“Raymond Briggs had a genius for storytelling through illustration. Of course, he is best known for The Snowman, but he embraced the challenge of exploring darker subjects including ageing and nuclear annihilation… and The Snowman itself is at least as much about loneliness and loss as it is about imagination and adventure. His work was uncompromising in his emotional honesty, and his wit was biting and unafraid. I feel he created his books for himself, without compromising his inspiration with a sense of any audience, let alone a child audience. He never patronised children and I think that’s one of the things that made him brilliant and popular.” ~ Kate Wilson, Managing Director at Nosy Crow.
In celebration of this great man, Nosy Crow’s Louise Bolongaro, Publishing Director, Picture Books pays tribute with her fondest memories of working with Raymond Briggs during her tenure at Puffin Books:
My fond memories of working with Raymond Briggs by Louise Bolongaro
The picture book world shines a little less brightly this week. Like many of our heroes, I somehow thought Raymond would live forever, but I was wrong.
I know he would have been embarrassed by all the wonderful tributes from those who loved and admired him, but we can’t say enough about the man who left such a legacy. His stories were full of meaning and pathos; they were multi-layered and startling, and saw right into the heart of things. He also gave us comedy and phrases that we’ve woven into our collective consciousness. Raymond really was bloomin’ marvellous.
I was lucky enough to work with Raymond and his extraordinary backlist whilst I was Editorial Director at Puffin in the noughties. It was a pinch-me moment if ever there was one. Like so many, The Snowman was a vibrant part of my childhood (I was three when the book published and seven when the animation first aired) and it swiftly came to represent the essence of Christmas with all its joy, humour and sadness too. Then when I became a parent myself, my son and I would watch it without fail every year, as if to say, “Ah, now Christmas is truly here.”
My favourite project was an updated version of his beautiful Mother Goose collection, winner of the Kate Greenaway when it first published in 1966. It was a big book, and so the designer and I would regularly pop down to visit him at his home near the South Downs. I say home, but it wasn’t the home he lived in but, rather, his previous home where he wrote The Snowman and which he continued to use as a studio. The steep South Down hills banked up outside the house and, even though it was the height of summer when I first visited, you could feel the landscape of the story all around – I half-expected it to start snowing.
I can remember the exact moment I stepped inside as if it was yesterday. It was like entering a magical kingdom. Every surface and wall was crammed with paintings, sketches, drawings and models, all of which Raymond instantly dismissed with a wave of his hand, always humble and self-effacing. I was like a child in a toyshop and particularly remember a magnificent drawing of a chair that looked as if it were on loan from the Royal Academy. “Oh, that,” said Raymond. “I did that when I was 16.” When I was able to drag my attention back to the task in hand, we would chat about various bits and pieces, have a cup of tea, and then Raymond would take us to lunch at a little pub nearby.
What I remember most about those lovely days was the laughter. Raymond was the most delightful company. Whilst he liked to trade a reputation as a grumpy old man, he was anything but. He was kind and generous, charming and courteous, and he was also very funny. He had a wry sense of humour and was deliciously irreverent. We mostly corresponded by letter and phone – never email – and he loved the rich pickings my surname provided. He spelt it differently nearly every time – often silly, always affectionate – and those letters are some of my most treasured possessions. He also LOVED a good practical joke . . .
When we were talking about the new Mother Goose, we had to talk about money matters, too. Raymond found his original offer letter from Kaye Webb herself, (if I remember rightly!) and, of course, it was a somewhat modest amount by modern standards. Raymond said, “Bolongaro, times have changed! I expect a suitcase full of cash!”
Well, how could I refuse!
So, I spoke to his agent and whilst we arranged new terms, I also printed fake monopoly money, trimmed it to size until we had wads of the stuff and crammed it into a little suitcase. Then I popped it in the post. Raymond couldn’t speak for laughing when he called.
When I left Puffin to join Nosy Crow in 2012, it was a horrible wrench to leave Raymond behind. When I told him, his letter was very brief: “Bugger, bugger. What a blow.”
I know I was one of many editors and publishers in Raymond’s long career, but he was always unfailingly kind and interested in what I had to say. He taught me so much, about how stories endure and how, sometimes, the ones with no words can say the most of all. I loved every moment and am full of sadness as I write this.
Raymond, we will miss you.
Bugger, bugger. What a blow.