Portrait of the artist as an Englishman

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THE IRISH Question, the Scottish Question and their quiet little brother, the Welsh Question, have led in the end to the English Question. If Britain has ceased to be a significant idea, if it's to be hung, drawn and quartered, what does the Englishness (as opposed to the old imperial Britishness) of England amount to? I don't say that people are asking themselves and others this question in the streets, but it has now become a popular newspaper-column and Newsnight kind of topic. Neal Ascherson was probably the first to ask it four or five years ago; Jeremy Paxman is just about to publish a book about it; and a small spate of publishers' advances means that more are certain to follow.

Last week I went to see a man who, in his own vivid and particular way, has already provided part of the answer. His new book will take you no more than half-an-hour to read (though it repays frequent revisiting), contains no words or phrases from the department of cultural studies (no hegemonies, no civil societies, no meta-fictions), and has the simplest of plots. In 1928, a London milkman meets a London housemaid; in 1930, they marry and move into a small terraced house; in 1934, they have a son; in 1971, still in the same house, they die. The son is the writer- illustrator Raymond Briggs and the book, Ethel and Ernest, is the story of his mother and father.

Briggs's drawings do most of the work. Some pages are completely devoid of words, and all the sentences that do exist are spoken dialogue encased in caption bubbles. In other words, it's a long (104 pages) strip-cartoon, drawn and written with the same felicity that has made Briggs one of the world's finest and most successful makers of picture-books. The difference between Ethel and Ernest and, say, Father Christmas or The Snowman is not technique but subject: this is a view of `ordinary' English life in this century, its changes, aspirations, comedy, pain, disappointments and pretences, depicted without an ounce of sentimentality and very little nostalgia.

It can be quite devastatingly candid. Late in the book, for example, Briggs devotes a page to a conversation he's having with his mother about his new wife. They're drinking tea. `When are you going to start a family, dear?' asks his mum. `Probably not at all', says Briggs, his wife has problems - `brain trouble'. `BRAIN TROUBLE!' says his mum with a start. `You mean...she's - mental?' Briggs says that the other word for it is schizophrenia. `Oh dear! Poor thing!' says his mum. `So I won't be a granny after all?'

She never became one, and Briggs never became a father. His wife, Jean, died two years after his parents, and Briggs did not remarry. He lives alone, though he isn't lonely (he refers frequently to a woman companion, `my lady'), in a house down a lane on the northern slopes of the South Downs. Dame Vera Lynn has a house in the next village, and the late Mathew Harding of Chelsea FC lived close by. Briggs seems to have come here by accident. In the Sixties, he couldn't afford a house in London and moved to a new housing scheme in Sussex and then, 25 years ago, to this slightly more ambitious 1930s house a few miles further south.

We sat in the kind of sitting room that Terence Conran and his successors have done their best to replace. Walls lined with books, ornaments haphazardly arranged, and a large road map of Britain pasted, for some reason, to the ceiling. He is a good-looking man, fine-featured, with a voice only slighted inflected by London.

He was an only child, born when his mother was 38; a scene in the book shows the doctor who attended his birth warning his father `more children, no more wife.' I asked him if he regretted the lack of brothers and sisters. He said that until recently he's never given it a thought. `I never longed to have a brother or a sister and looking back I can see all the advantages of not having one. I don't like sharing even now.'

In print that sounds a good deal grumpier than Briggs said it. He isn't a grumpy man. But, as I would not be the first to notice, a streak of melancholy runs through his books. Perhaps this is part of their appeal to children, who sometimes like to be sad; an indulgence that is also a preparation. He agreed that he was `fairly pessimistic'. In the book, we see his parents progress through the optimism and hardship of their early married life, through the unexpected comforts - a television, a phone, a car - of their middle age in post-war England. But in the end his mother lies shrunk and dead on a hospital trolley parked next to the Kleenex and the Vim.

Only at the very end, when Briggs and his wife come to sell the house and marvel at a pear tree in the back garden, which Briggs as a child had planted as a pip, does the book seem to remember to justify the publisher's blurb-word `life-enhancing'. But when I mentioned this symbol of continuing life, Briggs snorted with laughter. `She cut it down, though, the woman who bought the house from us. Sqashy pears falling down all over the place, she got fed up with it.'

Briggs still sometimes goes back to look at this terraced house in Wimbledon, which his dad bought for pounds 825 and somehow paid the mortgage from his wages as a milkman for the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, his job for all his working life. They were a respectable working-class family, not educated but not dim. His dad believed in `progress' and the Labour Party; his mum had more genteel and social aspirations: Not to Be Common. The conflict and misunderstandings between them provide the comedy of the book. In one frame, Ernest is reading a paper. `Blimey,' he says, `there's a photo here of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor shaking hands with Hitler.' And Ethel replies: `Oh well...he can't be so bad then.'

Aged 10, Briggs wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Aged 12, inspired by Punch, a cartoonist. It was odd, he said, how from the very beginning he had wanted to write and draw for publication rather than simply for the sake of it. Within a couple of weeks at Wimbledon School of Art, he'd been dubbed `the commercial artist' (as though Michelangelo wasn't paid for his work) and the distinction between `fine' and `commercial' art still bothers him. `I guess it's got to do with the idea that the stuff they call commercial is mechanical, dead, over-finished - "bubbles on cocoa" as they used to call it.' So which were his favourite works of art? `Oh, the Degas bronzes, Bruegel, the Northern Flemish people, the Rembrandt drawings of course.' Anyone more modern? He thought for a minute, went to his bookshelves, and eventually said: `Early Stanley Spencer, early Lucian Freud.'

Representation - the observable real - means a great deal to him. He remembered that when he was at art college and other students were going off to meet Francis Bacon in Soho, he never joined them: lack of money or confidence, or just the stubborn desire to go home and practise the draughtsmanship which, with his story-telling, has given him the kind of enduring popularity that rises well above fashion.

It's hard work. Not as hard, he said, as `real' work in a factory or on a milk float, but hard enough; Ethel and Ernest took him three years to produce. He keeps the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations in the car to flick through during traffic jams, and recently he came across a sentence by the composer Gustav Holst. `Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you.' He felt no positive nuisance at the moment. In any case, he was nearly 65; he had `really retired.'

I asked him about the England in his book. What was it now - better, worse?

He remembered that it was once ` terribly hide-bound, terribly repressed, sexually very inhibited'. Once he'd taken his dad to the summer show at the Royal Academy. `We went to the tearoom and this fearsome man appeared before us in black tie and tails. He was the head waiter. My father just scuttled out again.' And now he noticed a new freedom even in the gardens of the streets he'd grown up in, flowers and shrubs spilling over fences and walls instead of `the two symmetrical laurels and straight privet hedges' of his childhood. Television had helped; it had enthused people about gardening and encouraged them to be more imaginative.

In everything Briggs said, just as in everything he draws, there was modesty, concreteness and kindness, underlaid with the sense that nothing could be taken too seriously. England is not the only country with these qualities, of course, but in England and its artists (of whom Briggs is certainly one) they get a noteable expression.

Ethel and Ernest: a True Story is published by Jonathan Cape, price pounds 14.99