Friday, December 28, 2012

A day in the life of...

When the British Council had a proper library in Bombay, with a proper (and delightful) children's room, we made a trip once a month. And joyously let N play with the various (germ-filled, no doubt) soft toys and big books there. There was this one picture book I spotted, which was drawn like a comic book, with panels, that were close, neat, busy, and overwhelmingly red-pale-yellow-and-black in tones. It didn't look like any of the other white-space-filled picture books we'd seen, and I took a look. It was Father Christmas (1973) by Raymond Briggs.

Now normally, sentimentality tends to sicken me, and so I keep away from books full of silly tropes on festivals. But this one seemed strange, with a grim, definitely unsentimental Father Christmas (and from now on, I'll just call him FC) on the cover. I think what got me was the thermos in the satchel. When the book came off the lending list and on to the withdrawn one, it came home with us!
Full of what a critic called a 'gloomy magic' the book begins with FC waking up from a dream of a sunny beach, slamming his alarm clock which shatters the warm dream, and realising that 'bloomin' christmas' is here again. He is a curmudgeon, and sets about doing his chores carefully, grumpily, sincerely. Feeding his pets - a cat, a dog, a few reindeer, making his tea and his breakfast, packing sandwiches and coffee in a thermos for the journey. 

 He flies over all sorts of weather (mostly Western) and lands in odd places like sloping roofs with inconvenient chimneys (from the sleigh-parking point of view) and small vans with no chimneys (from the entering point of view). And igloos ('At least there are no chimneys!'). Not to mention the pain of getting gifts into a lighthouse.

The details in the book are what get you - the small things, the large, the ordinary, the quotidien. Like FC sitting on a roof, eating his sandwiches and listening to the weather forecast. Like him getting caught among bloomin' TV aerials (remember it was written in 1973 :)) and tripping on bloomin' cats.  He gets a cold, has to climb stairs, stairs, stairs, and finally, someone has the brains to leave him some alcohol.

When he is nearly done, he runs into a milkman. The milkman was Briggs' tribute to his own father, a milkman, who had a similar duty - one of waking up early, and setting off to make deliveries - every day, come rain, shine or snow. All of FC's troubles with snow - even his morning chore-doing - were Briggs' father's too.

When he gets back homes, finally, FC is a sooty, cold, tired man. But he does his chores - feeds the animals, keeps them warm, then bathes, puts on some talc, curls up with travel brochures featuring warm places, cribs about his presents and finally, makes himself dinner!
Then he gets to bed, gives his dog and his cat wrapped gifts and looks at the reader and barks out a 'Happy Blooming Christmas to you, too!'
I'm not always a great fan of Briggs' work, and often, the palette leaves me cold - perhaps because the colours and treatment belong to such a different cultural context. But Father Christmas is unique. It's warm, it's detailed, it talks of a working-class life. It is like a stubborn little bubble squeezed into a hard day - all the realities of a working-class day, with a little dream inside it - of warmer places, other joys, and of course, of present comforts...

The other Briggs N really took to was Fungus the Bogeyman (1974), so full of dirt and grime and boils and slime, that I wonder what appealed to her. But appeal it did. Again an amazing book, drawn with so much love and detail and colour, that it seeps into your mind (yes) and makes you smile! 
If you want to see all the pages of Father Christmas, go to Michael Sporn's page, though I strongly recommend finding the book in a library first. Or buy it here (I don't like this cover though!) . To read more on Fungus, click here

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