CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Listen to what the Man says: 'The Man' - Raymond Briggs: Julia MacRae, 9.99 pounds

WHAT IS it with Raymond Briggs and strange men who arrive secretly in the night? His superstar, the Snowman, was an entirely benign visitor, protective, smiling like a seal: he became the acceptable face of slush.

Now Briggs has created, in The Man (Julia MacRae pounds 9.99) another clandestine friend for another solitary boy, and this one is an altogether thornier character. Rude, irritable and opinionated, he is an unattractive little brute about three inches high, podgy, covered in sparse ginger hair and, after a bit, pretty smelly too. He arrives one morning in John's bedroom, demanding clothes (a cut- up sock), Cooper's Oxford and PG Tips: John knows he's real when he pees into a paint water jar and the water turns yellow.

For the next three complicated days John is a half-willing, half-rebellious slave to the Man's demands. Dream-like his appearance may have been, but, as a guest, and as a secret to be kept from the parents, the Man is a nightmare. He dismisses everything in the house as 'health muck' and sends John out to spend all his pocket-money on chips, white sugar, After Eights, Coco Pops (brand-names are modishly in evidence) and all the other goodies forbidden by John's health-conscious mother.

He becomes a tiny force for chaos in this neat-as-pie household, leaving marmalade on the telephone (who was he calling?), using John's father's stylus brush as a toothbrush, shouting hymns at the top of his voice. His requirements don't stop at food, either: 'Got any bath foam? I like Avocado or Peach Blossom.' 'They've only got Woodland Pine.' 'Oh well . . .' This dialogue between Man and boy is amplified by speech-bubbles that cut across and into the main dialogue from the cartoon-style drawings. The conversation is chopped up by the illustrations, too, making it episodic, strangely repetitive and long-winded in its welter of product names. Are we in a moral tale about consumerism, we wonder?

But we don't wonder for long: this, it becomes clear, is a moral tale to do with just about everything. The mystery of who or what the Man is, let alone where he comes from - is he a Borrower, the literary boy asks, or an Endangered Species, a gnome, a fairy? - makes the book circle round and round questions of racism (size-ism?) and the acceptance of strange outsiders. Do they have a claim on our hospitality, our pity, our goodwill? And why should they be easy, or good, or grateful? During one of their many quarrels, the exasperated boy shouts: 'Oh all right. Don't be helped then. Go on] DIE OUT] As if I care.' while the Man yells back: 'I want to live my life] No one is putting me into a MUSEUM]'

And so it goes on, at times so politically correct that it threatens to collapse into a lecture: 'Aren't you lucky? Why? All these possessions] . . . I've got nothing] I know. I'm sorry . . . I've never done any harm in the world, have I? No, I shouldn't think so. Then why should I be made to suffer . . . Why is it other people get all the gravy? I'm sorry things aren't . . . more equal', and so on.

This is surely too windy and boring to retain the interest of the age-group that would appreciate this large-format book. For all the inventive vigour of the illustrations (and the Man does look impressively peculiar wearing a digital watch as a belt-cum-breastplate), Briggs may have mis- judged his audience this time. Whereas, in The Snowman, he pleased everyone by saying nothing with immense charm, The Man runs the risk of pleasing no one by saying far too much.

At the end, after a furious row in which the Man threatens John with a box of matches, there is an abrupt change of mood. Next morning the Man is gone, leaving a sudden tear-jerker of a note ('you wer mor kind to me than anny won els in the hole of my life') which, in its artful misspelling, contains a possible clue to the Man's identity, or at least to the nature of the encounter: 'you ar a God bloke.'

The final, wordless frame of solitary misery, so characteristic of Briggs, shows the boy sitting with the tiny garments he made for the Man spread out on a table before him. A striking picture of loss and mourning, but a confusing one - bootees, safety pin, little knickers: these are, unmistakably, the accoutrements of a dead baby. But at least Briggs doesn't explain.

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