Raymond Briggs’s work was magical, charming – and unafraid of death

·6 min read
‘I don’t have happy endings’: author and illustrator Raymond Briggs in 2017 - Christopher Pledger
‘I don’t have happy endings’: author and illustrator Raymond Briggs in 2017 - Christopher Pledger

Towards the end of Raymond Briggs’s extraordinary 1998 graphic memoir of his parents, Ethel and Ernest, is a startling picture of his mother lying dead on a hospital trolley. She is skeletal, wraith-like and as still as a stone and all her heartbroken son can think to say to his equally bereft father is “they’ve put her teeth in all crooked”. A few short scenes later, Briggs’s father also dies, in 1971, overwhelmed by the absence of his wife at the kitchen table where she had sat every day for 41 years.

The book ends with a picture of Briggs and his first wife, the artist Jean Taprell Clark, in the garden of the now empty house his parents bought as feverishly excited newlyweds in 1930. He is showing her a mature apple tree laden almost collapsing with fruit that he grew himself from a single pip. “Raymond never shied away from the subject of loss,” says the illustrator Chris Riddell, who was taught by Briggs at Brighton Polytechnic in the early 1980s. “He wasn’t interested in sentimentality or in sugar coating life. He doesn’t dwell but he doesn’t look away either. That was always his great strength.”

Briggs, who died on Tuesday at the age of 88, produced across a series of radical graphic novels some of the most distinct and memorable characters in British literature. The flying snowman who befriends a lonely boy (an only child, like Briggs) one snow-swept winter night. The magnificently grumpy Father Christmas who hates his job, hates the cold even more, and who is immortalised in most children’s imaginations by the deliciously prosaic image of him on the toilet, PJs round his ankles.

The morose, revolting, anarchic outsider Fungus the Bogeyman, whose sole purpose in life is to terrify human beings. Each one brought indelibly alive by Brigg’s unpretentious, humourous, technically brilliant illustrations, and by his knack for combining comic art with a novelist’s approach to narrative and to the minutiae of ordinary people’s lives. “He excelled at taking a figure and walking it through a story,” says Riddell. “He had an amazing ability to tell a story frame by frame, each one beautifully composed and detailed yet always the sum of their parts. And he always came at his subject from unexpected angles.”

Briggs’ best loved stories are unquestionably charming and magical. Yet they are also steeped in a distinct awareness of mortality. The Snowman, written in 1978 and now a cornerstone of Christmas thanks to Channel 4’s 1982 hand drawn animated version, featuring the cherubic tones of Peter Auty, ends with an image of the boy staring desolate the next morning at a pile of melted snow. Sometimes this awareness took the form of political satire: When the Wind Blows (1982) is about a working-class couple, inspired heavily by his parents, grappling with the horror of nuclear war (not to mention the government’s fatuous public information campaigns). The Tin Pot Foreign General and The Old Iron Woman (1984) is a savage indictment of the Falklands War.

A still from the 1982 film adaptation of Briggs’s 1978 book, The Snowman - TVC London
A still from the 1982 film adaptation of Briggs’s 1978 book, The Snowman - TVC London

Yet even Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), a children’s comic novel that shares a Dahl-like relish for snot and other disgusting manifestations of bodily reality, is shot through with existential angst and a subtle understanding of the natural life cycle. “I don’t have happy endings,” Briggs once said in an interview. “I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”

In public at least, Briggs was famously a cross patch. In interviews he could come across as fabulously grumpy, particularly on the subject of Christmas, an event he detested, despite having done more than most children’s authors to contribute to its magic. He is the poet laureate of a distinctly English humdrum melancholy, with much of his work combining the cranky disaffection of Eeyore (surely a natural companion for Father Christmas) with the poetic sensibility of Larkin.

It is typical of his public persona that he refused the offer of becoming the actual children’s laureate, saying “I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. I don’t want to go to schools and give talks on children’s books. I don’t actually know anything much about children. I try to avoid them whenever possible.” Naturally children themselves absolutely adored his work.

Raymond Briggs in 2008 - PA
Raymond Briggs in 2008 - PA

Yet his reputation belies a warm and kind hearted man. Riddell, who remained friends with Briggs and last saw him for lunch just before the pandemic, thinks his austere exterior was born mainly from shyness. “He wasn’t a loud and demonstrative person. But he was always hugely encouraging. As a tutor his approach was the complete opposite of a US marine drill sergeant who breaks you down in order to build you back up.”

And at the heart of his work lay what Riddell calls a profound commitment to the truth. His books betray an understanding of life as a fragile, fleeting thing, and of history as unpredictable, violent and frightening that was born in both cases from personal experience. Ethel and Ernest isn’t just a love letter to his parents but what Riddell calls “a wonderful artist’s memoir where you can see all the inspirations that formed him as a man.”

Certainly it’s a story of romantic optimism tempered by pragmatic and often terrifying reality. His mother nearly dies giving birth in early 1934 to Briggs, her first child – she was 38; in a particularly moving sequence a doctor sternly tells Briggs’ father, a milkman, who takes off his cap as the doctor is talking to him, that there must be no more children. Later there are illustrations of young Briggs trying on gas masks and tearfully hugging his parents as he is evacuated to the countryside and later still the spectre of nuclear war.

A scene from the 1986 film adaptation of Briggs’s 1982 book, When the Wind Blows - Alamy
A scene from the 1986 film adaptation of Briggs’s 1982 book, When the Wind Blows - Alamy

Tragedy haunted his adult life, too: his first wife, Jean, was schizophrenic and subsequently died of leukaemia: “At the heart of everything he did was a poignancy,” says Riddell. “He was never sentimental but he could evoke wonderfully poignant moments – the last frame of The Snowman is absolutely a metaphor for life and death yet it’s presented in a way that a child could completely understand. It’s an extraordinarily powerful image in its beauty and simplicity.”

Yet Briggs rarely tried to write specifically for children. “A child’s imagination was never his first thought,” says Riddell. “Rather his subject matter was his own recollections of himself as a child. That was always his starting point, and from that you can see in his illustrations in particular a truth that always came from his direct experience of the world.”

Moreover he always remained true to himself, too. “He remained Raymond Briggs throughout his career. Rather than try and chase the next big thing that might appeal to the market, or which might become fashionable, he always ploughed his own path. He was never interested in doing anything else.”