When I visited The Snowman writer and illustrator, who died this week aged 88, he was a world away from his grumpy public persona
As soon as I arrived at the door of Raymond Briggs’s chocolate-box Sussex house, he was putting on the act that his literary agent – speaking about the announcement this morning of his death at the age of 88 – described as “professional curmudgeon”.
The writer and illustrator – whose 1978 book The Snowman sold 5.5 million copies worldwide before being turned into a beloved animation – pulled a bemused face in response to the pronunciation and spelling of my name. But I only had to wait until we had reached the top of the stairs before he declared: “Oh, actually, that’s rather good!”
Other interviewers described him making all his pronouncements “with an air of mild exasperation”. It was a persona he affected with aplomb, though it was a world away from the real Briggs.
The author was born in Wimbledon in 1934 and became a professional illustrator after studying at Wimbledon School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. He insisted he “wasn’t interested in children“, yet showed me, with genuine tenderness, a drawing by an 11-year-old boy of all his favourite Briggsian “charecters”, including The Snowman and – perhaps disturbingly for a child so young – James from When The Wind Blows, the picture book about nuclear armageddon.
Briggs, a two-time winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, had been so impressed with the sketch, he had it pinned up in his studio, near the desk at which he had produced every one of his classics. But, as was typical of the man, as he looked across 26 miles of the Sussex Weald over to Ashdown Forest, he added: “It’s lovely, but you get a bit fed up of replying. Kids nowadays haven’t been told how to write letters – they often don’t put the date on, they quite often don’t put the address on.”
During the 2015 meeting, he referred to me dismissively as “the so-called journalist” – an epithet I have treasured ever since – told me visits from members of the press were a “f***ing nuisance”, and when I asked for a photo with him, he put on his trademark hangdog expression, which evaporated the moment the camera had clicked.
He insisted he didn’t like “the Christmas thing at all” and was unimpressed with the commercialisation of his work. But one look around his home of 50 years was enough to disabuse you of that notion too. It was filled to the rafters with his merchandise, from a musical Snowman toy he was thrilled to demonstrate, to men’s accessories (“There are blokes in Japan with my signature running up their legs because they put my signature on socks,” he told me, laughing.) Every cuppa was served in Briggs-branded mugs.
You see, in reality the author and illustrator was perhaps the most sentimental person I have ever interviewed – deep down, far more the emotional boy in The Snowman than his cantankerous Father Christmas.
Just read Ethel & Ernest, the 1998 graphic novel about his parents, one of the most beautiful suburban love stories ever told, by the only child on whom they doted. His cynical alter ego was perhaps a coping mechanism for his grief. In 1971, he lost both his mother and father, and two years later his wife, Jean, died from leukemia. Later, in 2015, his long-term partner, Liz, died after living with Parkinson’s disease.
Briggs was well aware of the impact his words and images had had on millions of childhoods and was deeply touched by the fact. Far from being indifferent to youngsters, his sensibilities were in tune with theirs. His logical view of the world created a Father Christmas (“Blooming Christmas here again!”) who hated the festival not because of his gloominess, but because he was old, fat and exhausted. His love of snot, slime and bogey pie – guaranteed to engage children big and small – was writ large in 1977’s Fungus the Bogeyman.
And he told stories that so appealed to young minds precisely because he did not see children as a class apart. As he told me: “I don’t think they’re lovely, I just think they’re people like anybody else.” It was surely this lack of reverence towards childhood that enabled him to elevate children’s picture books to high art.
None of this is to say that the misanthropic elements were not also part of his character. I shall forever appreciate his golden rules for life, written out on a piece of cardboard by his window: “Never say yes. Do not be persuaded. Do not be worn down. Just say No. FREEDOM!!!”