Ice in our drinks – whatever next!

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ethel_and_ernest_book_coverEthel and Ernest is a graphic novel by the celebrated author and illustrator Raymond Briggs of The Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman fame and was first published in 1998. The book is a tribute to his working-class parents and tells the story of their lives from the first meeting in 1928 through to their deaths in the early seventies. This is an immensely warm, nostalgic and sometimes poignant journey through the decades and provides a fascinating part social history of Britain as Ethel and Ernest meet, marry, and raise their son Raymond as the world gradually changes ever more around them. Through the often mundane but sometimes extraordinary lives of Ethel and Ernest we experience the first stirrings and eventual turmoil of war, the creation of the welfare state, the advent of television, doodlebugs, the bomb, indoor bathrooms, fridges, telephones, the blitz, rationing, Conservative and Labour governments, men on the moon, VE Day, and much more besides. As the blurb on the inside cover goes, ‘this is the reality of two decent, ordinary lives, of two people who, as Briggs tells their story, become representative of us all’.
Although not a tremendously long book and made up of a series of moments and vignettes rather than a story, Ethel and Ernest is nonetheless right up there with the best work of its author who , with his usual care, ensures that each page is crammed with period detail and interesting backgrounds and the very personal nature of the story to Briggs ensures that Ethel and Ernest has a huge amount of affection and nostalgia running through the pages. The first meeting between his parents in the book occurs touchingly when Ethel is dusting the windows in the posh house she works in as a humble maid and shakes her cloth outside just as Ernest cycles past on his way to work. He thinks Ethel is waving at him and doffs his cap as he races by, this becoming a daily greeting between the pair, soon leading to a trip to the pictures together where a Victor McLaglen film is playing. Briggs’ cosy and familiar art is so lovely and interesting you often find yourself dwelling on individual panels to take in all the detail. The individual bricks that make up a house, reflections in a polished table. Even Ethel hanging her washing out on a windy day is turned into a small work of art by Briggs.
When war looms we see the family struggling with the trauma of having Raymond evacuated to the country and see Ernest building a shelter in the garden. ‘Just hark at ’em,’ says Ernest listening to one of Hitler’s rallies on the wireless. ‘They’re all barmy! Sounds like that Hitler’s on the warpath good and proper.’

“I think a strength of Ethel and Earnest is that many people will relate to the book in some way and see some echoes of their own family or grandparents perhaps.”

The wartime elements of the story are a wonderful recreation of the era by Briggs as the family try on their gas masks and have the windows of their little house shattered by an air raid. Briggs also includes text of Churchill’s most famous speeches when they all listen to the radio to add context and a sense of history to events. There are many references and incidents here that give us a little insight into ordinary family life on the homefront during the war. Ernest thinks Stalin must be a decent chap because he’s a Communist and therefore must believe in fair play and we see the pair listening to Lord Haw Haw (‘Jairmany calling, once again our gallant German pilots…’) on the radio. ‘He’s a twerp,’ says Ethel.

There are some nice drawings of the countryside (‘Down here it’s hard to believe there’s a war on’) here too which make a vivid contrast to the claustrophobia and danger of wartime London and a striking couple of pages where Ernest and young Raymond have a close encounter with a doodlebug. ‘I didn’t know they were bright blue underneath,’ says Raymond. We get a feeling for the surreal horror of war when Ernest, working as a fireman, returns from a 14 hour shift at a blazing docks. ‘Loads of dead…all in bits…’ One of the joys of the book is Briggs’ knack for atmospheric little background details like puffy white clouds and birds above rooftops and swans floating along on a pond.
The gentle clash of views between the couple is always mildly amusing with Ethel, who worked as a maid in a very regal household, holding more conservative opinions and respectful of the Royal Family and tradition whereas Ernest, a milkman, is a more laid-back character who embraces change and clings to his working-class socialist roots. ‘The welfare state!’ declares Ernest later in the book, reading the newspaper. ‘It’s what the workers have always fought for. We’ve won!’ Ernest is delighted when Labour wins the election but Ethel is dismayed that the country has snubbed Churchill after all he did in the war. When Raymond passes a scholarship to get into a grammar school Ethel is terribly pretentious about it but Ernest worries that their son might become too posh for them. The changing times are always effectively conveyed by little conversations and incidents between Ethel and Ernest. Ethel&Ernest_comicErnest tells Ethel that there are going to be thousand of miles of motorway built and has no real reply when Ethel asks what will happen to the green belt and all the countryside. When the family buy a fridge, Ethel asks what it is for and is told it’s for milk and ice for drinks. ‘Ice in our drinks!’ muses Ethel. ‘Whatever next!’
As they enter old age, the pair must cope with the swinging sixties and Raymond (who horrifies them by going to art school rather than getting a solid trade) becoming a bit of a hippie with long hair, a handlebar mustache and beatnik girlfriend. When the moon landings are on the television, an unimpressed Ethel likens the operation to kiddies at the seaside collecting rocks. The book builds to an inevitably sad but touching conclusion with the adult Raymond reflecting on the lives of his parents as he looks at a tree he planted as a seed during the war.
I think a strength of Ethel and Earnest is that many people will relate to the book in some way and see some echoes of their own family or grandparents perhaps. It’s a moving celebration of two ordinary lives in ever changing times. The only possible criticism of the book is that it’s not terribly long and can be read relatively quickly but the wonderful art and loving details make it an enjoyable experience with much food for thought about the changes that have taken place since Ethel and Ernest first met all those years ago in 1928.

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Ethel and Ernest
by Raymond Briggs

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