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10 August 2022

Raymond Briggs’ genius was his understanding of loss

The writer and illustrator has died aged 88. From The Snowman to When the Wind Blows, his work was sensitive to the fears, feelings and losses that haunt us in childhood and stay with us for life.

By Megan Nolan

The writer and illustrator Raymond Briggs, who has died aged 88, created a singular position for himself in publishing and in culture. He was beloved on a mass scale and yet the crucial concerns of his work are anything but anodyne or generically crowd pleasing. Yes, there are surely those who know him only as the man behind those nice Snowman and Father Christmas films, or Fungus the Bogeyman – but I and millions of others love him for his dogged obsession with loss, grief and endings. Even The Snowman – of which the film adaptation is so embedded in the Christmas television schedule that it could be mistaken for just another bit of seasonal frippery – concludes with a moment of existential reckoning when the Snowman melts away overnight. A friend messaged this morning to say he is still haunted by the boy’s “poor little face – as he realises that everything is impermanent”.

His 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows, a shocking account of an ordinary couple haphazardly trying to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear attack, planted a lasting seed of discord in the minds of a generation of British people. As ever in Briggs’ work, the devastation is all the more total for its coincidence with utter mundanity: Jim and Hilda Boggs struggle on as though everything is normal, or could be made so again. This, of course, is human instinct, which many of us would be prone to feel in the face of our own mortality or a wide-scale catastrophic event (for example, when we avoid confronting the climate crisis).

Part of Briggs’ genius was how he conveyed the common fears of childhood, feelings which, in fact, remain with many of us for a lifetime. When the Wind Blows was perfect in this way – what is more terrifying to the fearful and lonely than the thought of being the last survivor on a dead earth? How melancholy – how redemptive – to imagine spending those moments with another, the companion of your life. It is undeniably harrowing, but its true and lasting power emerges not from its horror but from its ordinary humanity. 

My own favourite of his works is the underrated The Man, which my parents bought for me when I was much too young and sensitive to be exposed to its overpowering pathos. (I note now that its suggested reading age is five-seven which strikes me as genuinely sadistic.) A seven-inch man appears one day in a boy’s bedroom, ill-tempered and ungrateful for the food and clothing he demands. Over three days the boy learns how to care for a person who doesn’t appreciate care, to love somebody incapable of showing love. He becomes a father of sorts, with all the frustration and obligation of that role, and all of its helpless, irritated devotion. The man can’t stay, though – he is a free and transient being and must move on. The final panel of The Man shows the boy in a moment of sorrowful reverie, deep in the gulf of the man’s absence, beholding the boots, trousers and towel he had fashioned for the man’s use, holding his tiny sweatshirt to his face. He inhales, his eyes closed, in a picture of almost tangible grief. 

This image was the first way I could understand loss. Not long after I read The Man, my grandfather died. Soon after, my father misplaced a treasured photograph of the two of them together and despite having copies of it, the loss of the physical object profoundly depressed him. At first I found his response curious – the image remained, after all.

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Then I thought of the man’s miniature clothing, of the way that grief was channelled through material, inconsequential things. Death reveals all those ways we humans function as burdened animals, our sophistication, logic and dignity stripped from us, so that all we can do is to stare at an artefact, hold it in our hands and try to believe in the transporting power of the talisman. This, for me, is Briggs’ great gift: he communicated loss unsparingly but ultimately as a position of great beauty – a vindication of the unlikely fact of our communions, that they could have happened at all. 

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