The Grandmother pushed Raymond Briggs’s Ethel & Ernest at me some time last year. Being a contemporary of his, I’m guessing the book about Raymond’s parents carried even more meaning to her than it did to me. I’d already read it (in fact, I own a copy, but it took me forever to find it again) and loved it and cried over it.
It’s a little like The Snowman or Father Christmas, but because it’s real, it’s darker, but also more interesting. Re-reading Ethel & Ernest I was surprised to find it was less sweet and lovely than I remembered. Perhaps my long ago read turned into the same kind of nostalgic trip we tend to reserve for our own pasts.
And despite being by Raymond Briggs and in the form of a comic, it isn’t a children’s book. Although if used for learning 20th century British history, it’d do a better job than most school books (not that schools have actual books) would.
It spans just over 40 years, from 1928 when Ethel met Ernest, and ending with their deaths in 1971. In 1928 Ethel was working as a lady’s maid and Ernest was a milkman. I’d remembered them as both being labour oriented, but it was only Ernest, and he irritated his wife, who aspired to ‘better’ things.
Maybe they achieved better things in the end. I hope so, but it seemed like Ethel was always hankering for the past. A time when you didn’t need electricity, and your son wouldn’t have dreamed of being a hippy in public.
Their one and only son, very much longed for, and born when Ethel was almost 40, and destined to be the only child after a difficult labour. Having to send her darling five-year-old away when WWII began, virtually making her childless again. Her pride in Raymond when he was clever enough to go to Grammar School, and his parents’ shock when he opted to go to Art College.
This is a book that is more relevant today, when we can no longer take for granted that time means progress. Ethel & Ernest eventually owned not only a fridge, but a car as well. Ethel might not have appreciated it fully, but they did move up in the world.
I wish many more of us could draw, and remember, to tell our parents’ story. It might be possible to do it with photos, if enough of us are able to recall what happened and what people talked about.