Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Third Rule Of Book Club Is: The Plot Says Stop, Goes Limp, Taps Out, The Book Is Over.

I have done you all a great disservice, dear readers.  As well as being lax on posting about painting updates and my last game of Warhammer, I have also not spoken about the last meeting of book club a few weeks ago.  This is especially unfortunate since it was our very own Sister Superior who chose the book for this meeting.

Ethel and Ernest is by Raymond Briggs, well known in the UK for his works like The Snowman, Fungus The Bogeyman and Father Christmas.  These titles are better known for their animated adaptations - I've mentioned The Snowman before, the cartoon of which has been shown every Christmas without fail by Channel 4 since its début.  His other works risk being forgotten in the shade of these titans, but he did some other fine things.

Both the book and film of When The Wind Blows are worth checking out.  WARNING: NOT CHEERY.

Ethel and Ernest is the life story of Raymond Briggs' parents - from when they first meet in the late twenties until their death in the seventies.  Their story leaps months and years at a time, covering everything from their first date to Raymond's birth to the second world war to their dotage and final deaths in a surprisingly short amount of time.  Unlike the mammoth tome that The Sculptor was, this is a short and to the point piece.

Truth be told, I was very nervous doing this for the book club because Sister Superior and I love it.  I got it at the now defunct Plan B Books, the first of Glasgow's comic book store/coffee shop hybrids which had an excellent selection of non-superhero works.  (I also met Frank Quitely there - he signed my copies of Flex Mentallo and JLA: Earth 2)   The whole thing is hardly action-packed but is a touching tribute to a couple’s life - but would it appeal to this audience on whom I disagreed with on The Sculptor?
Ethel and Ernest move in together: their political split shows at an early stage.

It turns out there was no need to fear.  The vast bulk of attendees showered praise on this book, from award winning comic book artistes Neil Slorrance and John Lees through to Forbidden Planet Deputy Manager Gary who normally only likes books in which people join The Avengers.  The art and panel structure may not have been anything to write home about - it's unashamedly drawn art with some rough edges and there's few stylistic tricks with page arrangement - but it touched something in a lot of the people, who spoke about the way it made them think of their own parents and grandparents.

Something which really captured my imagination was the historical period being covered.  Ethel and Ernest first meet in 1928, with Ethel working as a traditionally-dressed maid for an upper class lady.  Their birthplace would be Victorian England, their marriage occurring in a world closer to Downton Abbey than anything else. 

This is one of a group of old photographs of Glasgow I found here: this one, from 1928, shows how different a world we're talking about here.

And yet as time marches on, modernity slowly asserts itself - the radio, the television, the motorcar.  They come from a squarely working class upbringing but their son is able to attend art school - something that would have seemed unattainable to people born in the dying days of Empire.

The fifites arrive for Ethel and Ernest (and Raymond as well)

This triggered a surprising amount of politics chat from people in the group, reflecting on the world these people lived in - and the changes which happened in our own lifetime, the way our own childhoods in the 80s seemed to mark the last edges of one era and the beginning of a new.  (Being Scottish, it inevitably means talking about a certain someone.)  Political chat doesn't usually flow from Gary, but he went on a bit of a rant - it was a side to him I don't normally see.

It also gives one a better grasp of why ones parents, grandparents and great grandparents sometimes struggle with the changes in modern society, why they say "backwards" things that offend us.  It made me think about my dad, born 1940, and how truly bizarre the world must sometimes look to him compared to the one he was raised in. 

The story doesn't exactly have a single narrative drive - it's very much a picaresque piece and the only serious complaint from the group was someone saying this lack of focus made it hard for him to get enthused.  For the most part, though, it was a big hit, and the ending as the two pass away from old age proved very touching.  (Especially for one member whose grandfather had passed away recently)  Yet the story goes on a few more pages, and the final line of dialogue by Raymond himself manages to seal the deal and sum the whole thing up.

Ethel and Ernest is probably a good book for a non-comic-book reading family member or friend.  Raymond Briggs' name would give an in, the plot has no fantasy elements and there's some real timeless stuff going on here.  Two sideburns thumbs way up.

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