance, the drawing where the mole says, ‘I think everyone is just trying to get home’, well what is home? Where is home? Why do I think that? I like the idea that it makes us think. But I’m not a great one for saying this is the answer.
Style: Are you trying to tell the readers something about love?
Maybe that love is just as important and just as successful, even more successful, than any other kind of success. (I think love and kindness is pretty fundamental). We live in a world obsessed with achieving things and often if you list people’s achievements it’s very rare that someone says ‘I’ve kept good friendships and I’ve been faithful,’ it’s more ‘I earned a million dollars and I bought a big house and I won some gold cup in some race’. To me that’s fine, but the greater achievement is to love and be kind. It’s so rarely seen as success, but I think it is.
Style: And will we be hearing more from The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse and will there be more characters in later books?
Charlie: I think they will stay as a four but they’ll meet other characters, like a Penguin or a Polar Bear. Hopefully I’ll do another book. I think they might meet a lady who denies them cake and they’ll make friends with her, I think that’s what’s going to happen.