Since he’s probably off on holiday to Tijuana, or Trinidad, or Timbuktu, this is just the time to celebrate
18 January 2004
Dear Mr Briggs, sir:
Our Editor, who keeps a watchful eye on her calendar (not least to keep her errant Classicist in order), tells me that today is your seventieth birthday.
I don’t believe her.
After all, it’s only a year or two ago that we were rejoicing in the warm glow of Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses or admiring the compact elegance of Midnight Adventure. But I must admit that you have been mightily productive since those early offspring arrived, what with whomping great treasuries of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, frightening bandes dessinées (pour épater le bourgeois), and all those long short and tall picture books that have brought such comfort to media men and the makers of woolly toys.
I know all this because, unlike you, I am an aged and tottering person who has, through rheumy eyes, viewed your joyous progress and piled up your Collected Works (but not the chinaware) as a consolation against the time when the wind blows cold. So when Our Editor commands me to classicize you I am dubious how to do so in all this embarrassment of Briggandage.
Did I not have such records, what matter?
For I see that – believing rumours of your advancing age – one of your publishers has put out what looks to be a preliminary tombstone treasury of your Blooming Books*. Supervised by Ms Nicolette Jones your whole oeuvre is paraded before us – somewhat promiscuously as to chronology, since the good lady seeks to chop you up into categories: early years, nursery classics, a gallery of characters, and (of course) Social Issues, all rounded off with a very rudimentary ‘bibliography’. Your admirers and students of your peculiar artistry may browse cheerfully through this conspectus, albeit with some frustration, since there seems to be no clear policy on how to illustrate you. Sometimes we see an odd page or two from attractive but now unobtainable volumes, occasionally there’s a preparatory sketch or an ephemeral drawing which cause us to shout for more, and then, most oddly, there are complete or near-complete, reprints of whole books which may well yet be bought from the bookshops.
Classics all, you may say, but having to select one title brings home just how loose a term ‘classic’ is (are Ms Jones’s ‘nursery classics’ all really that?). Discussing that metaphysical question with Our Editor, I was perversely inclined to single out Jim and the Beanstalk on the grounds that it marks the arrival of – if I may be so pompous – the quintessential You as author-illustrator. (The Elephant and the Bad Baby, which came out a year earlier, is certainly classic in its handling of a cumulative tale, but there you were working with another writer.) What would have been perverse in selecting Jim as our chosen book though would have been the all-too-predictable fact of its being about to go out of print – a common fate for Great Books these days.
So we shook the bran-tub one more time.
The Editor was keen on Fungus, either in his original 1977 glory or plopping up in 1982 and he does indeed dwell in the classic carnivalesque tradition of ‘the world turned upside down’. But does your wildly original take on the theme have classic status to anyone outside the fraternity of punsters? We also nearly fell for The Snowman which may well be the world’s choice judging by its commercial exploitation. Who could fault the warmth of this winter’s tale, the perfect drawing that carries your wordless narrative to its touching conclusion? Surely – no contest?
And yet… and yet… for this hypercritical critic a faint unease persists over the indoor larks that occupy so much of the centre of the book: hand-warming at the fridge, feasting from the freezer etc. Yes, sir, they are a delight, but – in narrative terms – arbitrary, happy adventures of ideas which do not cumulate in any significant way until the wonders of the night flight to Brighton.
For that reason and that alone your other universally acknowledged classic, Father Christmas, must take the biscuit (with a sup of port on the side). It has the same mastery of pictorial narrative, now coupled with the joy of seeing your curmudgeonly hero defy convention and hearing his monosyllabic grousing (how different from all those ho-ho-ing Santas brought in on Clement Clark Moore’s behalf in BfK 42?). Frame by frame the momentum of the story is sustained and the shifts and pauses of the old chap’s journeyings have an organic quality that is less evident in the doings of that other winter character. Thank you though for everything, dear boy, we would not want to be without any of it – and have a Bloomin’ Happy Birthday.
* Raymond Briggs Blooming Books, words by Nicolette Jones, Jonathan Cape in association with Puffin Books, 2003, 288pp, 0 224 06478 9, £19.99 hbk
Father Christmas, Puffin, 0 14 050125 8, £5.99 pbk
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.