He seems to have become very good at creating excellence out of accepting the inevitable with a mixture of wry resignation and high quality pragmatism. Like most of his generation of artists he didn’t set out to do children’s books. At Wimbledon Art School he absorbed the prevailing ethic and decided he was going to be a painter. After a long and enthusiastic review by John Berger of one of his paintings he thought, ‘I’ve arrived’ but at the Slade where he studied after National Service it was a different story. ‘I got nowhere. I was bottom of the league table. And they were right. That was what was so painful.’ He tried portraits, got one or two into exhibitions and ‘sat back and waited for the commissions to come rolling in from the English aristocracy. Nothing happened, so that was that.’
It was necessary to earn a living so he got together a folder of drawings and went out looking for ‘commercial’ work. Gradually more and more of what he was asked to do was for children’s books. ‘I was a bit horrified. I wanted to do book illustration but when I realised it meant kids’ books it was rather a blow.’ He had an interview at O.U.P. with the formidable Mabel George. ‘She said, “How do you feel about fairies?” I thought, “Bloody Hell, has it come to this? A so-called painter with ideas of joining Francis Bacon and that kind of world being asked what you feel about fairies.” It gave me a jolt.’ But not for long. ‘She gave me a book of Cornish fairy stories by Ruth Manning-Sanders to illustrate. They are wonderful stories and it soon dawned on me that fairy stories and nursery rhymes are the best possible things for an illustrator.’
It was this unusual combination of an eye to the main chance and the pursuit of perfection that led Briggs into writing. He’s always been fascinated by words and illustrating Antelopes for Hamish Hamilton he kept wanting to alter the texts. ‘They were so awful I thought anyone can do better than this. So I wrote one for my own satisfaction and took it to the editor for advice about my writing. To my amazement he said he’d publish it. I thought well, that just shows the standard.’ For a moment he was distracted. ‘I thought if it’s that easy to be a writer then I’ll give up illustration and write. It’s much better paid and much quicker.’ But there was that lingering desire to excel. ‘For every one who can illustrate well enough to get into print there’s twenty who can write well enough. It’s more difficult to get anywhere.’ So he went back to picture books and nursery rhymes. Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses, The White Land and Fee Fi Fo Fum went down well in America and his American editor said ‘We are going to do the biggest, longest, fattest nursery rhyme book ever,’ and in 1966 The Mother Goose Treasury appeared.
By now Raymond Briggs was becoming an established name in children’s books. He did some picture books for other writers’ texts (including that all-time favourite The Elephant and the Bad Baby) and then thought it was ‘time to write my own picture books’. Jim and the Beanstalk added another slant to the marvellously varied collection of giants in his previous work. It turns the traditional tale on its head and applies to it the logic of contemporary realism with richly humorous results. ‘The original story was all rather cruel. The giant hadn’t done anything wrong but he was constantly being beaten up and robbed – like giants always are in these old stories. I thought it would be better to have a kindlier more NHS attitude to him.’
It was the same realistic gaze he turned on Father Christmas. ‘I thought if he was really real he’d have to do all the things everyone does – get up, clean his teeth, go to the lavatory, have breakfast. I realised I was treading on hallowed ground, dealing with a holy, almost saint-like figure in too familiar a way.’ He thinks Hamish Hamilton were very brave to take it on. ‘I didn’t think it would go down very well. And I’m amazed they did Fungus and When the Wind Blows. They were all very dangerous publishing ventures.’
Father Christmas is still his favourite book. ‘It’s very much my parents’ house in Wimbledon Park where I lived for 25 years. And it’s the last book I finished before my wife died.’ In it he found his way back to the strip cartoon. In the design of the Father Christmas books, The Snowman (a wordless delight for the youngest), Fungus, Gentleman Jim and When the Wind Blows he has made a distinctive contribution to the history of the comic strip (which he rightly views as a minor art form). But he’s not going to be stuck with it. Two years of inventing Bogeydom and assembling enough material for three more Fungus books which will probably never get written have sent him in another direction.
‘It’s made me want to do a novel. You haven’t got the maddening limitation of the space. In Fungus I’d just about introduced the character and set the scene and I’d run out of paper. There was no time to tell the story of Fungus’s great dream of healing the breach between the Dry Cleaners and the Bogeys and the schemes he tried to bring this about.’ He’s now writing what he calls a ‘long unillustrated text’. ‘You can’t call it a novel. It’s more a fictional journal and it’s not for children.’ The words have captured him again.
Fungus already has a large adult audience. Raymond Briggs’ latest book When the Wind Blows was published on the adult list. In it he looks with devastating logic at the nuclear issue and tells a bitterly ironic story that arouses laughter, anger and tears simultaneously. The book has struck a chord with adults, young people and older children. ‘It all began in April 1981 after that Panorama programme. It was a bit of a knockout. The next day there was a TV crew here and we were talking about it. One of them said “There’s your next book Raymond.” I thought, “Yes, what a fantastic idea.”‘ In producing it he has become more involved in the issues it raises. After arguing about it for two years he has finally joined CND. ‘I realise the real menace is the nuclear thing. Everything else – the East v. West thing – is a tiny detail, a mere nothing. I’m very pessimistic but I hardly dare say that to people, especially people with children.’
Raymond Briggs has the deep seriousness of the best humourists. He’s a shy reticent man, not afraid of solitude but enjoying the contact that friends and a little teaching at Brighton brings him. He lives alone and works hard. But it would be a mistake to see him as a lugubrious semi-hermit. Serious he may be but he also has a great sense of fun. The three weeks of intensive work he did with Ron van der Meer on The Plop-Up Book were a small riot and he is smilingly aware of life’s ironies and absurdities.
Happily for us he has not abandoned children’s books entirely. A new picture book called at the moment Unlucky Charlie may be out next year. And it’s not a comic strip.