For 12 years, Jim Bloggs—the aging hero of Raymond Briggs’ wonderful Gentleman Jim—has yearned for a new career. A dissatisfied bathroom attendant, Jim dreams of joining the military, becoming a famous artist, and even of becoming a cowboy. Jim’s everyday world is small, compressed. His fantasies, fed by a shelf full of adventure books and a childlike naiveté, spill out of Briggs’ neatly constructed panels in huge swaths of rich color, literally becoming larger than life.
When he finally decides to pursue his dreams, Jim travels about town in search of the tools of the cowboy and the artist, only to find he lacks the skills (not to mention cash) to achieve his strange ambitions. He’s drawn as a round head with rosy cheeks, a few stray lines of hair on his head and as he interacts with shopkeepers and clerks he appears small, further illustrating his childlike demeanor.
Finally, after a number of dead ends, Jim makes an absolutely absurd career choice: he becomes a highwayman, like Robin Hood, intending to steal from the rich and give to the poor. It isn’t an act of frustration or desperation: it’s one of romance. And though seemingly selfish—Jim is primarily concerned with the excitement, thrill and notoriety of his deeds—becoming a highwayman can be seen as an act of empowerment for Jims everywhere.
Briggs takes Jim to the edge of reality, letting his character get so caught up in the fantasy he ignores the real life implications of his new career. Finally, the real world closes in and Jim is faced with nosy bureaucrats, angry neighbors and, ultimately, the police. Jim’s first raid as a highwayman is his last, and he’s carted off to jail.
With this book—first published in 1980—Briggs’ succinctly and effectively depicts the crisis of confidence that comes when staring down a career. By making Jim an older adult, the crisis becomes more immediate. Of course both children and adults share the capacity to dream of the future and to want adventure and excitement in their lives, but yearning for it, as Jim Bloggs does, is a uniquely adult feeling. The imaginations of children are limitless, and the success of their fantasies hinges only on the ability to get others to play along. For adults, the process is internalized.
Take the book’s opening: All alone, scrubbing the toilets of a men’s public restroom, Jim repeats the mantra of every dissatisfied worker in the world: “I must break out… start a new life.” The tension in this statement is maintained for the rest of the story, with Jim’s outlandish fantasies constantly at odds with the dullness of reality. “I must break out” is charged with the desperation of 12 years of being stuck in a rut, and contains the same melodrama of Jim’s adventure books. Given its full implications, “start a new life” is an understatement, a simple declaration of fact that ignores its overall meaning. In choosing to be a highwayman, Jim ignores any and all repercussions that might come about. He just decides to do it.
Though he never says it, it’s a safe bet Jim never intended to be a restroom attendant. It’s this fact that holds the story together and helps the reader easily identify with Jim. When Jim dreams of being an artist, he imagines himself in a messy smock, surrounded by canvasses and nude models in his huge Parisian studio. It’s romantic and unrealistic, but it conjures up an image of Raymond Briggs, the commercial artist, dreaming a similar dream, ignoring a looming deadline, and one can hardly blame him. Most of us don’t end up doing what we thought we would as children, let alone doing what we love. For many people, finding a career becomes a choice between struggling with what you love to do and settling for what you like to do.
Of course Briggs left commercial art and became a successful children’s book author, creating stories like The Snowman and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age, two books that deal with the same struggle for change as Gentleman Jim. The boy who builds the snowman actually finds adventure, flying around the city with his magical snowman, only to discover the next day his new friend has melted. Ug, who dreams of making a comfortable pair of trousers out of anything but stone, nearly accomplishes his goal, but in the end has to settle for the status quo. The book ends with Ug as an adult, wondering what could have been and repeating, “Things will get better… won’t they?” He’s referring to his pants, of course, but the implication is deeper.
To a child, giggling at the furry man in stone pants, it’s funny. To the adult reading along, there’s a tremendous sadness there. Briggs asks children and adults a difficult question: when is it time to stop dreaming of the future and when is it time to do something about it. For Jim Bloggs, maybe the right time was 12 years ago, when he first dreamed of leaving the restroom behind. Or, with aspirations of highway robbery, maybe the time was never.
We live in the real world, and we all want a better future. When does “the future” begin? As I type these words, I enter into the future; reading them back is to visit the past. So, greetings from the future. Things look okay from here.