I’ve only ever met one person who was really famous, and he was the man next door. Not my neighbor today, but the man who lived next door when I was a teenager. And ‘the man next door’ was a good phrase for him, because he was, at first sight, a very ordinary sort of bloke. Not a film star or a celebrity, not someone frantically seeking fame by going on TV dancing shows or eating bugs in the jungle, no, not that sort of man at all. He was just this eccentric slightly grumpy chap who bought his clothes from an Oxfam shop and seemed to spend most of his time going for walks on the Downs or pottering around his own house and garden.
His name is Raymond Briggs. Surely everyone has heard of him. He wrote that comic book called The Snowman – the one that was later made into a film which is shown worldwide every Christmas. This year there’s even a sequel. It’s on the cover of the Radio Times; there are images of it everywhere.
He was interviewed on Channel 4 News a few days ago. But not on the sofa in a TV studio. Oh no, the TV came to him. That’s real fame. The interview took place in his house, sitting at his desk surrounded by his drawing materials, looking out of the window at his garden. And yes, he told John Snow, the interviewer, that he sometimes bought his clothes from an Oxfam shop.
Of course he didn’t only write The Snowman; he wrote – or rather drew – lots of other comic books, at a time when they were much less common than they are today –Fungus the Bogeyman, When the Wind Blows. Father Christmas, Ethel and Ernest, Gentleman Jim, and many others – all painstakingly drawn frame by frame in pencil and crayon at his desk, looking out over his garden at the Sussex Downs. Next the door to the house where I used to live.
So what was he like, this man next door?
Well, to me and my brother and sisters growing up next door, he seemed nice but eccentric, a bit weird. One year he kept an orphan lamb in the house, like a pet dog – it slept in the bath, apparently. We had orphan lambs too, but we kept them in the garden. It was weird when he and his wife – who later tragically died – celebrated the winter solstice rather than Christmas. But they probably thought we were a bit odd when my parents invited them round for Christmas drinks and my sister brought her donkey into our living room.
We nearly fell out when I kidnapped his bantam cockerel – which started crowing persistently under my window every morning at 3 a.m. – and ‘liberated’ it three miles away on top of the South Downs. Two days later, sad to say, there it was, back at its post.
Trying to concentrate next to a family of four children must have been a trial for him at times, but he was a friendly, tolerant man. The most excruciating moment I remember was when I was about fifteen. He had invited our family round to his house, which was fascinating. One whole wall was covered with books, neatly and carefully piled on top of each other, but with no bookshelves – like a dry stone wall. There were paintings over all the other walls, and on the kitchen table was a dead stoat which he had been carefully drawing.
My father, who was a bank manager, observed all this with interest. Some of the paintings were abstract, and he studied one of them very carefully. Then he shook his head, turned to our famous artist neighbor, and said: ‘You know, to a man like me, a painting like this doesn’t mean anything. I suppose we just live in different worlds. I mean, to me, as an accountant, I could take a perfect balance sheet, frame it, put it on the wall, and call it beautiful. That would mean more to me than this.’
I don’t remember what Raymond Briggs said; I just remember, as a fifteen year old boy, the sense of utter shock and humiliation. It was the one moment in my whole life when I wanted the floor to swallow me up. Here we were, invited into the house of a famous and talented artist, and my father had actually said that!
Looking back, now, I’m sure my father wasn’t trying to be rude – he was a perfect gentleman, usually – I think he was genuinely trying to make an interesting point. But Oooooh! – the teenage embarrassment!
And the funny thing is that Raymond Briggs might even have agreed or understood, up to a point. Because the art in his comic books isn’t difficult or abstract at all; quite the reverse. His own father was a milkman, and most of his books portray very ordinary people with a background similar to his own. It’s their very ordinariness, the way they are set in real life, that makes them so appealing. Father Christmas is grumpy and gets fed up with all the trouble and effort of delivering presents down thousands of chimneys; Where the Wind Blows shows a very ordinary couple trying to follow the absurd government instructions on how to survive a nuclear attack; Ethel and Ernest is a loving portrayal of his own parents.
And what of the Snowman? Ah, here I have a confession to make. For years I have been telling people that the little boy in the Snowman books and films is – ME! Of course it’s not true. It’s probably based on Raymond Briggs himself, as a young boy. But it does look like me, as I once was! Not just the boy, but the house and garden as well – exactly the same as the garden we once lived in! So what a wonderful thing to have, every Christmas – a comic book and a film which you can pretend is about yourself, all drawn by the man next door!