Former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks has taken a surprising career-turn into bittersweet picture-books with The Gritterman, a beautifully illustrated and touching tale about a local gritter’s last night on duty.
Our unnamed hero takes us through his life and times in prose written with an understated, colloquial charm, discussing his work (ice cream man on summer days, gritterman on winter nights), late wife and private ruminations. His beloved night-time role consigned to the scrapheap by global warming and a terse letter from the council, he’s a man whose quiet profession – and way of life – is being extinguished by the relentless march of modernity.
Just as his faithful van putters along on its final mission, so he, an elderly man quite alone in the world, moves towards his ultimate destination. But while elegiac, The Gritterman is not depressing, instead finding a sweet triumphalism in a sad situation. As our narrator says; “Being alone and loneliness aren’t the same thing”.
All of this is paired with wonderful drawings by Weeks; and if lovely hand-drawn illustrations, sad scenarios and wintry landscapes are putting you in mind of Raymond Briggs, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Weeks’ melancholic, low-key style and domestic focus feel like a continuation of the kind of themes Briggs famously explored in works like The Snowman and Father Christmas, while his scratchy coloured pencil illustrations marked by subdued blues and flashes of colour recall The Snowman in particular.
But unlike Briggs’ work, this isn’t a comic, instead making use of the ample white space that a novel’s form allows to suggest isolation, and thick blankets of snow. And Weeks’ style is ultimately looser. The gritterman is rendered an incomplete ghost, fading fast; his world a foggy, unfocused one perpetually obscured by inclement weather.
It’s the little details in this book that make it shine, from the “dink on [his van’s] left wheel arch that’s the same shape as Scotland” to the turkey chow mein dinner our protagonist painstakingly prepares, a chunk of which he later removes from his molar with the corner of a Christmas card. Between them and the pictures you could pore over for hours, it’s the reading equivalent of what’s known as chrysalism; the intangible satisfaction of being snuggled up in bed while listening to a raging storm outside.