arts and design

Drawing comfort: the sketchbooks that got Chris Riddell through 2020


On 13 December 2019 I woke up and reached out for the “on” button of my bedside radio. I lay back and listened to the familiar voices of Radio 4’s Today programme tell me the results of the general election. As the interviews and analysis washed over me, I felt that mixture of emotions that had become all too familiar. Anger, sorrow, disbelief and helplessness. It was how I had felt when Nick Clegg became David Cameron’s useful idiot, when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove stood at the podium dumbfounded by their Brexit victory and when Donald Trump’s tiny hands grasped the reins of power and he became the leader of the free world. Now a bumbling buffoon had won a working majority and was going to “Get Brexit done”.

As I shouted at the radio, I noticed the sketchbook next to it. I love drawing in sketchbooks. I have hundreds of them all over my house and studio in various stages of completion. My advice to all aspiring illustrators is to keep a sketchbook and draw in it every day. For two years, during my time as the children’s laureate, I drew a daily sketch charting my travels and posted the pages on social media. I found it therapeutic and cathartic in equal measure. Now, as the country woke up to the prospect of five years of Tory government, I stifled my shouts and reached for my sketchbook. I drew a troll in a nappy holding a spiked club and felt momentarily better.

Three cartoons by Chris Riddell from 'Five Years…'
Getting it out of ones system: musings by Chris Riddell
Horseman of the apocalypse.
Horseman of the apocalypse. Illustration: Chris Riddell

Over the weeks approaching Christmas 2019 I repeated the exercise as bush fires raged, climate change talks stalled and Boris Johnson took a holiday on an exclusive Caribbean island. Each day, I posted these drawings on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, enjoying the sensation of throwing messages in bottles into the digital ocean.

The world was, by now, predictably crazy. Trump faced impeachment, the UK left the EU, Australia continued to burn and Vladimir Putin confirmed himself in power for ever.

Then reports came in of a virus spreading in China. On 22 January I drew one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, the one in the crown, with the bow and arrows. At the time, it felt a little melodramatic. But not for long. Two months later, on 24 March, we were locked down; a few days later, on 28 March, I drew Dominic Cummings running from Downing Street.

Nothing was predictable. Each day brought ever more disturbing news and the pages of my sketchbook rapidly filled. By 13 April, Johnson had survived his own brush with the virus and, by 26 May, we had learned of Cummings’s eye test. More followed. The Black Lives Matter movement in early June, lockdown easing, 4 August, tiers introduced, mid-October, and the fall of Trump, 6 November. By now, my “Five Years” sketchbook had become a serious habit – a daily stocktaking and meditation.

I started to get messages in bottles washing up on my social media feeds. Was I going to publish these drawings in book form? I hadn’t intended to but, I thought, why not? I could get a local printer to produce a small print run. I waited until 31 December 2020 and drew a troll with a spiked club as a cover, then got Five Years… A Sketchbook of Political Drawings volume one, 2020, printed. It is a record that, when needed, can be turned to, to remind us why 2020 will always be a year we want to forget. Only another four years to go…

Five Years … A Sketchbook of Political Drawings (volume one) is available from thecyclingfishbooks.bigcartel.com, priced £20



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