Look into my eyes: images such as this “art therapy” rabbit now outsell traditional colouring books and more creative drawing challenges.
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Colouring books used to be fun. When did they get so . . . mindful?

I've always bought colouring books – but these new, "therapeutic" offerings make me feel faintly distressed.

Although I’m a grown-up, I always get a colouring book for Christmas. Last year, I knew something was up when, instead of “Tudor Fashions” or “Mythical Beasts”, it had the words “art therapy” stamped across the front. Staring back at me for my colouring pleasure was the baroque visage of a cat; the face was fashioned from tiny boxes, each of those boxes contained more tiny boxes and the miniature colour-me rhomboids in its unblinking irises – barely large enough to fit the nib of a pencil – receded to infinity. Looking at the image, I felt faintly distressed. Nothing about it said: kick off your shoes and crack open the Caran d’Ache.

“These exquisite art therapy patterns allow you to access your inner creativity, balancing your physical, spiritual and emotional well-being,” says the Bromleigh House series Relax With Art. “You will embark on a personal journey exploring the world of creative art, discovering the secrets of harmony, balance [and] tranquillity and accessing your inner voice.” Five minutes colouring the Inca moggie and my inner voice was baying for release.

Last year the Telegraph ran a piece saying that French women were turning to adult colouring books in droves. Sylvie, a crèche worker from Marseilles, described herself as “anguished and stressed by nature” and colouring was helping. Last year that melancholic nation sold 3.5 million colouring books in the art therapy category. Similar titles now have vast audiences in the US and UK. Clearly I was missing something.

I’ve always bought colouring books. As a child, I wasn’t very good at drawing but I was a girly swot, and there was tremendous satisfaction in being given a ready-made drawing and just finishing it off. Colouring is a rather anal business and that’s a fact – you’re completing a task within very strict guidelines, and unless you’re in the psychedelic business of mixing up colours for the sake of it, it is essentially uncreative – the artist equivalent of writing a shopping list. Knights in armour were my figures of choice. There were ample opportunities for the best of all colours – red – on shields and banners. I never went near the Regency era: all those wigs and pastel breeches. Your black pencil went down quick on the Victorians, but sometimes you got canaries, cakes and surprisingly bright domestic interiors.

It was all about getting a balanced grain. Use the side of your palm as a fulcrum, rest the pencil along your fourth finger and make confident, smooth arcs of even weight. The sooner you wear down the tip of the pencil to a shiny wedge, the quicker you hit your stride. KEEP IT EVEN! The ­efforts of my peers saddened me, their crayons practically drilling through the page. And the unfinished efforts! Why sign up to a picture of the sea if you’re not willing to do all that blue? How will you function in the world of work?

The bizarre thing about the new adult colouring books is they are virtually impossible to complete. They have to be difficult, because adults are still embarrassed to be seen working away at infant activities. “So many people have said to me that they used to do secret colouring in when their kids were in bed,” said Johanna Basford recently: her ornate Secret Garden colouring book has sold over 1.5 million copies and Zooey Deschanel is a fan. “Now it is socially acceptable, it’s a category of its own.”

This “category” is a piece of marketing ­genius. By branding themselves as “analogue” activities, the new colouring books seize on our half-formed anxieties about living a digital life, providing commercially packaged screen-free pastimes that promise to reconnect us with ourselves. The analogue hobby then becomes a craze, with people sharing their work on Twitter or Instagram, thus bringing themselves right back to the digital world they were so keen to escape.

But the main thing making colouring “socially acceptable” is the link to mental health. The mindfulness industry has planted its flag on the business and many books are being sold as an offshoot of meditation. So you can now buy one title that calms your nerves, eases your mental pain, helps you to live in the present and become a creative artist all in one go. Result!

In the progressive 1970s, when Lego was advertised by little girls in denim dungarees and Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book (“the drawings in this book are of real women’s cunts”) was helping feminists reclaim their vaginas all over the world, an American art teacher called Susan Striker prod­uced a hugely popular series called The Anti-
Coloring Book
, which fought against the “damaging effects” of giving a young child such a strictly-defined task. Striker felt colouring books turned children into robots. Her books had semi-blank pages and captions such as: “The artist got stung by a bee and couldn’t finish his drawing. You finish it for him.” In 1982 she produced a version of The Anti-Coloring Book for adults, too.

I called Striker as she drove to Manhattan for a jazz concert. Susan, I said, what do you make of the new colouring book craze? “I feel like my life has been a total failure!” she cried. “Even though my books sold really well, the message clearly never got out to the general public that colouring books are not just innocuous but they’re actually very bad for you!”

She recalled one case study from the 1960s in which a child drew “a wonderful, lyrical picture of a bird” from his imagination. He was then supplied with a colouring book in which birds were represented only as “Vs”, as adults often draw them, and was told to colour them blue. The next time he drew a bird, he drew a V: “No eyes, no wings, no nothing. That was visual proof that when you are working with colouring books, it sends children the message that they are supposed to be drawing like adults – but since you’re too stupid to draw like an adult, here’s an adult’s picture and you can colour it in.”

This put me in mind of the popular new title Animorphia by the Filipino-born artist Kerby Rosanes. His book is billed as an Extreme Colouring and Search Challenge: one page has 30 bats drawn on it, with a large space in the middle and the instruction “Fill the page with bats”. What hope for the adult who wants to unleash their inner Van Gogh?

“If you want to turn off your mind, instead of turning it up, then colouring is one way to do it,” Striker said. “It can allow you to tune out of your life – it’s a choice: should I take a drink, or drugs, or pick up a colouring book?”

So what does she make of the link to art therapy? “People really have been educated to believe that they cannot do art,” she said. “A colouring book can help you empty out your mind. Yet to be ‘mindful’ is not to escape from your problems, but to face them head on. The new mindful colouring books are mindless. You should be drawing your own pictures!”

Even if you’re convinced you can’t draw, surely there are better ways of exercising your creative muscles – or destressing, for that matter – than by embarking on the sad face of a complex bejewelled rabbit, which, incidentally, appears in The Art Therapy Colouring Book half coloured already. If you want to experience the simple, untherapeutic pleasure of colouring, start with Tom Tierny’s Tudor and Elizabethan Fashions (Dover, £5.99). Then go wild and do that ermine cloak whatever colour you want.

Susan Striker’s “Adult Anti-Coloring Book” is reissued this month as an app and will be available on iTunes

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition