In my room, I have a favourite shelf. It is bookended by a long-limbed hanging plant and a candle that claims to smell like Prosecco. But that’s not what makes the shelf great.
Within these banal perimeters stand, spine by spine, the books that I have meant the most to me throughout my life. Admittedly most of these are from the last few years or so, as up until university I almost exclusively bought Jilly Cooper novels for reasons which now elude me. Read into that what you will. Pun intended.
This is not to say that post-English Literature degree I now stack my bookcase with Shakespeare and Milton. In fact, the most recent addition to the shelf is simple, illustrated and understated. It is also incredibly beautiful.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy is part-lullaby, part-comic. Illustrations tangle with letters – all printed in Mackesy’s own hand – to create a kind of hieroglyphic language that only materialises in the moment of reading. There is a spontaneity to the typeset and the splashes of colour which spread across the thick, canvas-like pages. There is no certainty that if you put the book down, you will come back to find it as it was.
This book is also a letter: to its reader – ‘Hello’, we are greeted, ‘much love to you’ – to Charlie’s ‘lovely kind mum’ and ‘wonderful dog Dill’, and more broadly to kindness and friendship. But then again, it is as much a play as it is a letter. Episodic in nature, with an optional linearity that can be relaxed into or broken off from. You might jump around and make your own story on a whim. As we are told straight away, Charlie ‘usually start[s] in the middle’. I suppose it’s a little Brechtian in that sense, but much more uplifting and with far fewer Chalk Circles.
It might also be a fable, reinvented.
I call to mind one particular page, in which the boy looks up at a round, yellowish mark and asks, ‘Is it the moon?’. The mole replies: ‘It’s a tea cup stain … and where there’s tea there’s cake’. There is a playfulness here with a long legacy. I think especially of the Makkars, and the mischief of Henryson’s Fables. Although sometimes gruesome in a way that The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse never is, the Fables are a testament to the respite animals offer in storytelling. They facilitate expression, they allow serious things to be said without bogging anyone down – exactly what the world needs right now.
Lullaby, comic, letter, play, fable – it is impossible to pick just one. So, in the interest of not bumbling like Hamlet’s Polonius (‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral’), I’d like to posit that The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse eludes genre. In doing so, its audience becomes limitless. There is no one who does not need to hear that ‘Everyone is a bit scared. […] But we are less scared together’, or that ‘Being honest is always interesting’. As Charlie says, whether ‘you are eighty or eight’ you can relate to the scrunchy existence of the mole, the silence of the fox, or the curiosity of the boy. Equally, sometimes we are all a wise, majestic horse that can secretly fly. A lot depends on which side of the bed you roll out of in the morning, and that’s OK.
I had the pleasure of meeting Charlie, and his lovely scrunchy-mole-like dog, Barney, earlier this year. He is thoughtful and funny, just like his book. It is clear that the words he has written and the pictures he has drawn have travelled directly from heart to page. Authenticity is a strained and overworked word nowadays, but it feels right to set it down here. There really is nothing about Charlie, his dog, his drawings or his words that is trying to trick you – and that feels like something rare.
Ultimately, that is the reason it stands pride of place on my favourite shelf. Of course, it helps that the book itself is rather handsome. Hardback, with a coarse navy spine and white front board, ever-so-slightly indented by gold, mirrored lettering. It has texture and depth – and no jacket, as if it is all it needs to be already. It is quietly grand, just like the message of kindness it delivers. However, I have a feeling that even if I had read Charlie’s words in passing on the back of an old envelope (Emily Dickinson-style), I would have lingered with them – and they with me.
Charlie Mackesy has found a way to tell us all that we are enough and that we are loved. In my book, as in his, that makes for something pretty special.
Hannah Webb studied English at Fitzwilliam College from 2016-2019 and is currently traveling around Thailand.
See more from Hannah at: https://www.varsity.co.uk/profile/hannah-webb