Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Britain says "Goodbye" to the wonderfully Irascible Creator of its Most Beloved Children's Books, Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs, who has died at the age of 88, gave children his 'Father Christmas' in 1973, which featured a solitary old curmudgeon toiling through bad weather on his sleigh in oilskins, complaining all the way. Raymond commented : “Bloody awful job. He’s going to be a bit grumpy".

'Fungus the Bogeyman' followed in 1977 and 'The Snowman' in 1978, which has sold in excess of 5.5 million copies globally and has been translated into 15 languages. Ironically, Raymond hated Christmas, but has become inextricably linked that season and the animation of his picture book, which was first screened in 1982 and is now as traditional Christmas fare. He acknowledged that, with stage shows, adverts, toys, toilet paper, it became  : “A worldwide industry. China, Japan: a world of Snowmen. The whole blessed world. I was fed up with it years ago. I’m even more fed up with it now it’s been going on for nearly 40 bloody years.” 

Even Raymond's sweetest, most playful works are full of intimations of mortality : 'The Snowman' ends up as a pool of water with a scarf floating on top of it and now, over the 256 pages of his last book, he contemplated old age and death and didn't like them much. 

His collection of short pieces, entitled 'Time for Lights Out', which he worked on for thirteen years, is illustrated with his pencil drawings and is a collection of short pieces, some funny, some melancholy, some remembering his wife who died young, others about the joy of grandchildren and of walking the dog.

Most of the collection centred on his home in Sussex which featured in his poem :

Looking round this house,
What will they say,
The future ghosts
“There must have been
Some barmy old bloke here,
Long-haired, artsy-fartsy type,
Did pictures for kiddy books
Or some such tripe.
You should have seen the stuff
He stuck up in that attic !
Snowman this and snowman that,
Tons and tons of tat.

He reflected on the joys of the daily walk in the Spring : “Great clots of primroses everywhere! Good job this book’s not in colour. I’d have to paint the bloody things” and went on to investigate the mysteries of old men’s hair:]; the frailties of age and ill health; the passing of time and the stubborn endurance of objects and said : “The breadboard I use today, and the knife, have been with me all my life”.

He also returned to his childhood during the Second World War; to his evacuation to the countryside, and to his parents, previously immortalised in the 1998 graphic memoir 'Ethel and Ernest'.

Raymond generally sat uneasily in modern Britain. He hardly touched his : "iPad thing because it gets me in a temper. I need it to keep in touch through incoming mail, but that's all I use it for." He found tv programmes went on for too long and said : "I looked up 'Foyle's War'in the Radio Times and it was on for two hours, I mean two solid hours. I couldn't sit through that, however much I like Michael Kitchen". He didn't mind meeting his readers : "If it's brief", but confessed, that if they start singing the Snowman song, "I'm Walking in the Air" he was tempted : "To give them a kick up the arse." And on top of everything : "When you get older everything takes so bloody long, getting the food, clearing up, washing up, getting the bedroom ready, having a bath".

Fifteen years ago, when he was 73, he told 'The Telegraph' that 'Time for Lights Out' would “definitely be my last” book and was “bound to have a sad ending”. When he was 81 he showed 'The Independent' one entry from the book – a list of illustrators’ names, with the dates of their deaths beside them, and another list noting the health of living illustrators and said he : "Didn’t like being taken by surprise by people telling me one of them’s died.” 

Dan Franklin, who acquired the book for Jonathan Cape, said that : “In some ways, all of Raymond’s books have been about death. Here he confronts it head-on in a book that is honest and truthful and very touching. 'Ethel & Ernest', about his parents, was the very first book on the Cape graphic novel list. It’s wonderful to be publishing him again”.

For that wonderful irascibility : Raymond's 2017 interview on BBC's 'Newsnight (link)

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