'AFTER three days, fish and visitors begin to stink.' Raymond Briggs quotes this Chinese proverb at the beginning of his new book and says he puts it into practice at home. 'By the third day, all I want to tell them is that the earliest train is the best. I never have people to stay.'

This is just the sentiment you would expect from the creator of some famously cranky types, but it really isn't the whole picture. Briggs, the award-winning artist and author, has also given us loveable characters who are as much at home on children's pillowcases as on bookshelves.

Looking through his books, which include the hugely successful fantasy The Snowman as well as his savage attack on the Falklands conflict, The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, another paradox is evident. Briggs is best known as a children's author and artist, yet much of his work is more accessible to adults - particularly the Falklands book and his macabre satire on nuclear war, When the Wind Blows. The integrity of his books means that children glean from them what they will, while adults can absorb them more fully.

As if to underline the dissimilarity between himself and what he writes, the tall, composed Briggs could not look less like the rotund, slightly bun-faced characters of his books; almost as quickly it becomes evident that it is mischief rather than malice that informs his writing. His courteous, self-deprecating manner belies a sharp eye and a sharper wit. But he is not unkind. He finds humour where others see harsh reality - in death, in middle age, even in nuclear holocaust - and is capable of lacerating irony.

His books are full of ordinary folk, although what happens to them may be extraordinary. If The Snowman epitomises one glorious childhood fantasy in its wordless fable of a small boy who builds a snowman that comes to life, then The Man, published today, offers another: complete, if temporary, possession, of a being much smaller than ourselves.

The being is a tiny, muscular, irascible, naked little man who arrives in a boy's bedroom in the morning and wakes him by throwing cough drops at his face. The man is cranky and demanding; because of his size he cannot do all the things that the boy takes for granted. Their relationship develops quickly. The boy moves from stunned disbelief to protective action: he cuts down a sock and a mitten for clothes, provides breakfast and a bath and speculates on where the man is from. His tentative 'Could it be that you are a fairy?' draws a wrathful, quasi-

philosophical response: 'How dare you] Do I look like a blasted fairy? I am not tiny] I am the size I am. You are the size you are. Pass the hair gel.'

There is nothing sentimental in this relationship. Briggs was never tempted to make the man adorable: 'I didn't want him to get sweet; I made a Plasticine model of him first. I wanted him to be a bit repulsive to look at. I did not want him to be a dear, cuddly thing.'

As the book moves through the proverbial three days, the man literally stinks - and drives the boy crazy. He wants tea-bags and white bread and beer, uses the telephone without asking, expresses political views bordering on fascism and breaks the boy's belongings. And he isn't too proud to use his tiny size to winning effect. In fact, he combines the demands of a helpless baby with the ingratitude of a difficult teenager, which forces the boy into the exhausting tension of a bad parent/child relationship with him - even though he is still a child to his own parents.

Briggs acknowledges the parent/child analogy, but he sees The Man differently. 'I saw him more in the nature of a handicapped person, disadvantaged, unemployed - people who are obviously not going to have anything. People looking after somebody else must feel like braining them every so often, to get their freedom back. And yet they're terribly fond of them, and often get ill - there's a terrific amount of illness and breakdown among carers. It's a love-hate relationship.'

Briggs spent two years on this book and found it difficult to finish. But there is no mistaking the depth of his feeling on the subject. 'It brings up the question of how you look after people you're very fond of, like aged parents, or your young baby.'

Assuming that he must have had some personal experience of caring, I imagined that it might have been for his parents, since he has no children of his own. 'No, they didn't need that. My wife (the painter Jean Taprell Clark, who died in 1973) was schizophrenic. It was a full-time occupation, really - so your whole life is devoted to dealing with it - each day you never know what it's going to bring forth - there's not a day that's the same as another. But I didn't have any of that with my parents.' His relationship with them, however, is essential to many of his earlier books. Ernest and Ethel Briggs met and married late, and were delighted by the unlikely arrival of their only child in 1934. Solidly working class themselves - he a milkman in Wimbledon and Wandsworth, she a ladies maid in Knightsbridge - they were proud of their son's academic success, which eventually won him a place at a grammar school. They rejoiced in his escape into the middle classes. 'My mother was over the moon,' he says. 'But the school was dreadful - founded 'for the poor boys of Merton' in the 18th century. All the younger men were in the war, so they wheeled out all these old chaps; some of them were ga-ga. The main religion was devotion to the school - you didn't go to get educated, you went to serve the school. I never came to terms with that.'

Whatever the cause, Briggs has an equivocal attitude to qualifications, which is at odds with a great respect for the well-written word, a preoccupation evident in Gentleman Jim.

Jim is a grown-up with the mind of a 10-year-old, who longs to better himself while working away at a hard, solitary job as a lavatory attendant; he and his wife, Hilda, who also appear in When the Wind Blows, are perfect innocents, both like and unlike his own parents. The homely details of the Briggs' cosy suburban life feature often in the books.

It is easy to identify this quiet only child with the young lad who soars heavenwards with the Snowman, and who appears in a slightly older version in The Man, and tempting to speculate on the social consequences of his solitary childhood. Briggs deflates such half-baked psychology about his characters with purely practical reasoning: 'The thing is, you want to have as few people as possible. It gets tiresome drawing too many.'

He loves minutiae. He is delighted to find that he may have invented the first mountain bike with Fungus the Bogeyman's solid-wheeled Bogeybike - 'Golly, that's a brilliant thought.' Fungus spends a good deal of time cycling; Briggs is 'quite keen on it theoretically', and charts the sartorial development of the cyclist with characteristic detail. 'In those days it was elderly old boys, about the age I am now, in baggy corduroy shorts and a rolled-up leather cape on a saddlebag at the back. Everyone's dressed up like a racing cyclist today, even if they're only posting letters.'

Fungus, humming his gentle way through a day's work of scaring humans, constantly asks himself: 'Is this all there is to it?' Did this reflect the author's spiritual crisis, a personal crossroads? 'Oh, yes - the mid-life crisis, the good old menopause - that sort of thing, I'm well on the other side of that now.' So life is worth something again, is it? 'Oh, the grave, mainly, looming.'

This gloomy pronouncement sits oddly with Earl Grey and muffins in the Waldorf, yet I feel I should not be too cast down: Briggs obviously enjoys his reputation as a Cassandra, and the thought of the looming grave is obviously bracing.

Like Fungus and Gentleman Jim, he is a steady sort. The success of his books and their lucrative spin-offs have not inspired him to look for a mansion on the Isle of Man: 'I've been in the same house in Sussex for 25 years. I don't like moving much.'

On the day we met he had just been to the BBC, where Michael Palin was recording a radio version of The Man. 'He liked it all right. It's wonderful when someone you've admired for years likes what you've done - he's got just the right, quirky, slightly rebellious feel to him.'

The text of The Man is pure dialogue; there is not a word of narrative in its 70 pages, making it ideal for radio. 'The BBC says it's all to do with innocence - that when the boy is crying at the end he's almost lost his own childhood innocence, because of what he's learnt. But you don't think of these things when you're doing it. I always work unconsciously, just do it as it comes into my head. That's why they're all formless, I suppose.'

This hardly matters when his form works so well. So is he working on a new book? 'I'm trying to give up illustrated books. I want to be a proper writer, and write a book with long words. But I don't know what it is going to be yet.'

It is more than likely that he does know, but like the enigmatic character in his new book, sees no reason why he should tell us.

'The Man' is published today by Julia MacRae Books, pounds 9.99.

(Photograph omitted)