Graphic novels have always left me a little cold. While friends over the years have tried to convince me of the merits of Watchmen and Alice in Sunderland, it took me until a few years ago to fully appreciate how brilliantly engaging and moving they can be.
I first found Ethel and Ernest in a second-hand bookshop in Durham. It was jammed in a pile of books destined for the bin – spines torn, pages ripped out – and the assistant chucked it lazily at me when I enquired if I could have it. ‘Coffee stains,’ she said. ‘It’ll never sell.’
I don’t think I read it straight away. It probably sat on my bedside table for a few months before I picked it up and flicked through it, adding more than a few tears to the coffee stains and rips.
There is no other word to describe this book other than an utter gem. Perhaps more well-known for work such as The Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman, Raymond Briggs chronicles the deeply personal and moving story of his parent’s lives together, from that first meeting to their eventual deaths. What is so affecting about this is the sheer beauty of ordinary people; we’re not talking about superheroes or aliens, we’re talking about two people who meet and do all the things you’re expected to do in life. The normal stuff. The expected.
What’s so interesting about this graphic novel is the overview of changes in society as the years progress. Not only does it illustrate a typical London working class lifestyle in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but it also charts some of the most important and momentous political and social movements of the 20th century. We see Mr and Mrs Briggs meet, have their only son Raymond, live through the Second World War and Depression, the advent of technology, changes in attitude, rise of popular music, moon landing… the depiction is both unsentimental and affectionate, with a depth which belies the brevity of the story.
Briggs’ novel is a beautiful tribute to his parents, and I defy anyone to read his illustration of his mother’s body on a hospital bed without a punch of emotion. A wonderful journey of a very ordinary family.