Raymond Briggs was born in London in 1934.
He went to Wimbledon School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. From 1961 to 1987 he was a part-time lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic, during which time he became an author and freelance illustrator.
His talent for eccentric comedy was established with his Mother Goose Treasury (1966), for which he won his first Kate Greenaway Medal. The second was awarded for Father Christmas (1973), which uses the comic-strip format, as do other notable publications, including Fungus the Bogeyman (1973), The Snowman (1979), When the Wind Blows (1982), Ethel and Ernest (1998) and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age (2001).
I interviewed him in November 1998.
From what I’ve read you seem to have something of a reputation for being gloomy. Would you say that under all the gloom there is a happy man struggling to get out?
There’s a happy man struggling to get in, I think. I do feel basically very gloomy about life, I suppose because it all ends in death. Most of my work seems to have a sad ending, so they tell me. But these so-called happy endings like ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’ are not really endings at all; they’re beginnings. An actual ending is always sad, I think.
I have the impression that you hanker after the past and that the modern world is somehow too much for you. Is that right?
That’s a question of age. Once you get to sixty you start idealizing the past and thinking, oh, it was so much better in the olden days. Of course, it probably wasn’t, although I have to say I do think things have gone slightly mad with technology, which has possibly done more harm than good. In the old days people came into their offices and there was an in-tray full of letters and there would be a few phone calls in the course of the day, but now there are faxes and e-mail and voicemail, and the whole system bogs up. In much the same way, we have all these wonderfully improved communications nowadays and yet you can’t phone anybody anymore. Where I live in the country we can’t phone our village policeman, the local railway station, the local bank any more – all you can do is speak to a girl looking at a screen up in Liverpool or somewhere.
Would you say you are ill at ease with the times in which we live?
Yes, I think anyone of a certain age is. The world is run by people aged between twenty and forty mainly, and by the time you’re sixty you feel that your heyday is over. People who are slightly older than me, people in their seventies, won’t use an answer phone. If my elderly relations phone me and get the machine they won’t leave a message on it. They say, oh, I can’t talk to these things, and they put the phone down. That’s the way I am with computers.
Your upbringing and background, and in particular your parents, have provided rich source material for your books. Would you say that because of this concentration on the past, as it were, you are someone who prefers to look back rather than forward?
Somebody said that most artists work out of their childhood, and I think that applies to children’s-book artists too. Besides, it’s a natural thing to do when you get to my age.
But do you feel old at sixty-four?
Yes. I’m very much aware of the end approaching at sixty-four. My father died at seventy-one, and I remember feeling that he’d had a good innings and that it wasn’t a bad age to die. Now that seventy-one is only a few years away, it seems horribly near, and although I don’t have Philip Larkin’s obsession with thinking he would die at exactly the same age as his father, I don’t feel I’m somehow going to leap into some wondrous new existence. I wish I could, it would be terrific, but I just don’t feel the same enthusiasm. I’ve done about twenty or thirty books and I just think, oh, here we go again.
Do you believe that the person one becomes in adult life can be explained entirely in terms of childhood influences and events?
Gosh, that’s a difficult question. I don’t know that it can be explained entirely, but it is certainly explained partly. There’s no doubt that the kind of childhood I and the people of my generation had – playing out in the woods, climbing trees, damming streams and all that kind of outdoor life away from home – doesn’t happen any more. Most boys go straight home to their computer screens after school, and that technology combined with this supposed danger of lurking child-molesters at every corner, stops children going away from home as much as they once did. When I was eleven or twelve, we used to come right up into the city from Wimbledon Park and go beachcombing down by the Thames at Blackfriars, and get out on to the roof of St Paul’s, where you’re not supposed to go – all that kind of thing, which is unthinkable today. My parents would let me go off for the entire day and not expect to see me until the evening.
Was the experience of being an only child ever lonely or burdensome?
No, I didn’t notice it at all. I don’t think I envied my friends who had brothers and sisters – it just seemed to me perfectly natural. Looking back on it I was rather glad actually, because it meant that I got more attention and I had a room to myself. I’ve always been very keen on privacy. Being in the army on national service was the worst torture, because I had to share a room with twenty-eight other people. There was never a second’s privacy, except in the lavatory.
You described yourself as being an adored child…did you ever feel the pressure of having to behave in a way that merited this adoration?
Yes, but not oppressively so. They were very easy-going parents really. Later on when I seemed to be a student forever, my mother kept on at work to support me, so I did feel massively obligated at that time, and that made me work a bit harder than I otherwise might have done. I felt it was a terrific privilege, and I couldn’t bear to see other people lazing about at art school. In the army the men thought it astounding that I had reached the grand old age of nineteen without going to work and were quite indignant about it. I remember one Scotch chap who was a friend of mine saying, why the fucking hell should we pay for your fucking education, and I thought, yeah, quite a good point, why should you? There was a grant for all those years at art school paid for by the taxes of working people, and that gave me quite a guilt complex.
Would you say that the important decisions in your life were very much tempered by consideration for your parents?
I’m not aware of having made any great important decisions really. It was more that I had my parents ingrained. The morality at that time consisted in hard work, being respectable, not doing anything too outrageous, and I suppose I inherited that. I mean, I didn’t go in a pub until after the army, I didn’t drink alcohol until I was twenty-two or so, which by today’s standards is incredible.
What about sex?
That came terribly late too. I don’t think working class people of my parents’ generation and background were particularly active, certainly not if they wanted to be respectable. And of course in those days there wasn’t the pill, so people were kept fairly moral in the 1950s and there was a completely different attitude to sex.
And were you shy with women as a young man?
Oh yes, absolutely. During my five years at grammar school, up to the age of fifteen, I’d scarcely spoken to a girl in that time. I was very underdeveloped physically, my voice hadn’t even broken, and it was absolutely terrible at school because for the first two or three years I was quite good at sport. But then at fourteen all these people in my class turned into great big men with enormous penises covered in hair, and I was still a little boy. I left school at the height of five foot two with a piping voice, and was plunged into art school with all these gorgeous girls of sixteen and eighteen. This didn’t give me much confidence on the women front.
But later on in life, did you consider sex important?
Important, yes, but slightly intimidating. If you’re one of these terribly good-looking men, women chuck themselves at you all the time and are quite content to have a fling and forget it, but the women who would go for an ordinary chap like me were usually wanting a fairly deep relationship and had to fall in love. I was always fearful of involvement in that sense.
I gather from reading Ethel and Ernest that you rather disappointed your parents by choosing to go to art school – they would have much preferred you to have an office job and wear a collar and tie. Did you feel very sure of what you wanted to do?
Yes, I wanted to be a cartoonist and I was determined to go to art school to learn to draw. I hated the grammar school anyway and wanted to get out of it, so my parents were terribly disappointed. To them art school was something completely foreign and incomprehensible and probably not very respectable. But they did support me, which was very good and broadminded of them.
The idea of being an artist must surely have seemed quite a romantic concept, not just for your parents but also for you at that time…
Yes, being an artist in the painterly sense was terribly remote. When I went to art school I hadn’t even heard of Van Gogh, in fact I knew nothing about painting at all. My one idea was to draw cartoons. As for my parents, they thought of artists in terms of long hair, drink, nude women and general bohemianism, so it was very noble of them not to make more fuss.
You married Jean, who suffered from schizophrenia. That must have been very difficult…
It’s a full-time occupation looking after someone with schizophrenia. Those who suffer from it have a very tenuous grasp on reality, and they have physical seizures, rather like epilepsy. There is also fainting and teeth-gritting to contend with, both of which are exhausting, and they can have delusions, actually seeing things in the room that aren’t there – although Jean didn’t have much of that. She suffered more from what’s called referential mania, where she would see a piece of writing and think it was a message for her of some kind, that someone was trying to tell her something. She saw significance in signs and notices, because schizophrenics are so intent on themselves that everything occurring in the outside world is somehow related to them. People can even think that the twigs blowing on a tree are somehow signalling about them.
Did you have any clear idea of the nature and extent of your wife’s mental-health problems when you married?
Oh yes, yes. She’d been like it for some time. Schizophrenia quite often comes in the late teens, which it did with her, but she felt – and that’s what kept her going – that there was a cure round the corner. Sometimes it can disappear and then either come back or not come back; some people have florid periods for a couple of years and then no more, but other people suffer all their lives off and on with lucid intervals in between, and it has to be held down with drugs so that life becomes bearable. It’s quite a thing to live with. I don’t think one could have managed a child with it, quite apart from the child inheriting the blessed thing anyway…
There were ten years of marriage before your wife died. Presumably there were highs and lows in that time…
Oh, yes. I myself think schizophrenia in one sense is a gift, by which I mean that the person is intently emotional and moved by things. They’re the very opposite of boring, because you never quite know what kind of mood they’re going to be in, either the depths of despair or tremendous elation, or claustrophobia or agoraphobia – all these things seem to come into it at different times.
How did you cope with the bad times? How did you stop yourself from going mad?
I did get symptoms of fear, which sounds crazy now. I used to think: what are we going to do this evening? How are we going to get through the time from teatime to bedtime, this yawning gap of time? I felt fearful, and I developed slight claustrophobia which I’ve still got, dating from that time. For example, I don’t go on the tube. So you do become affected by it; you don’t catch schizophrenia itself, but you get a kind of nervous exhaustion from living with it, which produces its own symptoms.
She was young when she died, and it must have been very hard…was there a sense in which you were able to think about it as a release from suffering?
Yes, I did think that. She was in hospital with leukaemia but continuing to have schizophrenic attacks, and I remember writing at the time that I had never seen such suffering. She had both things going on together, which was appalling.
Your latest book Ethel and Ernest, the story of your parents, is a way of making quite ordinary lives seem extraordinary in terms of the integrity of their daily existence, the dynamic of their marriage, and the values they embraced. It is also a handsome tribute to them. Was that important to you, to pay tribute to them, I mean, somehow to mark their lives?
No, I didn’t do it with any kind of high-minded attitude of paying tribute to them; I just thought it would be interesting to look back on that time, particularly perhaps the house itself and the fact that they stayed in the same place for forty-one years, I just wanted to relive the whole thing, particularly the building, and of course their relationship. I was especially inspired by the way they met – the fact that my father was cycling along the road and my mum was dusting this big grand house and just walked to the window to shake the duster at that precise moment. It was split-second timing, and if the window had struck, or if he had stopped at the traffic lights or something, they would never have waved at each other. I always thought that was a marvellous story.
Are you in danger of romanticizing your parents, do you think, or the lives that they led?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve been sentimental, or idealized their lives. They had their rows and disagreements, but there were never any major breakdowns in their relationships at all, no affairs that I know of. My mother certainly didn’t, and my father – well, I don’t know what he did on the milk round, but I just think it most unlikely. There’s a scene in the book based on a story he told me where a chap asks him to deal with his highly sexed wife, but he politely refuses.
There is a dignity and simplicity about your parents’ story which you seem to suggest have all but vanished. Is that how you see it?
It’s much more difficult for people today to lead that simple kind of life, partly because of television. My mother had never heard of homosexuality, for example, until she was over sixty, and even then she didn’t really quite believe it. Nowadays when marriages are under strain men can get on a plane and go to San Francisco for a business trip, and anything can happen while they’re there, whereas if you’re only going down the road to deliver milk there’s not so much chance.
One gets the feeling that although you profoundly admire what might be called the values of your parents, you do not necessarily share them…your world is much larger than theirs, you would not be shocked by the same things…
Oh no, very much not. I’m not bothered by homosexuality or what people do at all. I think there was a terrible song and dance made about the Clinton business – it’s so boring, so irrelevant and uninteresting. What people do sexually is so desperately unimportant really.
Your parents never questioned anything, they simply accepted their lot and got on with that life threw at them. Nowadays the culture seems to be to question everything, to be concerned with rights much more than with duties. Is that a source of regret with you?
One of the sad things that has happened is if you say the word ‘duty’ you immediately sound pompous and people start smirking behind their hands at the mention of the word. The theme of the film Brief Encounter, for example, was duty; two people madly in love, but they know they’ve got a duty to their wife and husband and their kids, and so they don’t proceed with their affair and ruin the lives of several other people, and I think that was admirable. People tend to laugh at that film now and think it’s a joke, but I don’t. I think it’s a shame that the concept of duty has almost disappeared.
There is quite a lot of political comment in your books…are you a political animal, would you say?
Not terribly, other than having been broadly left-wing all my life, I suppose, and now slightly right-wing, which seems to happen to everyone as they get older. I still get incensed about the House of Lords, for example, all these hereditary peers able to contradict what the elected majority want to do. In that sense, I feel fairly in tune with the right-wingish Labour government we’ve got at the moment. I was passionately against the unions being over-powerful, as I think they were at one time – we used to have trouble even in my profession when the print unions refused artwork unless you had your chapel number on the back of it. I didn’t know what a chapel number was, but it turned out that the work of freelance artists was only accepted if you joined their union, which was insane, because they knew nothing about our kind of work. It was simply a dreadful kind of blackmail.
You describe yourself as having ‘an obsessive personality’. Has that been an advantage for your work, would you say?
Yes. Unless I’m obsessed, I can’t get it done, and if it doesn’t obsess me there’s no point in doing it, because it means the idea is lukewarm. I’ve had several lukewarm ideas since I did Ethel and Ernest, but none of them has obsessed me enough to make me want to get on with it. I also get obsessions about silly things, you know, like collecting things.
What sort of things?
Electric fires. It sounds lunatic, doesn’t it? But they all work, and if they don’t I get them repaired, but I’ve got more than I need to use, so I’d like to have a bigger place where I could use them all. I’d like to display them properly but I haven’t got room for them.
I get the impression you’re not a religious man…do you sometimes wish you could have the comforts of religion?
Yes, but you can’t have the comforts without the pain. All this nonsense about having the heaven without the hell…well, I certainly don’t believe in hell, nor do I believe that the whole construct of the world came from a kind a loving God. If there is a God at all, I always say he must be an absolute bastard. I have seen what he does to people like my wife – all that suffering. Obviously people have to die, but they don’t have to die in prolonged agony. God could just let people fall asleep or fade away; they don’t have to suffer in this appalling way. So I don’t believe in God at all, and I’ve always disliked Christianity intensely. Indeed most religions seems to produce a state of mind which leads to warfare and killing.
You are quoted as saying: ‘Life’s ultimately sad, because people idealize their children.’ Can you explain what you meant by that remark?
I just feel that when people have a new baby, things are absolutely wonderful, as of course they are, but then it seems to me that as time goes on things become less and less wonderful. The huge event is the birth, it’s supremely miraculous that this amazing creature has appeared from nowhere, and then they become more and more pedestrian the older they get. By the time they’re teenagers they have become fairly insufferable, and then when they grow out of that stage they turn out to be quite ordinary, like the people next door. So there’s a slight anticlimax to the whole thing; you might still love them, of course, but they’ve become fairly ordinary.
But you don’t think we idealize our children because they contain the future, they are symbols of hope? They might not turn out as we hope but if we stop hoping, is that not worse?
Oh yes, it would be awful if people didn’t idealize their children – I would be exactly the same and, as you say, they are the future and each generation thinks they are going to get it right. It’s just that it doesn’t turn out that way.
Do you think you would have enjoyed parenthood?
I think I’d have been all right at it, the worst soppy devoted parent imaginable and inclined to spoil the child. Thinking your children are wonderful is a form of conceit, and since I’m conceited anyway, I expect I would have thought my own children the best. But I Certainly wouldn’t have sent them away to prep school and public school – that’s something I always find incomprehensible.
Your books are also very much concerned with love. Ethel and Ernest, for example, can be read at one level as a moving love story. Are your books the vehicle for expressing love which you might find difficult to express more explicitly perhaps?
I suppose that’s possible. I do believe that love is a good thing, as long as it’s not the kind of love which leads to insanity. The more enduring prosaic kind of love is terrific and it’s what society is founded on really; without that it wouldn’t be anything. Love makes life bearable.
How have you coped with the business of being famous, have you found it difficult?
I don’t think I’m particularly famous. I’m certainly not famous to the extent that I get recognized in the street. That would be impossible to bear. I simply couldn’t cope with that. But the kind of mini-fame that I have is nothing to cope with at all. I did have a stalker recently who came about because of the so-called fame, and he shat on the doorstep when I wouldn’t do what he wanted. He wanted me to give him Bob Geldof’s phone number, but I scarcely know who Bob Geldof is, let alone what his phone number is.
Several of your books are concerned with the business of death or dying, either in terms of life being lived and coming to an end, as in Ethel and Ernest, or in terms of death being imposed by war, as in When the Wind Blows. Even The Snowman is about death. Have you always had this sense that life is a short and fragile thing, which can be snuffed out at any moment?
I suppose so, but it becomes more apparent as you get older, especially when your contemporaries start dying. People under thirty think they’re going to live forever – that’s why they all smoke and think death doesn’t apply to them, but when your parents go and then your wife goes, you realize it’s very close.
What is your attitude to your own death?
I dread the stuff that comes before, but I don’t mind being dead. Larkin said he hated the idea of non-existence, but I can’t see what’s wrong with it, because if you don’t exist you’re not aware of not existing. It’s the ghastly lead up to death that can be so awful, and I’d like that to be quicker. I am quite a strong believer in euthanasia; when the situation is hopeless you should be able to get the hell out of it. That seems perfectly natural and reasonable to me. I saw a programme on television in which you actually saw the doctor give the chap the final injection. He was in his own home with his wife and he was able to say goodbye, and it seemed fine. We go to sleep every night so we might as well go to sleep for ever.