Raymond Briggs talks about his latest book to Chris Powling.
He’s hairy where the Snowman was smooth, grabs where Father Christmas would give and is only a fraction the size of Fungus the Bogeyman… otherwise, he’s typically Briggsian. Who else, after all, could have created THE MAN, a tiny outsider who’s ‘adorable from behind, so baby-ish and vulnerable with his nappy and nappy-pin, but aggressive -even rat-like -from the front’?
Where did this odd combination of goblin and Alf Garnett spring from – deep in the Briggs psyche? ‘I shouldn’t think so.’ Is reference being made to that common phenomenon, a Phantom Friend, then? ‘That’s never occurred to me till you just said it.’
Perhaps some allusion to other-worlds is intended…
… which would seem to settle that line of argument. The Man who brings us THE MAN is as cagey as his central character when discussing the book’s origins. ‘I simply tried to imagine what would happen if you woke up one morning and found a small man on the bedside table, that was all. I was in the middle of doing another book at the time and had to give up to do this… somehow it was a bit more urgent. THE MAN is an ordinary human being, only different in size and slightly different – a bit aboriginal-physically. But he’s not part of some elvish, underground Tolkien-ian culture at all. Because of his extremely small stature he can’t live in the normal world – can’t work or have a job, can’t travel on public transport or do anything ordinary people do. He can’t even turn on a tap or get the milk in. So he’s forced to live a parasitical life hiding in other people’s houses.’
Certainly the sheer logic of THE MAN’s situation permits endless comedy as The Boy he adopts for a guardian is forced to help him cope – with dressing, with sleeping, with filling his stomach and emptying his bladder. Staying secret is itself an imperative in a world of Authorities:
Raymond Briggs goes on to exploit a range of satirical possibilities – not least the frustration and bafflement of a youngster who has to take on the role of a parent. First and foremost THE MAN is bitingly funny.
Is this the whole story, though? Isn’t there another, odder resonance? For instance, can it be entirely an accident that The Boy, forty years on, would look somewhat like Raymond Briggs himself? ‘Well… it’s so easy to draw your own face or your mother’s face which is very like your own. It’s the first thing you see when you’re a baby – probably the most important thing in your life for months, if not years. So it gets deep into your unconscious.’ Beyond this Raymond Briggs won’t be drawn except to refer you to Alan Bennett’s notion of the writer-in-disguise which would apply equally, of course, to The Boy’s earthy, irrepressible lodger. What’s undeniable is that much of the tension in the book is generated by the opposing dangers of ‘falling into fancy, artistic preciousness on the one hand’ and ‘coarseness, ignorance and stupidity on the other’. Craftsmanship, he reckons, provides a refuge from both. To clinch this point he jabs a finger upwards at his own roof, currently being overhauled. ‘The blokes up there are laying this leadwork round the chimneypot and creating this valley down the middle – marvellously done with tiny panels and beautiful copper nails. I said to them “if you’d done that at the Art School in the sculpture department, you’d get a B.A. (Hons)”.’
Raymond Briggs’s craftsmanship, as always, is impeccable. THE MAN is twice the length of most picture-books, offers its script-like text wholly in dialogue differentiated by typeface and cartoon balloons, runs the gamut of design options with no double-spread repeated… and nearly wore its author out. ‘I got terribly depressed doing it – it was so repetitive. Each character appears over a hundred times. I thought “my god, if I draw this bloody man again I’ll scream“. It’s what I like about writing. You can’t muck it up. With illustration, you do a day’s work on a face then realise the eyes are slightly crossed… or he’s staring past the glass he should be looking at. It’s ghastly.’
In fact, it took two months to write THE MAN, another five to lay out the design and a total of two years to complete it in full colour. Like its central character, the project long outstayed its welcome – appropriately enough for a book which takes as its epigraph the Chinese Proverb, ‘After three days, fish and visitors begin to stink’. Raymond Briggs is adamant that he’ll ‘never do it again’. The last picture of all, though, suggests that some aspects of THE MAN, or perhaps The Man, aren’t so easily shaken off so we’d better stay on the alert for his next foray into Fungus or Father Christmas or Snowman territory. What Raymond Briggs does so well is invent mythical figures which remind us sharply of ourselves – especially those aspects we tend to hide in other people’s houses.
THE MAN by Raymond Briggs was published in August by Julia MacRae, 1 85681 191 3, at £9.99. There’s also a Tellastory tape available, read by Michael Palin and William Puttock (1 85656 209 3) at £4.99.