Who do you think you’re talking to?

The Piece Hall, Halifax

Why is it that people take it as an invitation to strike up a conversation with strangers when they see someone drawing? There’s no other human activity that seems to do this in quite the same way: It would be seen as absurd, and rightly so, to approach someone working on a laptop in public, and to say “ooh, can I see that spreadsheet you’re working on?” But when someone is working on a drawing, for some reason, it’s carte blanche to pitch in and interrupt the process.

Last Sunday gave me quite the experience of this phenomenon. The sketch is of the Piece Hall in Halifax. It’s a truly special place: a beautiful Georgian cloth hall nestled in the Calder Valley, a vast columned piece of architecture harking back to the industrial past of the North, and which today is home to a range of unique indie and DIY arts and cultural spaces. Have you been there? If not, it is really worth a visit – you’d be supporting a lot of independent makers and would no doubt come home with some nice bits and pieces (for us, a bag full of books and a promise for one of the Ralph Steadman prints that were on sale!) As I was sketching this piece, a woman approached and had a look at the developing picture. After the usual oohs and aahs, she veered off into a paranoid discourse about child grooming and sexual abuse in Halifax and – if you live in the UK maybe you know where this is going – how the neo-fascist thug Stephen Yaxley Lennon (better known as Tommy Robinson) was the only person doing anything about it.

Where do you go with that? We couldn’t let it go, obviously, but how do you engage with someone who is clearly pretty far down the rabbit hole? As she hadn’t brought the racial politics of Yaxley-Lennon & co into it, we didn’t go there. Instead, we spoke to the anxieties that seemed to be driving her into his arms: The fact that Yaxley-Lennon himself had almost caused the collapse of a child sex trafficking trial in 2018 by broadcasting the embargoed details of the case, for example, or how he had sought to silence a journalist with threats, intimidation and harrassment . The conversation didn’t get heated or angry, but we were firm in getting the point across. At the end, she did thank us for giving her something to think about and offering a different perspective.

So, not exactly an enjoyable encounter, but maybe it’s not such a bad thing that drawing makes people talk to each other. I found it sad to see how the far right can so easily take advantage of those who are carrying some sort of trauma, and who might not be the sharpest thinkers. On the other hand, when else would I have an opportunity to speak to someone who inhabits such a different world than my own, and maybe plant the seed of doubt that could open them to a better way? Don’t we need that more than ever in our world of social media echo chambers and deepening class and cultural divisions?

I went home and remembered the small flock of pigeons that called in and flew away as I’d been drawing, and added a couple to the sketch. Maybe there is some symbolism there – but it’s for the viewer to make of that what they will.

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