What inspired the foul, slimy world of Fungus the Bogeyman? Could it have been its creator's holiday job? "I haven't thought of that," answered a bemused Raymond Briggs, the great children's author and illustrator. He accepted that both shared a common factor: "Pools of stinking stuff."
When young Briggs was doing his National Service, he used to tell himself that however bad things were in his subsequent civilian life, he should always remember that they could not possibly be as bad as they had been in the army. That was before he worked in a bleach-bottling plant in south London. It was an experience unlikely to have inspired the clean, white world of The Snowman.
"Being a draftsman in the army was cushy by comparison, as I was drawing wiring diagrams in an office with a stove you could make toast on. It was quite cosy." Unlike the south London hellhole he worked in as a 22-year-old art student in the late Fifties.
"It was a hideous Nissan - corrugated iron - building with virtually no windows and very hot in summer. Lorries would back in, belching fumes. One of my jobs was stoking the boiler which in some way must have driven the conveyor belt. The worst job was lifting the crates above shoulder height and putting them on the lorry. Often the top would come off a bottle and the liquid would splash on to you. Your shirt would fall to bits, with holes burnt into it. The concrete floor was swimming with bleach."
One of the saddest characteristics of the downtrodden employees was their behaviour during the lunch-breaks. "I used to get out of the stinking building and eat my sandwiches in the park. The others sat inside and ate their sandwiches in the utterly soul-destroying surroundings. One of the blokes asked, 'Why do you go outside?' I said, 'To get fresh air and see the trees and birds.' He said, 'The others don't like it. They think it's to get away from them'."
There was, however, one undeniable advantage that this dump had over the army: an exit. "I stuck it for a fortnight to get the money to go cycling in France with my girlfriend but for some of the elderly ladies it was a full-time job for years." These poor souls stuck with it because the factory was within walking distance of their houses and they needed the money. "There were young chaps who were obviously unqualified and not very bright."
The man in charge of this industrial disaster area fitted it exactly: he was a bully who could reduce the middle-aged ladies in the workforce to tears. He is unlikely to have provided the inspiration for Briggs's Father Christmas stories.
'Blooming Books' by Raymond Briggs and Nicolette Jones is published by Jonathan Cape at £14.99.Reuse content