Rekindle Raymond Briggs and Me; or, The Banality of Evil for Children
Briggs didn’t create the monster lurking under the bed, he just told us it was there.
How do you talk to children about war? If you are “ the poet laureate of British grumpiness,” otherwise known as Raymond Briggs, you talk to them directly, honestly, without concealment of reality or cute metaphor. As a child, I devoured Briggs’s unashamedly political, vulgar, and often nihilistic picture books for kids and their reading buddies of all ages. Briggs might be best known for his children’s books The Snowman and Father Christmas , but as an adult reckoning with the political mess we’re currently in, I find myself thinking of two other works of his in particular: The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman and When the Wind Blows . The newspaper headlines these days feel like they could be drawn straight from these stories—and the cartoon villains feel remarkably similar too. When asked why there has recently been a resurgence of interest in his books, Briggs himself says , “ Because now that dread’s coming back.”
Revisiting childhood books can feel like returning to a place of comfort during times of turmoil. Reading was a huge part of my childhood; my mother or father would read to me every night before bed. Meditating on these memories as an adult orphan is painful, but in a bittersweet way. The reading itself was always only half the event, the discussions about what we had read were just as foundational and imbued me with the beliefs I still carry today: that writing of all forms can be politically potent and develop radical ideas for readers of any age.
Growing up in New Zealand, being anti-war was a pretty easy stance to hold. In 1984, the country became the first in the world to adopt a nuclear-free policy, a position that it still holds today, albeit precariously. No one around me seemed to be arguing too heftily on the opposite side, although I did grow up in a working-class artistic bubble. For show-and-tell in elementary school, I brought in newspaper clippings of the French and American nuclear testing in the Pacific atolls that had decimated the lifestyles and livelihoods of those from neighboring islands. A classmate brought in pictures of the Rainbow Warrior , the Greenpeace ship used to protest nuclear testing that was sunk by French foreign intelligence services in 1985. Our class discussed the connection between the nuclear testing and the changes we were seeing in the climate. At the time, refugees from the Marshall Islands , no longer able to fish or farm, were flooding into New Zealand. My neighbors across the street had been forced to leave their home of Tuvalu. With all this going on around us, Briggs’s words and pictures were hardly shocking, but instead were affirming. Briggs didn’t create the monster that lurked under the bed, he just told us it was there.
When I decided I wanted to revisit a childhood shaped in part by Briggs’s books, I realized I’d need copies of them first. I couldn’t find the books I needed in the Brooklyn Public Library system, and there were only reference copies available at the New York Public Library. I asked friends, colleagues, and fellow writers but no one I asked had heard of him. I began to feel self-conscious—was I betraying my age by deciding to write about him? But even friends my own age and older hadn’t heard of him. I suppose my mother was determined to set me up as a thinker in the political margins from childhood, and her choices for bedtime stories were no exception.
Published in 1984, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman is a picture book that satirizes the Falklands War. When my mother first read it to me, I wasn’t yet familiar with the events described. My friends and I weren’t alive when the Falklands War happened, and were far too young for it to have been part of our conversations in its aftermath. No matter, I was still able to understand the book as a lesson in the inhumanity of any war waged over land where the most affected are the least considered.
In the book, state leaders are characterized as power-hungry, emotionless robots. The Tin-Pot Foreign General is a G.I. Joe meets Terminator type that Briggs created to represent former Argentinian military dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri. The Old Iron Woman turns out to be a rather crude depiction of Margaret Thatcher (who was nicknamed “the Iron Lady” throughout her career) with no heart but cannons for breasts and a chest full of gold. The Tin-Pot Foreign General raises her ire by invading the “sad little island” her country has already laid claim to and so she opens up her breasts and goes to war. How else do you explain the buffoonery of the ruling class to children but by turning them into cartoon caricatures?
The genius of Briggs’s work here is not only in his monstrous creations that perfectly illustrate the distance between leaders and citizens, but also in what Briggs is able to convey with a total economy and simplicity of language. Briggs communicates the inhumanity of what happens to these citizens in just a few short, repeated lines: “They had mutton for breakfast, mutton for dinner, mutton for tea.” The few poor shepherds who live on the sad little island do little else but count their sheep as two robots fight over their land like children over a broken toy. “I bags the island!” the Tin-Pot Foreign General cries when he arrives with his army—all because he wants to be important and have his name in the history books (sound familiar?). “It’s mine, it’s mine,” screams the Old Iron Woman when she finds out, “I baggsed it first!”
It’s not only the shepherds on the island whose lives are thrown into disarray over this fight. In a series of black-and-white sketches that starkly contrast the brightly colored cartoon leaders, Briggs depicts the soldiers who are the collateral in this power play. The difference between those who demand war and those who are left to fight it is crystallized in the line, “They were real men made of flesh and blood, they were not made of tin or of iron.” The final scene of the book totally cinched my personal, albeit youthful, conviction about the injustices of the vast majority of war efforts. The Old Iron Woman, victorious, organizes a celebratory parade for her troops. The soldiers with bits of their bodies missing are not allowed to attend the parade in case the sight of them is too depressing. What wide-eyed young politico developing their personal philosophy wouldn’t find this horribly unfair?
In When the Wind Blows , Briggs tells a much more intimate story of the everyday lives thrown into chaos by war. Published three years before The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman , When the Wind Blows is Briggs’s dystopian imagining of what might happen were there to be a major nuclear war in a post-World War II world. In the story, a middle-aged, fairly ordinary couple, the Bloggs, hear an announcement on the radio that there will be an “outbreak of hostilities” in three days’ time and citizens are recommended to seclude themselves in homemade fallout shelters. However, due to a misunderstood government message, the couple leaves their fallout shelter after two days instead of the recommended two weeks, exposing themselves to radiation. Not exactly a happy children’s bedtime story. It is recommended as a comic book for adults, but my mother never cared much about things being “for adults”—as evidenced by her informing a ticket clerk that she would decide what content was appropriate for her child when she took me to see The Crying Game at the cinema.
This is not to say that Briggs’s handling of a post-apocalyptic world isn’t full of potential nightmare fodder. What Briggs does well is invite readers into the very normal, run-of-the-mill lives of a very normal, run-of-the-mill couple—they could be anyone you know. This allows for some comedic relief, but the humor is surface level. The burning meat they smell is their neighbors’ dead bodies. The rainwater they feel so clever in collecting for drinking exposes them to further radiation. They attribute the physical effects of the radiation to common diseases of people their age: Their bleeding is hemorrhoids, their bruising a sign of varicose veins.
The question of whether this is suitable material for kids is a difficult one, but comes down to a personal conviction about whether to alert children to the sickening realities that surround us or not. Nowadays, discussions have been flaring up about whether it’s appropriate to speak to your children about the current political climate, or to have them accompany you to a protest, but my mother would have dismissed them all. Her attitude about introducing me to heavy topics was that it pays to remember that while parents in certain geopolitical situations are able to protect their kids from these harsh images, many parents do not have a choice.
In 1986, When the Wind Blows was adapted into an animated film by Jimmy T. Murakami. Something about the slow pacing of the film amplified the desolation of the story, and the voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft brought the Bloggs to life. As a child, I was especially enamored of the soundtrack, which featured Genesis and David Bowie. I watched the movie over and over again, on the rare occasions when my mother would allow a rental TV in the house, and since then no one has been able to convince me the utility of nuclear energy outweighs the disastrous effects of its use in war. Perhaps we should kidnap all our global leaders and force them to watch it, Clockwork Orange style.