This hit book preempted our Covid-19 emotions long before the pandemic

Charlie Mackesy’s book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse about finding compassion in companionship has returned to the top of the charts since the coronavirus pandemic. We caught up with the author in lockdown...

It is a question nearly as big as when this lockdown ends – once it does will the world remain a fairer, kinder, more compassionate place?

The homeless off the streets, clapping the amazing NHS and carers, millions of acts of kindness each day – this is where coronavirus has revealed the healthy beating heart of humankind.

But prior to Covid-19’s assault on the planet, a surprise hit book – written and drawn by far-from-famous artist Charlie Mackesy – gave notice that when it came to the good, the bad and the ugly, the world was still populated by a huge number of the former.

His book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse was not just the publishing sensation of last year – it has sold over one million copies in the UK and USA alone – it was also incredibly prophetic.

It all but predicted the emotions many, many more than one million are going through during this pandemic.

“Everyone is a bit scared but we are less scared together,” “this storm will pass”, and “life is difficult but you are loved” were just three of the gentle musings from Mackesy’s characters that resonated for millions.

The exchange, though, depicted in his pen-and-ink drawings that seemed to resonate most was the boy asking the horse, “What is the bravest thing you have ever said?” and being told: “Help.”

And that is one word being uttered and answered right now more than any other time since the Second World War.

Now with the coronavirus causing so much mayhem and affecting the lives of everyone, Mackesy has found himself wondering whether the crisis will see us emerge looking more like the It’s A Wonderful Life one populated by The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse?

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Admitting it was “a bit mad” how the sentiments in his 2019 Waterstones Book of the Year have come to have such relevance in the spring of 2020, Mackesy said: “I have a feeling we will grow together. I keep seeing it as we are at war with a common enemy that the whole world is fighting.

“The virus is a great demonstrator that borders don’t exist. It has shone a light on us. Maybe in life we sometimes forget what is really important, we get caught up in things.

Artist Charlie Mackesy, author of hit book The By, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse
Charlie-Mackesy
Artist Charlie Mackesy (credit: David Loftus)

“When a crisis like this comes along it reminds us what really matters. We matter to each other, strangely it pulls us together and reminds us we are all weak and we need each other and we are not competing.

“We have got a common enemy now. A common, invisible enemy we are trying to beat and we are not trying to beat each other anymore. Brexit is an irony given we have chosen to separate ourselves from Europe and we are going to need each other.

“I think there will silver linings to this. Nations have been in competition with each other, but I think compassion and competition are not bedfellows. You are either one or the other and I think competition has definitely taken a back seat.”

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Mackesy, 57, has – just like everyone else – seen his life change dramatically due to Covid-19. He lives in Brixton, South London, but is currently staying with a close friend an hour outside the capital, having gone to visit him on March 15 and deciding it was prudent to remain.

He missed his mother Liz’s 90th birthday but plans to make it up to her when it is safe to visit her again in Suffolk.

He has also been touched by a loss, of his beloved black labrador Dill a few months ago, although Barney the dachshund is still going strong.

Mackesy is working tentatively on a second book featuring the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse but isn’t finding it easy, like so many others who find the virus and its repercussions too preoccupying.

He says, “Some days I just want to draw and think of messages and conversations between the characters. On other days I just want to lie down. I just don’t know what to say any more. I just feel tired and worried. It ebbs and flows like for everybody.”

Despite the financial devastation Covid-19 has caused, Mackesy has been resisting huge-money offers to turn his hit book into a film.

“It would be nice to do a little film – there has been a healthy interest doing that,” he admits.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

“We don’t want to sell out. There has been offers but we have said ‘We just want to be true, it is not about the money, we just want to make the message as clear as possible.’

“I keep thinking we are all going to die at some point and what a tragedy it would be if you compromise the messages by making a film that wasn’t clear and gentle.

“We just want to make sure it carries the innocence and the clarity, without making it too commercial. To be honest, the adventure really for them is their conversation and their shared vulnerability, which is kind of really where we are now in the world.”

He has also turned his artistic attention to the NHS, with drawings on his Instagram account praising workers’ amazing efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

“I love them so much,” he says. “I just find the NHS so deeply brilliant and moving. They are the heroes of our time, they were before this. I have some close friends who are doctors and nurses and I am in awe of them. I wish they were better paid.

“When I was a boy I used to work on a sheep farm and there were two men I worked with and they were in their 60s, just before they retired. And I remember them telling me what it was like before the NHS.

“They had lost family members because they couldn’t afford to pay for the medicine. They said if you didn’t have money you died, it was as simple as that.

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Now you can live and be attended to for free. They just didn’t have words for how great the NHS was.”

By the time the virus has been beaten, Mackesy sees all of us caring more about the friends we had before, as well as the new ones we have made.

“Friendships are going to get huge, new friendships as well. The interdependence of humanity is going to be like a highlight – ‘I like you, we are there for each other’. It is an awful time, but there is always beauty in struggle.”

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy is out now (Ebury Press, £16.99)