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Wednesday Book: A masterpiece of ordinary life

IT ONLY takes about half an hour to read Raymond Briggs's moving and affectionate Ethel & Ernest. But the next reading lasts longer, and the one after that even more. For this is no ordinary book, although at first sight it could pass for one. Open any page, and there is immediate colour, shape and atmosphere: this is a strip-cartoon story, and if ever a book is going to be a best-seller, it must surely be this one.

Although Raymond Briggs has previously aimed most of his work at children, this is an adult book. Like his When the Wind Blows, it concentrates on ordinary people doing their best while living through events over which they have little or no control. But this biographical account of the author's own parents is no polemic. It focuses chiefly on domestic detail, starting with the couple's chance meeting in 1928 when Ernest, biking to work as a milkman, believes that Ethel, a lady's maid, is waving at him from a window. He waves back, and although she was only shaking out a duster, this eventually leads to marriage, childbirth, middle age and finally death. Both his parents died in 1971.

G K Chesterton always insisted that what passes for ordinary in life is full of romance once seen with fresh eyes. Ethel & Ernest bears this out. Married life in the same house for 41 years might sound uneventful, but it comes over here as a time of quite enormous change. The arrival of relative prosperity after poverty and war is seen for what it is: a near-miracle in the lives of those who never believed they were owed anything or would ever get much. This book would certainly qualify as social history for the National Curriculum in schools. For older readers, the events illustrated on every page raise hosts of memories.

Briggs's draughtsmanship is faultless. He goes for total realism in his attention to detail, yet sometimes allows his characters to change shape, according to mood. When his father has an outburst of temper, his face partially disintegrates. When the couple kiss and make up, as they always do, their heads extend almost grotesquely towards each other: a visual metaphor for their abiding love. When Ethel makes one of her snobbish remarks ("Ernest, don't sing those dreadful Cockney songs"), her nose literally sticks up in the air.

The style of Briggs's hand-lettered captions also reflects changes in meaning and atmosphere. Whenever Ethel refers to her son's grammar school, the words are picked out in mock capitals consistent with her own state of awestruck pride. The strip-cartoons themselves constantly vary in size and perspective: 15 frames on one page may be followed by a single picture on the next.

There are some tough moments. Ethel is shown having a bad time in labour and finally lying dead in a hospital morgue. But the prevailing mood is gentle, loving and often very funny. Ernest is doctrinaire left-wing; Ethel innately conservative. Their arguments are also comic dialogues, whether about Hitler, the Beveridge Report, coal nationalisation, the Green Belt or the absence of a haircut on their artist son (Briggs himself, of course, who also plays a large part in the story).

The couple has an innocence worth any amount of sour knowingness. When Ethel says, after hearing that war is declared, "Why can't they all just be like us and live in peace?" she speaks for everyone caught up in a dangerous world not of their making.

Neither is shown as perfect: Ernest is sometimes jealous of his son's success, and Ethel is cold to her husband's amiable working-class step- mother, who arrives bearing some coal wrapped in newspaper "an' a couple of bottles of stout". Yet fundamentally these are good people, and this book is an unforgettable tribute to them and to others living through this fast-changing period.