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Written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows was his first attempt at an adult graphic novel. Released in 1982 on the back of his success with children's books, it tells a sorrowful tale of the effect a nuclear attack on England has on a retired couple living in rural Sussex. A heavy topic, but the dark, yet compassionate sense of humour pervading the book lightens the mood somewhat. Twinned with the cosy, pastel shaded art-work, the unsettling, yet warm-hearted story closely examines the initial effects of a disaster on two people who have never done anything to deserve it.
The harmless pair are developed through their interactions with each other, and (some clunky exposition in the first page aside) are convincingly characterised. Their tender, occasionally abrasive relationship adds some humour as well as developing their characters. They are both survivors of WW2, with some strangely nostalgic memories of that time. Despite Jim's research at the local library into the current situation, they have a muddled idea of the scale and nature of the current conflict - mistakenly believing that their past war-time experiences were still relevant. Jim constantly misunderstands modern terminology (calling computers "commuters" is a common malapropism of his) and reels off distorted facts and assurances. His wife Hilda is an archetypal "prim and proper", fussy, old fashioned English-woman. Their trust in the government (referred to occasionally as "The powers that be") blinkers them, they try to follow every inadequate council guideline and assume they will be looked after.
Although this is a large format graphic novel, the panels can become cramped due to their quantity. Around the same size as comic strip panels, they are perfectly readable but smaller than most graphic novel panels. There are occasional, rather plain double page spreads scattered throughout the book. They are rather plain, but brilliantly express the ominous military threat overshadowing the entire novel.
Despite it's simplicity, the art appears very textured. The many hues lend it a depth that is extremely effective on the usually small panels. The Blogg's are quite simply drawn, preventing anything masking the emotions written on their faces. People they have directly experienced are portrayed in the same deceptively comfortable style; however, foreign or famous figures are shown in an oversized, warped fashion reflecting their opinion of them while emphasising the Blogg's diminutive stature in the global events of the nuclear attack. Despite the similarity to the illustration style used in Brigg's children's books, the charming art only serves to make the tragedy even more heartbreaking.
While only 50 pages long, the number of panels provide more material than you would expect. The story is straightforward, but Brigg's satirical social commentary manifests itself giving his novel more depth. A wry sense of humour stems from the character's naiveté. Some unintentional (on the character's part at least) jokes are delivered with a cheery grin at the reader, and some of their dialogue sometimes has a greater meaning than they suspect. But no amount of humour or optimism from the characters detracts from this work's impact. It's avoidance of specific political details keep it relevant as a warning against the perils of nuclear war.
When the Wind Blows was first published in 1982 and is a graphic novel by the great illustrator and author Raymond Briggs. The book is about a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union seen entirely from the perspective of Jim and Hilda Bloggs, an old-fashioned retired couple living a peaceful and happy existance in a remote cottage in the countryside. Briggs was best known at the time for wonderful children's books like Father Christmas and (my own cult favourite) Fungus The Bogeyman. When The Wind Blows, a bleak, angry and political story, saw the author produce his first adult work and a book which many regard to be his finest hour.
When The Wind Blows begins with Jim Bloggs being dropped off near his home in country lanes with a blue sky and the top of a windmill in the background. Jim has been reading the newspapers in the Library to keep up to date with the 'international situation' although we quickly discover that neither Jim or Hilda are the most up to date or sophisticated people in the world. They both see any crisis in the rosy glow of their WW2 memories and if everyone pulled together and survived that one then there is nothing to fear from a new war.
As they have their dinner there is a sudden radio broadcast from the Prime Minister. Briggs fills the speech bubble around the radio with phrases like 'WARNING THE COUNTRY', 'FALL OUT SHELTERS' and 'THREE DAYS TIME'. The threat of an imminent nuclear attack is not quite grasped by Hilda who promptly attends to the pudding and later suggests to Jim that he should wear his old clothes for the bomb and his new ones afterwards. Jim meanwhile is slightly more prepared although he calls computers 'commuters' and assumes that Field Marshall Montgomery is still in charge of the British Army. Jim has a leaflet from the Library called 'The Householders Guide To Survival'. He's soon following it to the letter and unscrewing doors to make an indoor shelter despite Hilda's annoyance at the mess he is making. The leaflet that Jim has is, of course, a complete waste of time but he follows it with enthusiasm, confident that, just like WW2, they'll all pull together and emerge on VE Day. "Yes, he was a nice chap," says Hilda about Stalin. "I liked him." "You somehow knew where you were then," replies Jim. "I don't even know who the people are now." Because we won the war all those years ago, Jim naturally assumes that the 'Powers that be' always know what is best.
A big part of the effect of When The Wind Blows comes from placing such a dark story within the confines of Raymond Briggs' cosy and comforting artwork. Jim and Hilda are a deliberately normal and down to earth old couple. They could be your grandparents and that's the most powerful thing about the book. He gives them character, humour, memories, flashbacks and an ordinary down to earth run of the mill quality that most will relate to. Briggs does not shy away from the ramifications of a nuclear attack - radiation sickness for example - and his anger is palpable. Those responsible for a nuclear attack will follow it all from a government bunker. The innocent, the Jim and Hilda's of this world, will be wiped out. By filling the story with Jim and Hilda's nostalgic memories of WW2, Briggs powerfully expresses his anger that so many memories and lives could be wiped out merely by someone pressing a button somewhere. There are chilling 'splash pages' in the book to this effect. 'Meanwhile in a distant ocean' says the panel as two whole pages are taken up by a dark and slightly scary outline of a nuclear submarine in murky waters. Briggs does this again in the same atmospheric style with a lone missile on an isolated plain and bombers in a distant sky. He uses the double 'splash page' in a very clever way in When The Wind Blows. As an example, he leaves two pages completely blank and white to indicate the blast of a nuclear bomb. Over the next two pages we gradually see panels and art again to mimic eyes slowly adjusting after a tremendous flash of light. It's very inventive.
In the book Briggs' pastel shades and drawings begin in their usual comforting way but slowly turn grubby as the effects of the bomb begin to take their toll. It is both fascinating and chilling to follow this dark story through the familiar artwork of Briggs.
Another thing I liked about the book was the little flashback drawings that Briggs includes when Hilda or Jim are fondly discussing wartime memories. We get caricatures of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler. We see the young Jim in a Morrison shelter reading by candlelight and the young Hilda in an Anderson shelter covered in flowers. A sketch of Montgomery with his famous beret and the white cliffs of Dover and Vera Lynn. You find yourself stopping on pages after you've read them just to take in all the artwork.
The government leaflets of the era are giving a good kicking by Briggs in the book. Nonsense like sleeping under a door or getting inside a white potato sack. Jim phones up his son in the book and asks a question about the angle of the shelter he wants to build and reports to Hilda that he was met with a response of slightly hysterical laughter. This is the view of Briggs of course. If Britain was about to be hit by a nuclear strike and you were in the firing line what would be the point of geting in a potato sack or painting your windows!
It goes without saying that When The Wind Blows is ultimately a bleak book. It was written during a time when nuclear armageddon seemed like a real threat and to read it is to be taken back to an era of chilling paranoia and fear amped up by the cold war between the West and the now defunct Soviet Union. Throughout the book Jim Bloggs mixes up the 'Russkies' with the 'Jerrys'. The idea that our wartime allies with that nice Mr Stalin are now the big threat simply serves to confuse Jim. Jim has a naive belief in the 'Powers that be' but we know that no one is going to help them. The 'Powers that be' are the ones to fear in When The Wind Blows. Like other anti-bomb creations of the time like the television drama 'Threads', When The Wind Blows is a powerful plea agaisnt a war that will have unthinkable consequences. If you look on the inside cover of the book there are many comments of praise from political figures including Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and David Steel. John Garrett MP is credited with putting down a motion in the House of Commons that stated:
'This house welcomes the publication of 'When The Wind Blows' by Raymond Briggs as a powerful contribution to the growing opposition to nuclear armament and hopes that it will be widely read.'
When The Wind Blows is both an original approach to the subject and a devastating black comedy.
Back in the 1980’s, fear of ‘the big one’, the devastation of the world by nuclear war reached a fever pitch. It was particularly noticeable in TV dramas like Threads, and even in the distribution of government leaflets about how to protect your family in the event of a nuclear attack (paint your windows white and hide under the table basically). We live in a new century now, indeed a new millennium, and all of that has changed now, hasn’t it? Well actually, no, not really! The threat still exists. A growing number of politically unstable countries now have access to a nuclear arsenal. The true threat is probably bigger than ever. But it’s a new millennium and we don’t want to think about that, do we? So let us settle down to a nice little picture story by that nice Raymond Briggs chap. You know, the bloke who wrote The Snowman, Father Christmas, Ethel and Ernest and the one that we’ve going to look at here, When the Wind Blows. They look like a nice old couple on the cover, don’t they? Ah yes, we’re on safe ground here. Not quite sure what the American and Russian generals on the cover are there for though! And what is that big white flash behind them? It looks like a giant mushroom. And hang on, why is there a picture of a missile on pages four and five? Must be a printer’s error. Ah, here we are, back on page six. Nice English countryside and old James coming home from work to potter about in the shed while his ‘Ducks’ tends to the kitchen. Bit old fashioned, still, they probably still have their old wartime home front sensibilities. Which should hold them in good stead because there is a picture of some A10 Thunderbolt warplanes on pages ten and eleven. And a nuclear submarine on pages fourteen and fifteen. And on pages eighteen and nineteen … nothing! Nothing but white. Yes, you’ve guessed it, When the Wind Blows is the s
tory of how one couple struggle to survive and overcome the enormity of nuclear war. No snowmen or Santa Claus here. This is a moving, emotional and ultimately devastating look at the pointlessness of such a war and just how inadequate we would all be in the face of it. There are no villains here, no words exchanged across the political and cultural divides. We never get to find out what the war was all about, but then given the consequences, it doesn’t really matter. The love of the Jim and Hilda Bloggs shines throughout the story and there are nicely added depths of humour. As the Daily Mail commented back in 1986, “this is the most eloquent anti-Bomb statement you are likely to read”. And the Sunday Times; “A visual parable against nuclear war: all the more chilling for being in the form of a strip cartoon”. The book is charming in places, disturbingly bleak in others. It is engrossing, but if you are after a happy story, look elsewhere. There are no happy ever afters in this tale. One critic commented that this was a book that we should all force ourselves to read. That is no less true now than it was back then when it was first published. This is a horror story in it'’ very truest sense. It is hard to sell a book with this sort of content but I can assure you that it is a worthwhile read. It has a great depth of humanity and moments of levity which help alleviate the bleaker tones of the book. It may seem like an out-dated idea now but it still holds many truths about the world we live in. Not that it could ever come true, of course. I mean, that was the 1980’s. We’re living in the 21st century now. Times have changed. Haven’t they?
Do you hate war? Do you rancour nuclear bomb? Do you like humour? Do you like comics? If your answer to the above questions are 'yes', "When the Wind Blows", a comic by Raymond Briggs, is the strip of cartoon you will like. " Aching with love and bitterness, it is meant to break your heart " -- Guardian " Whatever your politics this is the most eloquent anti-Bomb statement you are likely to read " -- Daily Mail " We shall all force ourselves to read this grimly humorous and horribly honest book " -- Sunday Telegraph I think you are smart enough to pick this book and READ it! It is avaible in main bookstores and the public library.
Depicts the effects of nuclear war on an elderly couple.