Under the snow

9th October 1998 at 01:00
Ethel amp; Ernest : a True Story
By Raymond Briggs
Jonathan Cape, #163;14.99.

Raymond Briggs's picture stories occupy a special place in our affections. Now he has traced the family and social origins of his literary preoccupations. He spoke to Nicolette Jones about love, class and loss.

Raymond Briggs, the man who did for snowmen what Disney did for mice, has turned his hand to biography. The subjects are his parents, whose relationship he traces from the moment they met in the early Thirties to their deaths in 1971. But Ethel amp; Ernest is more than just a family memoir; it is a scrupulous chronicle - in comic-book form - of the attitudes and domestic life of a working-class couple, from the days when an indoor bathroom was an astonishing luxury, through to an old age that couldn't fathom decimalisation. It is full of Alan Bennettesque dialogue that is funny, moving, carefully observed and particular. But it also reveals the origins of the issues and ideas that recur in Briggs' other books, most notably class.

Briggs describes himself as someone who was born working class and became middle class, a transition effected by a scholarship to the local grammar school. His mother was proud of her son's achievement, but his new life was a world away from hers. Both parents were mortified when he chose to go to art school, though later, when he had a house and a wife and an income, their pride returned: Briggs remembers his elderly mother telling hospital visitors "before they'd even had a chance to say hello" about a Pounds 1,000 advance Raymond had received for a book.

Briggs admits that The Man, his 1992 picture-book account of a relationship between a boy and a tiny, stroppy, bearded visitor, is about the two aspects of himself: the plebeian who likes beer and chips and football (the little man), and the aesthete who is interested in art and poetry (the boy). The encounter between these two characters is, says Briggs, a "conversation between the working class and the middle class".

One of Briggs's most loved characters is Father Christmas (1973), whom he recreated with the emphasis on "father". His own dad was a milkman. Father Christmas has a similar job: making deliveries in all weathers. Briggs portrays him as a working man, grumbling about the early start and the cold, glad to get back to a humble but cosy home.

Briggs's celebrated adult comic strip, When the Wind Blows (1982), about the consequences of a nuclear bomb, was remarkable for the uneducated ordinariness of its protagonists Jim and Hilda, who put Germolene on their radiation blisters; they too were portraits of his parents. And even his hymn to yuck, Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), which he says was partly a reaction to the prissiness of children's books of the time, now reads like a rebellion against the fussy fastidiousness of his mother, not least because Fungus is erudite as well as filthy (both qualities being the antithesis of his mum).

Briggs lost both his parents in the same year. Two years later in 1973, Jean, his wife of 10 years, who had suffered from schizophrenia, died too. It is possible that this catastrophic sequence of events explains the dark side that is to be found even in the happiest of his books. Children are befriended and deserted; The Snowman melts. The Man disappears. The Bear (1994) goes home to the frozen north. And When the Wind Blows concludes, inevitably, with blankness. Briggs says that, apart from the simple fact that departures solve the problem of form, he does not believe in Happy Ever After. "That is usually the beginning," he says.

He tends not to analyse his own psychology, mostly, it seems, because he is more interested in the rest of the world. He explains his own motives lightly: he got into children's book illustration because the only alternative use for his art school qualifications (from Wimbledon, the Central School and the Slade) was in advertising; he embarked on his parents' story because he had a starting point - he was intrigued by the chance circumstances in which they met. (His mother was a lady's maid, and one day his father cycled past as she was shaking a duster out of the window. This happened twice before he was emboldened to call at the house with flowers and ask her for a date.) One of the main reasons, he says, for writing Ethel amp; Ernest was to record the physical details of his parents' life: the clothes, the interiors, the wartime paraphernalia. (The look of things intrigues him: he talks enthusiastically about the shape of a Vespa scooter, and he collects objects, of which the most unusual were, for a while, "interesting electric fires".) He is not, though, materially ambitious. The success of his books, especially The Snowman, now celebrating 20 years since publication, has made him wealthy. But he has lived in the same house in a Sussex village for 31 years. His car is 10 years old. He enjoys not having to worry about money, but the thought of celebrity appals him. The Snowman has a place in the collective consciousness; Briggs's face has not.

It is tempting, but an exaggeration, to label Briggs reclusive or eccentric, simply because he does not revel in the trappings of success. Doubtless his parents, for all his mother's aspirations to poshness, would have thought it a bit uppity to do so. But he was delighted with the comment made by the three-year-old granddaughter of his current partner, whom he quaintly calls his "lady". "Raymond," said the little girl, "is not a normal person." "It's the best compliment I've ever had," says Briggs. "I want it on my tombstone. "

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