Pivot – what a great word. It conjures up images of ballet dancers and ice-skaters, pivoting on point or on ice to delight, thrill and transfix the audience. Then there is pivotal – the turning point – in an argument, debate or decision – in the life of an individual – or the whole world.
Pivot allows us, forces us, to turn around, to give our attention to something else, focus on something new, or some new aspect of something old. Pivoting can turn things a little…or a lot…a turn of degrees or a complete reversal – but always adding something new. Pivoting can bring us to a new standpoint from which to view the world. Pivoting can make us dizzy too, can be disorientating – sometimes it can take a while to recover our equilibrium. Pivoting is an ongoing process – each turn and twist leads inevitably to another. Sometimes we prefer to stay still, to keep a steady head – but as the world spins / pivots by on its axis, staying still can mean staying behind or being left out – you can’t really pivot if you are stuck in the mud, can you? A well constructed story is one with a Pivotal Moment – that part that lifts it out of the ordinary, that brings a new perspective, a new understanding and fixes the story in the reader’s mind. The Pivotal Moment is the one that makes the story worth telling and worth hearing, that elevates it from mere social history or commentary to a work of art and an inspiration. Collections of short stories, like Dubliners, are good places to look for examples of pivotal moments in literature, but often the most direct examples are in picturebooks. As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War is marked by a ‘war of words’ between Argentina and Britain, and Meryl Streep wins an oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, perhaps it is time to revisit one of the truly great picturebooks. The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman by Raymond Briggs*. Raymond Briggs has been a creator of popular picture books for five decades. His output spans all generations; pre-schoolers and young children thrill to ‘The Snowman’, primary school age children love the rudeness of ‘Fungus the Bogeyman’ while teens an adults responded to his more political work like the anti-nuclear stance of ‘Where the Wind Blows’. 1984 saw the publication of what is arguably Raymond Briggs’ most political book ‘The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman’. Written in response to the Falklands War, the book is a viciously personal attack on the egotism of General Leopoldo Galtieri, leader of the military junta in Argentina and Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister in Great Britain. The book was fiercely critical of the economic and political thinking that provides war in place of diplomacy and the winner takes it all mentality that sees political leaders profit from war while soldiers and civilians pay the price. Reading this makes the perfect antidote to watching ‘The Iron Lady’ currently showing in cinemas – and Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance aside, Briggs’ depiction of Margaret Thatcher is far more arresting, to say the least! Never judge a book by it’s cover they say (but we all do) and in this case the striking cover (above) tells much, though not all of the story. Only the heads of the Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman are shown – with beads of sweat and gritted teeth, his military buttons popping with rage, her pearl necklace bursting from her angry neck, as they eyeball each other from across the page, almost oblivious to the small dark spot that represents the tiny island at the centre of the bitter dispute. The book itself begins quietly enough, showing the few islanders going about their daily lives, tending sheep in the driving rain and minding their own business – merely bit-players in the emerging drama. Our first full view of the General is truly arresting – covered in military insignia and brandishing a blood spattered sword. We view him from below, through his spread-eagled legs as he takes up all the available space and still spills over the edges of the pages – clearly in expansionist mode as he ‘bagsied the sad little island for his very own’. ‘Far away over the sea’ the Old Iron Woman takes up the challenge posed by the General’s invasion of the little island. The images of the Old Iron Woman are rendered in the same exaggerated, cartoon-like style as the images of the Tin-Pot General, but they are even more grotesque. She is portrayed, in a series of pornographic poses, as a giant futuristic robot dominatrix, suspenders popping and guns blazing from metal breasts, conveying an image of a chillingly unreasonable and fear inducing temper tantrum. And so she sets sail for the ‘sad little island’ at the head of a fleet of warships. BANG! BANG! BANG! The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman confront each other. Brigg’s images show two cartoon/robot/giants facing each other from opposite sides of a double-page spread with flying cannonballs and loud ‘bangs!’ between them. The War of Egos has begun! Then – the Pivot Moment – the turn of the page brings a total change of style. The stark single sentence ‘Some men were shot’ appears at the centre of an empty page facing a framed charcoal drawing of a fallen soldier. This is followed by similar images of men drowned, burned alive, blown to bits and those who ‘came home with parts of their bodies missing’. We have left the cartoon world and are now firmly in the real world – a world of consequences and feelings, death and injury. In contrast to the loud, vulgar, almost comic depiction of war in the earlier drawings, these images are shadowy, murky, hinting at the real horrors they depict. The effect on the reader is profound. You have to slow down, to take stock of what is really happening. It is a truly pivotal moment, because once you have experienced it, it changes the way you view the whole story. Victory and defeat happen in the fake, cartoon world of gigantic egos, but death and grief happen in the real world of real families and make no distinction between the victor and the vanquished. Brigg’s finishes this section of the book by referring to the ‘hundreds of brave men’ that were killed, remarking that ‘they were all real men, made of flesh and blood. They were not made of Tin or Iron’. The accompanying image showing rows of tiny white crosses stretching into the distance is reminiscent of the First World War graveyards. He then returns briefly to the cartoon depictions of the defeated Tin-Pot General and the gleefully triumphant Iron Woman boasting ‘I WON!’ and granting ‘all her soldiers a special medal’. ‘The soldiers with bits of their bodies missing were not invited to take part in the Grand Parade, in case the sight of them spoiled the rejoicing’. When a Pivot Moment happens in literature, or in life, it’s not just an action, it’s an experience. *This book has been out of print for some time, but because libraries are such hoarders, you can still (just about) get a look at a copy in your local library.