Time For Lights Out Raymond Briggs
Jonathan Cape £18.99
Artists have long been preoccupied by death. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci wrote in a notebook: ‘While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.’
Raymond Briggs is best known as the creator of The Snowman and a wonderfully grumpy Father Christmas. Even his sweetest, most playful works are full of intimations of mortality: the Snowman ends up as a pool of water with a scarf floating on top of it.
Raymond Briggs at work in his studio, 1985. Briggs is best known as the creator of The Snowman and a wonderfully grumpy Father Christmas
Now aged 85, Briggs has devoted an entire book to the theme of death, and his own death in particular. It’s a category-defying rag-bag of drawings, poems and observations, jokes, snippets of autobiography, quotes on death from writers and philosophers. All human life – and death – is here in this lucky dip of memories and fears, irritations and idle thoughts. It even includes photographs taken from the February 1957 issue of the discreetly pornographic naturists’ magazine Health And Efficiency of people playing ping-pong in the nude.
Briggs has never been one to beat around the bush. His words and drawings are simple and powerful. He would hate to be called sophisticated, with its suggestion of evasiveness. Most of the words he employs have one syllable; his pencil drawings somehow convey the leap of a dog or the bleakness of a landscape in winter with just a few squiggles. Time For Lights Out is as bleak as it is straightforward.
As you would expect from Briggs, the book has black humour galore, but it’s not the type of humour that is consoling. At one point he reads somewhere that ‘People who are anxious and pessimistic are more likely to get dementia’, and immediately thinks to himself: ‘Hey ho! So that’s one more thing to get anxious and pessimistic about.’
He relishes the impossible knots human beings make for themselves. ‘She says she is sad. And I sigh. So, am I bad-tempered because she is sad, or is she sad because I am bad-tempered? Either way, it’s all very sad. And it makes me bad-tempered.’
Groups of words are laid out with indented lines so that they might be mistaken for poetry, but they are really too blunt and matter-of-fact to be poems. For instance, a single-sentence piece called Western Philosophy is set across six lines:
Will I go to her funeral,
or will she go to mine?
sure as hell,
I’m gonna be there,
Dead or alive.
IT’S A FACT
Aled Jones did not sing Walking In The Air in the 1982 film of The Snowman: Peter Auty did. Jones’s hit single was recorded in 1985.
The tone is conversational. Often, the conversation he conducts is with himself, or with his contradictory alter ego, called Prodnose. From out of a drawing of a radio comes the statement: ‘A little boy said he didn’t like the Today programme because it was all old men talking about bad things.’ Raymond Briggs, pictured laughing in his chair, says: ‘HA! HA! HA! Dead true!’ Putting his head around the door, Prodnose observes, perfectly accurately: ‘This whole book of yours is an old man talking about bad things…’ To which Briggs replies: ‘Bog off, Prodnose.’
It’s full of gripes galore. In fact, it’s almost an Encyclopaedia Of Elderly Gripes, ranging from the mad to the humdrum. He is irritated both by a fat girl riding a horse while chatting on her mobile phone and by not being able to find his glasses. He illustrates a rant about the complications of his new DVD player with pictures of three different remote control handsets across a spread of two pages, accompanied by arrows showing what all the different buttons are for. First, he counts 108 different buttons, but then the flap of the remote springs open to reveal 21 more, or 129 in all. ‘If this is the way the world is going, it’s not worth volunteering for euthanasia but it’s definitely time to get off,’ he concludes.
Briggs’s illustration of a wartime bomber and the pilot who became fixated with how his foot could dictate who lived or died
Many of his observations on growing old are almost too commonplace. He complains about hair growing only where it is not wanted, and the impossibility of following instructions for assembling DIY furniture. But, more often than not, he adds something fun to the mix: illustrations of himself struggling on the floor with all the bits and pieces needed to make a folding wardrobe, or of him taking scissors to his bushy eyebrows. He takes a sort of grim pleasure in his own discomfort.
Sometimes he stops his grumbles from becoming too pedestrian by adding a quote from a great writer. On one of his walks in the countryside, he pictures himself thinking: ‘Mustn’t turn into a Grumpy Old Man. Grumpy Old Men Are Boring.’ At the bottom of the same page he supplements it with a sharp insight from the scientist Peter Medawar: ‘Today the world changes so quickly that in growing up we take leave not just of youth, but of the world we were young in… Fear and resentment of what is new is really a lament for the memories of our childhood.’
From time to time, his own childhood memories pop into the book, some of them very poignant. In the section Night Thoughts, he lies in bed, telling himself he is comfortable, not in pain, not hungry, and so on:
There is no war.
Tonight, no bombers will come.
Tomorrow will bring no invader.
We are at peace.
A little further on he describes houses in the Wimbledon streets of his childhood, destroyed by bombs. He illustrates the next page with a smoking map of Wimbledon. ‘Very soon after the war Death struck nearby, closer than the corner shop. Three boys who lived only yards from me were killed on the road.’ He then lists the three boys, giving their ages and addresses. From out of nowhere, Time For Lights Out is frequently very moving.
Briggs is obsessed with the randomness of things. ‘Getting born is just as random and accidental as dying,’ he says. Under the heading Bomber 1944 he tells the story of a 22-year-old bomber pilot who ‘found that if he tensed his foot slightly during the final bomb run, the rudder would move slightly and the bomber would drift slightly to the left or to the right, so slightly even his bomb aimer would be unaware’. The pilot realised that a very slight movement of his foot meant that their ton of bombs would fall on slightly different streets, killing entirely different people. ‘Hundreds of people selected to live or to die by the slight tension of his foot… caused a greater tension in his mind.’ The young pilot suffered a breakdown and had to return to his former job as an insurance clerk.
The Snowman film, 1982. Briggs’s new book is a category-defying rag-bag of drawings, poems and observations, jokes, snippets of autobiography and quotes on death
The topsy-turvy nature of the book fast becomes mesmerising. One page consists of a list of 60 great cartoonists and illustrators and the exact age at which they died, from Gerard Hoffnung, who died at 27, to Kathleen Hale, 102 (although both ages are in fact wrong). ‘The mathematical average is 69, so I’ve already passed that. WAH! HEY! I’m above average!’ he writes, and then barks back at himself: ‘Conceited p****!’
By the nature of its subject matter, Time For Lights Out is gloomy, but for some reason not dispiriting. Glimpses of beauty, humour and generosity keep shining through and, as always, Briggs’s drawings have a touch of magic about them, conjuring human beings and their foibles out of a few precious lines.