The Importance of Being Raymond

Briggs in 1978, via Getty Images

I miss Raymond Briggs. That’s a bit strange for me, because I didn’t know him personally, and that sort of loss doesn’t usually get to me. But for some reason, I can’t quite get past it.

            I’ve been seeking out interviews with him and reading works of his I never had before, as well as rereading ones I did. In contrast to the commentary on the death of the Queen, I didn’t feel as if I was mourning a grandad, but perhaps that we’d all lost a major dignitary. Certainly, a link to another era. I even found myself making a pilgrimage to the South Downs, searching out one of the villages he called home. I scrambled through briars and down nearly vertical chalk paths, wondering why I was doing this and whether I would ever admit to having done it. Perhaps I just wanted to be reassured of his unreachability, particularly from curious weirdos like me. I was satisfied to find what I think was his house, nondescript and out of the way, with the notice ATTENTION – ELECTRIC FENCE – BEWARE OF THE DOG – ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

            Perhaps I also wanted a glimpse of the landscape he loved. I took a pew in a church so silent it might almost have survived the events of When the Wind Blows.

The King goes to answer the door in The Princess & the Pea, in The Fairy Tale Treasury, 1972

            Having returned to blogging, I want to try and say something about Briggs. Particularly as, somewhat grumpily, I have taken against so many of the tributes I read that simplified his work or his personality. As for the Instagram post I stumbled on: “the Snowman will be crying icicles … in Paradise [with] Ethel and Ernest you can rest in peace and talk about the glorious weather…” In point of fact, besides being fictional, the Snowman  is dead and gone, as are Ethel, Ernest and Briggs himself – if that’s too bluntly put, we need to find another way to talk about that loss. He’s certainly tried to do it often enough over the years.

            Perhaps instead of what’s gone, I should try to talk about what he’s left us.

            Before anything else, there is the sheer artistry of his drawing: extraordinary skill (observation, communication, modulation) employed by a mind that is alive, dynamic, precise. Briggs’s visual style is as unmistakable as a parent’s handwriting, but he can variously work with warmth or coolness, the richness of fine art or the neat thrust of a newspaper cartoon. For years I’ve wondered about the many styles he uses in the Fairy Tale Treasury (edited by Virginia Haviland). He could and did do it all. Nicolette Jones’s monograph suggests this deliberately illustrated (as it were) the variety of origins and tones of the tales: comic, mystic, operatic, and more. Whether he’s writing what Andrew Male on the Backlisted podcast called “the children’s Anatomy of Melancholy” (Fungus) or an exercise in memoir and social history (Ethel & Ernest), he is always exact and specific in his approach. Whatever the dominant note, there’s always the possibility of comedy or poignancy.

Boy to Man, 1992

            It might have been better for his reputation if he had never written for the young: it confuses the critics, who think it means his work is simple. In fact, the scope of children’s literature has been broadened by his picture books, even challenged by them. He has left a series of stories that go against the grain, particularly in depicting its protagonists.

They are not in the conventional way heroic. They witness or endure things. In The Man, a boy is visited by a Borrower-like figure who demands to be clothed and fed (“Ugh! Brown bread! Gives me the trots!”) and even to listen to the Morning Service on Radio 4. Suddenly the boy has responsibility towards something he doesn’t understand or even entirely like – like Father Christmas’s duties, perhaps, or Jim’s preparations for fallout – and the book is about that experience, not whether he succeeds or learns something about himself.

            In fact, he loses his temper with the Man more than once: like other Briggs characters (not least the Man himself, and the boy’s parents) he is vocal about the things that offend them. It’s what makes them human. One of the most poignant aspects for me of When the Wind Blows is how the old married couple bicker as they hide together from their impending doom. Briggs himself had a reputation for being disagreeable, like his incarnation of Father Christmas – a persona cultivated by a private, slightly shy man, according to Jones. What I hear, in interviews with Briggs as well as his characters, is frankness. There is no stifling concern to be polite at the expense of being honest. Then there are certain things in his books – such as goodbyes –that go beyond words. They happen, but to describe or discuss them would be to attempt some reconciliation or consolation.

Looking after an unexpected guest, with help from Briggs’s father

This is not to say that his books are nihilistic. The Man concludes with a letter addressed to the boy: TIME TO MOOV ON – THANKS FOR PUTTING UP WITH ME – SORY I STAYED TO LONG – 3 DAYS IS OUR ROOL – YOU WER MOR KIND TO ME THAN ANNY WON ELS IN THE HOLE OF MY LIFE. This kindness runs throughout Briggs’s books: even that grumpy bachelor Father Christmas cares for his animals. Far from a dragging a popular figure down to earth, this proto-graphic novel is now recognised as an affectionate tribute to his father. If it is a ‘tell-all’ account of a somewhat unknowable, it’s very much from the perspective of a son. The Man and The Bear, on the other hand,read to me like reflections on the role of a parent or carer.

People are difficult to live with, these stories seem to say, particularly if we take them as they really are (whereas children’s books are so often concerned with the idealised version). Yet we are driven to care for them by some urge, some responsibility, perhaps by a conscious rejection of hatred. The characters in When the Wind Blows are infuriating: nonetheless, the book strives to elicit sympathy for them, and even to speak in defence of them. The real target of the book’s attack, the powers responsible, are given the silent treatment (perhaps why this book haunts contemporary readers as much as ever).

Up above the Downs, 1978

            Then there’s The Snowman. I’m nearly as old as that cartoon, so I’ve lived through the avalanches of merchandise, theatre adaptations and (shudder) a sequel. It’s as hard for me as anybody to look past that and see the purity of that figure, who flies because – how could we all have missed this – that’s what snow does. Created by the nameless boy on what might as well be a blank page (looking a bit like a child’s drawing), and who delights in his brief life. If other books have traces of autobiography, this feels to me to be about the transcendental nature of artistic creation. Fancy words, though, for something so deliberately silent and irreducible.

            After all of that, what can I really say about Raymond Briggs?

            Perhaps the only thing to say is I hope you read him now, or re-read him, or look again at his illustrations. I hope his many students at Brighton College of Art, and those readers who love his work and are artists themselves, follow him in making work that is true to themselves, wherever that takes them.

It’s because he was prepared to put so much of himself into his work that, in the best and most enduring way, he is still with us.

Besides reading as much of Briggs’s work as you can, I highly recommend Nicolette Jones’s insightful monograph, Raymond Briggs, published by Thames & Hudson. You can hear the excellent Backlisted episode on Fungus the Bogeyman here. Briggs is one of those rare people interviewed twice by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, first in 1983 with Roy Plomley and again in 2005 with Sue Lawley, and both interviews and charming and insightful in different ways. The Snowman film will celebrate its 40th anniversary this December.

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