Illustration
Minute Books
Date
31 January 2020
Reading Time
8 minute read
Tags

31 Nights in Europe is a poignant documentation of Britain’s final month in the EU

Every day this January, in the lead-up to “Brexit Day”, illustrators and poets have been responding to headlines from across the British media, creating a time capsule of a tumultuous moment in British history.

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Illustration
Minute Books
Date
31 January 2020
Reading Time
8 minute read

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Do you remember where you were when it was announced that Britain had voted to leave the EU? I was sat on a hill at Glastonbury Festival with a view of the entire Worthy Farm site. It was pretty quiet as most of the festival-goers were in bed – I was part-way through an early shift – when I got a notification on my phone from The Guardian. Who would have known in that bleak and miserable moment that what stretched ahead of us was 1,317 days (yes, really) of uncertainty and confusion, a defining period in British history.

It’s been an arduous and, at times, downright tedious three and a bit years but today, at 11 PM GMT we will officially leave the European Union. It’s a sentence we’ve read a few times already, as Brexit was delayed three times during its process. During the month of October, before the third and final extension was agreed upon, illustrators Laurie Avon and Sean O’Brien turned to their much-loved medium of reportage illustration in an effort to capture the moment.

GalleryHeadline on 2 January 2020: “Economists Warn”

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Olivia Waller

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Kai Johnson

GalleryHeadline on 2 January 2020: “Economists Warn”

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Olivia Waller

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Kai Johnson

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Kai Johnson

Alongside Barney Fagan and Scott Coleman, the pair are members of Minute Books, a performative press that makes time-based works, and so illustration is often how they look to document events – whether it’s the Women’s World Cup, an evening at the Barbican, or indeed Britain leaving the EU. “Sean and I did an illustration every single day,” Laurie tells us. “And obviously we didn’t end up crashing out of the EU, but we decided we wanted to push the project further.” So, Minute Books assembled a team of illustrators, but this time, they decided to also assemble a team of poets to add another layer to their tried and tested format.

The result is 31 Nights in Europe, a reportage editorial project that asked one illustrator and one poet to respond to one headline, every day, throughout Britain’s final month in the EU. It’s a project embodying a political shift that has been so defined and driven by the British media. With each illustrator and poet only given the headline and no further information, they drew their own conclusions on what were often cryptic or downright bizarre sentences, aptly resulting in conflicting work at times. Altogether the project saw six illustrators – Laurie and Sean, Olivia Waller, Mathilda Ellis, Eliot Lord and Gracey Zhang – and six poets – Adham Smart, Jamie Hale, Helen Bowell, Lily Paine, Kai Johnson and Phoebe Thomson – come together in an expression of this perplexing and divided time.

GalleryHeadline on 3 January 2020: “Britain's £26bn Brexit tourist boom”

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Matilda Ellis

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Helen Bowell

GalleryHeadline on 3 January 2020: “Britain's £26bn Brexit tourist boom”

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Left

Matilda Ellis

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Helen Bowell

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Helen Bowell

Minute Books’ area of expertise is, of course, illustration and so it handled bringing together the team who were going to respond visually. Having all been involved in a Minute Books project beforehand at some point, each was brought on board for their alignment with the Minute Books style: fast-paced, emotive, instinctive and often humorous.

For the team handling the words, Minute Books handed over to Phoebe to bring together an eclectic and talented bunch. “Each of the poets in the team brings something really wonderful to the project, and I came across the poets’ work in many different ways,” she explains. Jamie, for example, brought a political perspective as an activist and someone who has written several articles on disability, politics, and the NHS. Meanwhile, Helen’s poetry is “funny and surprising, coming at politics side-on, and often through the medium of food.” Kai performs stand-up and drag, as well as acting, and so brought a stage presence to his works which are “at once conversational and lyrical”.

Phoebe invited Lily to take part because her poems are “particularly striking in the way that they use familiar phrases in unfamiliar ways,” making her interested to “see whether Lily would use the language of the headlines in similarly unexpected ways”. Adham also plays with language in his work, leading to some intricate weavings of words.

GalleryHeadline on 9 January 2020: “Megxit”

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Laurie Avon

Right

Jamie Hale

GalleryHeadline on 9 January 2020: “Megxit”

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Laurie Avon

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Jamie Hale

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Jamie Hale

While Phoebe didn’t initially intend to participate herself, “I’m so glad that I did,” she says. “The time pressure, and the unusual prompts, led me to write in ways that I wouldn’t usually explore.” Phoebe’s practice ordinarily sees her burrowing poems away for a long time before letting the world see them, so this new process forced her to relinquish some control over the editing process.

“We got sent the headlines at 9 AM and would have to deliver something by 9 PM, so there were 12 hours to think and write in,” she says. “I read my headlines in the morning and would think about it all day, then write at around 6 or 7 PM. I usually decided on a certain image or mood that I wanted to evoke. So for a poem about Brexit being signed and sealed, I wanted very closed, sealed-off imagery. I chose a villanelle as the form, as it uses the same lines again in a cycle, and I thought that this would add to the sense of being closed-off and trapped.”

For Olivia, who was part of the illustration team, the fast pace of the project led her to switch from her usual media of paint and collage, and instead work digitally. For her, the process began before she even received the headline, “because I’m generally up to date with the news, so the context and understanding were usually already in place”. As someone who tries to get all of her work done in the mornings, she fully embraced the instinctive Minute Books process, delivering her drawings most days by 9:30 AM. In terms of how she actually set about turning sentences into spot illustrations, she says: “I really like figurative work, so I tried to look for characters that jumped out (nine time out of ten times, it was Boris). I also tried to keep the energetic style and way of drawing that Minute Books has always used so it all felt cohesive.”

GalleryHeadline on 13 January 2020: “Heaven Help Us”

Left

Sean O'Brien

Right

Phoebe Thomson

GalleryHeadline on 13 January 2020: “Heaven Help Us”

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Sean O'Brien

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Phoebe Thomson

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Phoebe Thomson

GalleryHeadline on 17 January 2020: “Big Ben Brexit bong turns into farce”

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Matilda Ellis

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Kai Johnson

GalleryHeadline on 17 January 2020: “Big Ben Brexit bong turns into farce”

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Matilda Ellis

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Kai Johnson

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Kai Johnson

It’s a way of working she’ll definitely look to implement in her work from now on, she adds: “I hope to take some of that spontaneous energy forward; it seems like sometimes the first idea can be just as valid as my last!”

A major facet of the project, and one which makes it so successful, is the inclusion of humour throughout. There’s a wit underpinning almost all of the work, a wry wink straight from the world of political satire art. It was something Minute Books wanted to be involved in the project from the start. In isolation, many of the headlines reveal how entirely unfathomable the situation has been to most of us. On the day of our interview, for example, Laurie’s headline was “EU deal to be worse than Japan”. It ran in The Telegraph and gives very little away. “I looked at that and thought: Why is Japan even bad? It can’t be that bad… Out of context, it just sounds so ridiculous.” Laurie’s response plays on this notion, depicting a pair of sunglasses, a giant mushroom cloud reflected in their lenses. It’s a darkly comic depiction of the media’s tendency to leave much of the population behind with complex and jarring headlines.

Humour does, of course, play another role within the project. “I think humour is a really good way of engaging with quite extreme or hard topics,” Laurie continues. It allows creatives to dissect and examine that which would otherwise be untouchable, bringing a new emotion to subjects everyone is sick of talking about by this point. “Everyone feels so lost by [Brexit] and so confused by it all, that it gives you this rallying point I guess,” he says.

GalleryHeadline on 20 January 2020: “Javid's non-alignment vow sparks alarms from Brussels and business”

Left

Gracey Zhang

Right

Phoebe Thomson

GalleryHeadline on 20 January 2020: “Javid's non-alignment vow sparks alarms from Brussels and business”

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Gracey Zhang

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Phoebe Thomson

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Phoebe Thomson

GalleryHeadline on 21 January 2020: “British economy will grow faster than eurozone rivals, says IMF”

Left

Sean O'Brien

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Helen Bowell

GalleryHeadline on 21 January 2020: “British economy will grow faster than eurozone rivals, says IMF”

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Left

Sean O'Brien

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Helen Bowell

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Helen Bowell

It’s the precise combination of illustration and poetry, though, which means 31 Nights in Europe really resonates. It’s a language we’re introduced to long before we can read or write and so it’s one which we perhaps understand almost instinctively. Many toddlers can recite Jack and Jill, despite having no idea what a “pale of water” is, for example. In the context of politics and in particular, Brexit, therefore, illustration and poetry make for a very smart combination. It’s a topic which makes many turn off, roll their eyes and leave the conversation. The use of these forms of communication makes this information digestible, while also elevating the absurdity of our situation through visual and verbal puns and jokes.

On why he thinks both media are so apt for this job, Laurie says: “They’re a true representation of your personal expression. It’s an insight into that creative’s thoughts on the topic, which you can’t get from a photograph. Both illustration and poetry also have the ability to really break reality, to go beyond and exaggerate a comment. You can add layers and juxtapose things which would be impossible in real life. You can put Boris in a clown suit, for example.”

This has manifested in myriad ways throughout the project, whether it’s Phoebe’s imagining of the Queen comparing Prince Harry to Edward VIII as she angrily chooses which hat to wear that day, muttering and swearing under her breath the whole time. Or, whether it’s Matilda’s depiction of two giants fighting over Big Ben, their hands grappling to snatch the tower from the other’s. In every instance, however, it sees the nuggets of information we spend our days constantly trying to discern, elaborated upon and told through the distinctive voice of someone living through it.

GalleryHeadline on 22 January 2020: “EU Deal to be worse than Japan”

Left

Laurie Avon

Right

Lily Paine

GalleryHeadline on 22 January 2020: “EU Deal to be worse than Japan”

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Left

Laurie Avon

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Lily Paine

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Lily Paine

Ultimately, 31 Nights in Europe will provide poignant and necessary documentation of this important time. No matter what your feelings are on Brexit and the EU, these tumultuous years will inevitably be added to the syllabuses of schools up and down the country in due course. To be able to look back and understand how the everyday person understood and felt about the situation will be invaluable. “The book is a timeline,” Laurie reflects. “I mean, it exists as a document, a document of this moment in time. I think the difference between something online and a physical book, is that a book is forever. There's something special about it being published – this is the memory of this point in time.”

Who knows what will happen at 11 PM tonight and how we will feel about Brexit ten, 15 or even 50 years down the line? But for now, I’m happy with the knowledge that Boris Johnson has been immortalised on paper as a clown.

Minute Books is hosting an event, this Sunday 2 February, to release the 31 Nights in Europe publication. The event is taking place at The Peckham Pelican between 1 and 7 PM and will include workshops, readings and a display of all the work.

GalleryHeadline on 24 January 2020: “Brexits gets a double boost”

Left

Eliot Lord

Right

Adham Smart

GalleryHeadline on 24 January 2020: “Brexits gets a double boost”

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Left

Eliot Lord

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Adham Smart

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Adham Smart

GalleryHeadline on 25 January 2020: “Signed & Sealed”

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Laurie Avon

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Phoebe Thomson

GalleryHeadline on 25 January 2020: “Signed & Sealed”

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Left

Laurie Avon

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Phoebe Thomson

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Phoebe Thomson

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Laurie Avon

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

rbd@itsnicethat.com

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