Raymond Briggs – The Old Iron Woman

I grew up in the 1980s, a child of Thatcher raised to loathe the monstrous metal mother. Not that I needed much prompting, her regular appearances on TV were enough to send me scuttling behind the sofa. But to make sure I stayed on message, my parents bought me a children's book on the subject: The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman by Raymond Briggs.

Published in 1984, it was Briggs' astonishing visceral response to the Falklands 'Crisis', a war in all but name against the Argentines, who in 1982 invaded the Falkland Islands. Margret Thatcher sent a British task force 8000 miles to oust General Galtieri and reassert British sovereignty, and save her premiership at the same time.

In his biography, Blooming Books, Raymond Briggs describes the Falklands as a 'ready made satire'. And having already tackled nuclear war in the most devastating book of my childhood, When the Wind Blows, he was ready to take on the woman who appeared to be leading us towards the Third World War.

Briggs moved away from the comic social realism of When the Wind Blows, back into the form he'd mastered early in his career. 'It was like a fairy tale. There were two giants, larger-than-life and both apparently puffed up with their own pride and vanity. One, Galtieri, the President of Argentina, had been called a 'tin-pot general' and the other, Margaret Thatcher, was nicknamed the iron lady, which suggested they were both made of metal. It was Punch and Judy really.

The opening sets up the lead characters as grotesque and gargantuan metal monsters, dripping blood, leaking money and shooting fire out of their tits. The first half is totally berserk, and very reminiscent of Ralph Steadman. In fact it has a pedigree going right back to the beginning of satire. The images of Galtieri and Thatcher leading boatloads of tiny soldiers towards each other is something Swift could have come up with for Gulliver's Travels.

The total insanity, and unabashed grotesquery of Briggs' Thatcher is something Gillray would have been proud of.

If you want a bit more contemporary resonance, Nicolette Jones points out in Blooming Books that there is even a Wizard of Oz connection in Briggs Old Iron Woman. Along with her trademark pearl earrings, stockings and suspenders, Thatcher wears 'shoes like the Wicked Witch of the West, and a similarly destructive fury'.

The book spent eleven weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller list, the first four at number one. But even the best satirical humour is often doomed to obscurity, and The Tin-Pot General is no exception having been out of print for years. My hope is that in the wake of Maggie's death, this classic will now be reappraised. Look beyond the broad caricature and you'll find some of Briggs's most humanitarian work.

As Punch and Judy duke it out in full colour, we cut to a series of black and white sketches that serve to highlight the fates of the thousand people who lost their lives. The accompanying text takes the rhythm of the picture book and adds a dose of horrendous realism.

If you're reading this and don't remember the conflict – I was only eight, and admittedly it's a little hazy in my mind – you might think that Margaret Thatcher was doing the right thing as a leader, protecting her people from a foreign aggressor. Then it's worth reading Briggs' contribution to the 1982 publication Authors take Sides on the Falklands. 'If the Falklands are so important to the British, it would be interesting to know why the Islanders lost their British nationality under the 1981 Nationality Bill; why they have no MP; why they are not entitled to a British pension; why they get their eduction in Argentina…'

I'd love to see more of this sort of thing published for kids today. Along with the Spitting Image and Young Ones books, I was magnetically drawn to this sort of scatological political humour, it jammed in my head and has never really left.

The book is all the more astonishing when you consider that at the time of writing Briggs had just secured his place in the pantheon of national treasures, thanks to the broadcast in 1982 of The Snowman. Raymond Briggs was clearly aware of the massive disconnect between the glorious escapism of The Snowman and the horror depicted in the Iron Woman. There is even an ironic echo of that book's iconic final frame where we see the boy standing with his back to us, mourning his melted friend. The cost of war we learn is far deeper.

When Big Ben stops this Wednesday it's the Margaret Thatcher of The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman that I'll be remembering.

Although copies now go for twenty quid on Amazon, The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman is included in full in Nicolette Jones's wonderful Blooming Books.


4 thoughts on “Raymond Briggs – The Old Iron Woman

  1. Illustrated book for adults not children. I found it a bit much, but then the 1991 Gulf War had just wound up. This is NOT for young children at all, it should be in the category – general fiction – illustrated – subsversive – anti-establishment – notify the NSA of those checking it out.


    1. Thanks for the comment Bruce. I agree it’s not a book for young children, and I don’t say that in the piece. I read the book when I was eleven – which was probably about the right age to engage with its powerful message about war and politics. I’m not sure what you mean by notifying the NSA? Thankfully in Britain we don’t (yet) live in a Big Brother state where we notify the authorities for disseminating left wing material. If we did my family would have been locked up long ago!


      1. I meant to add “(just kidding)” about the NSA.
        THANKS for the post, because I hadn’t viewed these intense great images since I donated the book to a Peace and Justice library in my college town.


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