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Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs

January 1, 2017

eae-2Given the author, I expected more polemic, though the advent of the welfare state was heralded and the atomic bomb lamented. The divisiveness of grammar schools was hinted at.

We also get the advent of radio and TV., telephones and cars and the moon landing.

Ethel was a lady’s maid, Ernest a cheeky milkman who liked the look of the new Labour party. They had just one child, Raymond, having bought a terraced south London house in 1930. (Let’s see a young couple buy the same house today.) Ernest is a fireman in the war, after which he settles into an uneventful life. It’s a tender story about the lost world of what we now call the “white working class.”

Briggs introduces it with the observation that ‘there was nothing extraordinary about my mum and dad, nothing dramatic, no divorce or anything . . .’

He is born, a source of great joy, but it’s a difficult birth and Ethel is told she can’t have any more children. World War II approaches, and little Raymond is sent off to the country as an evacuee. As a wartime evacuee, the young Raymond is seen sketching a snowman based on a Christmas cake figurine. In 1978 ‘The Snowman’ would become Briggs’s most famous and successful book.

After the war, Ernest, an ardent Socialist, believes that utopia has arrived, while the more cautious and conservative Ethel keeps bringing him back to earth.

The balance between big politics and small emotion (Ethel’s a Tory, Ernest a staunch labour) is carried out seamlessly, from their bickering about workers’ rights and the founding of the NHS to their sheltering under the kitchen table from air raids.

It’s affectionate and nostalgic, all tea and crumpets, net curtains and scrubbed doorsteps. But the sweetly soft-focus approach, which involves Ernest reading headlines detailing various global news events and Ethel fretting about her soft covers and social standing gets to be annoying.

While presenting this story in a comic-strip format, Briggs doesn’t flinch at revealing personal details; at the end, readers see his mother’s disease-ravaged corpse and his father’s inability to carry on.

How could a milkman afford a house in Wimbledon or the latest model in cars? And why wasn’t he called up in the war?

eaeQuotations:

“Whatcha think of that Herr Hitler then?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure.”

Something happy happens. “Oh, Ernest!” Ethel cries.
Then something sad happens. “Oh, Ernest,” Ethel sighs.

Man on the moon, Et!
Oh?
Fantastic, eh?
What’s he doing there?
Well, just walking about a bit.
Then what?
Well…come back, I suppose…
Perhaps they’ll have a picnic. That would be nice.
I think the tea would blow away when it came out of the thermos.
Why? Is it windy up there?
No, it’s gravity, dear.
Oh, I see.
Look! He’s going to pick up some pebbles…to take home.
Just like kiddies at the seaside. Turn it off, will you?

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