The Snowman author has always looked hard truths and bogeymen in the eye. He talks about his frank new illustrated memoir, Time for Lights Out
Famously, Raymond Briggs hates Christmas; it’s one of the ironies of modern publishing that this self-described “grumpy old man” has become inextricably linked with the juggernaut of the festive season. The animation of his picture book The Snowman, first screened in 1982, is now as traditional as mince pies and family rows. Stage shows, adverts, toys, toilet paper – “it’s a worldwide industry,” he marvels. “China, Japan: a world of Snowmen. The whole blessed world.” Time has done nothing to soften his irritation with the cheerful satsuma-nosed figure. “I was fed up with it years ago. I’m even more fed up with it now it’s been going on for nearly 40 bloody years.”
Of course, there’s not a frond of tinsel to be seen in Briggs’s original, which ends with a mournful heap of melted snow. It was the animation that brought in troops of dancing snowmen around a jolly Santa Claus – and it took many “liquid lunches” before Briggs agreed to sell the film rights to producer John Coates. “Every five minutes he’d raise the topic and I’d say no because I knew he’d commercialise it. Which he did. Done very well, at the same time.” Briggs had already conjured a far more characteristic vision of the festive season in 1973’s Father Christmas, which featured a solitary old curmudgeon toiling through bad weather on his sleigh in oilskins, complaining all the way. “Bloody awful job,” Briggs says. “He’s going to be a bit grumpy.”
The fact that the Snowman book and film have merged in the public imagination is a further source of frustration. “It annoys me that people think the book’s success is based on the film. It’s the other way around, for God’s sake! Not that I care,” he adds rather unconvincingly. The Snowman film is what’s responsible for all the “piles of Snowman tat” he’s been sent over the decades (a neighbour used to sell the overflow on eBay for charity). “Snowmen creep in everywhere!” he says. His reluctant fondness is perhaps indicated by the souvenir mug that crops up in a drawing for his new book, Time for Lights Out.
You could call it an autobiography; in his own words it’s a “hotchpotch” of drawings and verse, still lifes and scribbles, observations, memories and quotations. All of them face head on, with unblinking clarity and a certain grim humour, the universal drama of ageing and death. Nearly 86 and frail but chipper, Briggs is now contending, as he gallantly puts it, with “a touch of Parkinsonism”, and has a live-in carer (“wonderful woman, I couldn’t do without her”). He has been working on the book over the past decade and a half, setting it aside for long periods while caring for his long-term partner, Liz Benjamin, who died in 2015.
The book concentrates as much on words as images. “It just happens sometimes, you’re writing and it starts turning into verse. I was amazed, really. I don’t call it poetry because it’s not.” Drawn entirely in soft grey pencil, it begins with the shared domesticity of old age and the joys of a daily walk (“Great clots of primroses everywhere! Good job this book’s not in colour. I’d have to paint the bloody things”). It goes on to investigate the mysteries of old men’s hair, the frailties of age and ill health, the passing of time and the stubborn endurance of objects (“the breadboard I use today, and the knife, have been with me all my life”). Briggs returns to his childhood during the second world war; to his evacuation to the countryside, and to his parents, previously immortalised in the 1998 graphic memoir Ethel and Ernest.
There are memories of his wife, Jean Taprell Clark, whose schizophrenia meant that they decided not to have children, and who died of leukaemia in 1973. Briggs includes heartbreakingly beautiful photographs and a love letter she wrote to him from hospital. In a section called “Soon” he thinks ahead, to the inevitable care home and even to the grave, but always maintaining a mordant humour. “Future Ghosts” imagines his house being cleared after his death: “There must have been / some barmy old bloke here / long-haired, artsy-fartsy type, / did pictures for kiddy books / or some such tripe.” Sweet sketches and verse about his step-grandchildren – “a shaft of light amid the gloom of old age” – are a welcome interlude.
He’s publishing it, he says, as a work in progress. “I wasn’t ever going to have enough life to finish it properly, so I thought I’d better get it out now. Bit of a dodge, really.” With more time and energy, “I’d finish off some of the drawings that are only scribbles. You start drawing it, then you leave it, but you never get round to finishing it off. Everything takes so bloody long when you’re old. I’ve just spent half an hour getting dressed. Ludicrous!”
But any raggedness seems entirely fitting for a book created from a vantage point of both magisterial confidence and profound uncertainty – looking back on a life of extraordinary artistic achievement from the vulnerability of old age. There are smudges and rubbings out, feints and wavering handwriting; impressionistic scribbles, in which the dog Jess is a joyous scrawl of life-force energy, contrast with calm vistas of landscape. In studies of that long-lived breadboard, or a light switch or door handle, decades of wear and emotion are miraculously made visible.
Briggs is delighted to have it out in the world – though he does manage to summon some customary annoyance about the misty drawing of a man reading to a small child beneath the first piece, “Once Upon a Time”, which riffs on the contrast between childhood bedtime stories and life’s final “lights out”. “You can hardly see the bloody thing it’s so badly printed,” he complains. I counter that presumably it is meant to be faint. “Not THAT faint,” he snaps back. “It’s too fucking faint we could say! Oh dear.”
Time for Lights Out is also extraordinarily frank about the physical indignities of old age – at one point, he is post-op in hospital at 3am, weeping, “with a Dr White’s sanitary towel / stuck up my bum”. (A nurse comforts him with a cuddle.) In a society that tends to shy away from the realities of death and decrepitude, the honesty is shocking. The emotional nakedness of the book is startling, too – there is no filter on his most raw, self-betraying memories. He writes about his impatience with Jean, or thinking at his father’s deathbed, “Don’t sit swinging your legs like a little boy. Get on with it, and die.”
But then Briggs has been breaking taboos from the start of his career, even in his children’s books; showing Father Christmas on the toilet, then rejoicing in the yuck factor of his fantastical 1977 grimefest Fungus the Bogeyman. “I was going to do an alphabet book – A is for apple. And then I thought, why does it have to be so perfect? Why can’t the apple have a maggot sticking out of the top? And that’s how I became immersed in bogeydom.” In Ethel and Ernest, he was strikingly matter-of-fact about his wife’s mental illness – and no reader will forget the stark, devastating drawing of his mother’s dead body on a hospital trolley. That same readiness to look horror in the eye, and get it down on paper in a domestic context, was what made When the Wind Blows, his 1982 graphic novel about an old couple during nuclear war, so powerful. (He’s left politics behind now: “I thought a United States of Europe was rather a nice idea, but I don’t think about all that now. Too old.”)
I wonder if this frankness is a reaction against the buttoned-up decorum of the previous generation, and in particular his mother, a former lady’s maid who prized euphemism above unpleasantness and would chase her long-haired son around with a comb, but Briggs has never liked dwelling on his motivations. “It’s not a campaign. I just do what I want to do.” The closest he’ll come to a self-diagnosis is the definition of a “creative sociopath” that he seized on some years ago and still has pinned up on the wall. “‘Artistic people … can appear self-absorbed, impulsive, impatient and intolerant’,” he reads aloud. “Brilliant. That’s me to a tee.”
Briggs grew up in Wimbledon with his mother and milkman father, and initially wanted to become a reporter. Then, inspired by Giles and other cartoonists, “I became interested in drawing as well. All the things I wanted to do even at that early age were to do with print – printed writing, printed drawing, the press. I wasn’t interested in daubing oil paint. No good with the damn stuff, sticky and awkward.” His ambition to become a lowly cartoonist met with outrage at an interview for the Wimbledon School of Art, but they let him in anyway. “It was all Italian Renaissance – I always preferred the northern school, Bruegel and Rembrandt and whatnot. The Italians were mythical; I preferred the ordinariness.”
After being conscripted as a draughtsman for his national service, and then a spell at the Slade, Briggs began to work as an illustrator. He brought a touch of Bruegel to his first big success, peopling the 1966 Mother Goose Treasury with sturdily everyday folk, and began to write for children after discovering how bad most kids’ books were. His success, as he puts it now, was simple: “I liked to find fantastical creatures and treat them realistically – I think that’s quite a good idea.” An endlessly fascinated eye for detail and refusal to dissemble made him an instinctively brilliant children’s writer, but he’s never differentiated between his audiences. “I don’t see any difference between doing children’s and adult books. My attitude is exactly the same. I just do the book as I want it to be.”
Mortality and the piercing nostalgia for vanished times have been a constant in all his work: the snowman melts; Father Christmas cooks his lunch in a loving replica of Briggs’s battered childhood kitchen. In Time for Lights Out, which from the title on explores the correlations between childhood and old age, the subjects that have moved him all his career become only more intensely felt. Not least is the fascination with his parents, whose possessions endure as much as their memories. We discover that the mirror his dad brought home on the back of his bike before Raymond was born, mounted on the mantelpiece with such pride in Ethel and Ernest, now lurks in Briggs’s garage, nearly nine decades on. “Clumsy and ugly / not even quaint or kitsch … How can I throw it away?”
“I think you’re a bit obsessed with your parents,” accuses his contradictory alter ego Prodnose, who pops up throughout the book telling Briggs off for being bad-tempered or a dirty old man. How does he explain that obsession now? “I was an only child, and my mother had me very late – most unusual for those times. She absolutely, totally worshipped me. It was awful, I think, the way she treated my dad. Once my dad bought this car as a great treat, for the first time in his life, and she made him give it to me. I didn’t want the damn thing anyway! There were no quarrels between them, it’s just that I came first for her.”
The stretch of time that has elapsed since his parents’ death in 1971, two years before his wife Jean, now astonishes Briggs. If you haven’t had children, he says, “deaths are the biggest event of your life”. And once you reach old age yourself, as he quotes from Muriel Spark’s novel Memento Mori, it’s like living on a battlefield, with friends either going or gone. But Briggs has also made space in Time for Lights Out for Spark’s pointed remark on the importance of facing up to mortality: “There is no other practice which so intensifies life.”