Friday, December 28, 2007

Uncle and the Battle for Recognition

I am delighted to be able to tell you that the second book in the Uncle series by J P Martin – Uncle Cleans Up – is at long last being reprinted next year. It follows the reprinting of Book 1 – Uncle – earlier this year. And why am I so delighted? Because the Uncle books are, in my humble opinion, some of the funniest and most inventive children’s books ever written.

I bought the very first Uncle book back when I was in short trousers. Published in 1964, Uncle told the story of an immensely rich elephant – the Uncle of the stories – and his adventures. Aided by The Old Monkey, his man-servant (simian-servant?) and cast of bizarre characters with even more bizarre names, Uncle strives to keep the peace and to protect his many friends and residents. His home, a strange place called Homeward, is described wonderfully by writer David Langford as ‘… half Gormenghast and half Disneyland. Scenic railways abound; there are museums with entire floors devoted to flamingo bird-baths or treacle bowls through the ages. Most of Homeward's inhabitants are alarmingly eccentric, and would pass unnoticed in the Goon Show. An epic pitch of fear is reached during an overnight stay in the Haunted Tower, where ‘The White Terror’ proves to be a small ghost about a foot high, which stands disagreeably on the bedside table muttering, “I did it! I took the strawberry jam!" But facing the hundred-towered glory of Homeward is the dark side of the farce: the filthy stronghold Badfort, ruled by Uncle's arch-enemy Beaver Hateman. The Badfort crowd spend their days lounging around dressed in unclean sacking, swilling Black Tom and Leper Gin, writing down bad thoughts in their Hating Books, and hatching terrible schemes to entrap Uncle.’

Uncle appeared in just six books: Uncle (1964), Uncle Cleans Up (1965), Uncle and His Detective (1966), Uncle and the Treacle Trouble (1967), Uncle and Claudius the Camel (1969) and Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown (1973). All are riotously illustrated by the then pretty much unknown Quentin Blake and all are now horribly collectible. The books were published in hardback in the UK by Jonathan Cape and regularly sell on e-bay and abebooks in excess of £150-£600 per book. The fact that the entire series has never been republished has forced the prices ever higher. It’s also meant that J P Martin has not enjoyed the success and recognition given to other children’s ‘nonsense’ authors like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl. And this is a crime, it truly is. Martin’s books are hilarious, touching, almost Pythonesque in their surreal humour and feature the best names for characters ever. Flabskin. Noddy Ninety. Jellytussle. Isadore Hitmouse. Butterskin Mute. Firlon Hootman. Abdullah the Clothes Peg Merchant. Genius.

To understand why the Uncle books have been so hard done by, we need look no further than the deeply misused and misunderstood cult of Political Correctness. It was the PC Police who drove Uncle away - not because of racism (the books are uncommonly cosmopolitan for the times they were written in), nor sexism nor ageism. It was Classism. Because Uncle is rich and often pompous, some claimed that the books championed the elitism of the Upper Classes. Well, all I can say to these people is ‘try reading the books instead of making assumptions’. Uncle is constantly sent up by his friends and enemies and frequently suffers for his pomposity. David Langford again: ‘The hilarious libels they print about him in the Badfort News all have a regrettable element of truth. It's not only the Badfort mob who are sick to death of hearing about his great deeds of benevolence, like the Opening of the Dwarfs' Drinking Fountains. Also, ever-guzzling Uncle isn't terribly bright: the third novel features a hunt for buried treasure described by the enigmatic code-word dlog, the gag being that everyone except our hero cracks this cipher at first glance.’ Uncle's pomposity is funny. It is certainly not a trait that is celebrated nor valued. Except maybe by author Will Self, a long-time fan of the series who says: ‘I think Uncle stuck with me because of its combination of excess, gadgetry and eccentricity – all of which are modes of being I have attempted to emulate in my adult life. I blame J P Martin.’

Ultimately, it is Uncle’s philanthropy and kindness of heart that win the day, not his money or his class. Oh, and there are some mighty battles too which has led to further anti-Uncle protests that the books are ‘over-violent’. This is also nonsense. Yes, Uncle may ‘lay about himself' with a stone club or two and kick the bad guys 50 feet into the air, but this is cartoon violence of a kind far exceeded by Itchy and Scratchy or even Tom and Jerry. There’s no blood or gore or death in Uncle’s world. It’s madness that the books are held in some kind of republishing Hell because of these silly allegations. I wonder what J P himself would have made of the all the fuss?

John Percival Martin (1880-1966) was not a rabid Socialist. Nor was he a member of the landed gentry. Martin was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire and became a Methodist minister in 1902 before serving as a missionary in South Africa and as an army chaplain in Palestine during the First World War. After the Second World War he lived in the village of Timberscombe in Somerset until his death in 1966. He made up the Uncle stories for his children and was persuaded to write them down in his final years. The latter three books were completed by his daughter from notes he left after his death … but, sadly, most people have never read them as they are so hard to find.

I am lucky I guess. I recognised the genius of J P Martin early and got myself copies of the books. Consequently I have read them all several times over. Now I’d like you all to have the same chance. The first book is back in print and the second is on its way (Sadly, they're being reprinted in America rather than their native UK but heigh ho ... let's make the most of the weak dollar, eh?). I’d love to do my small part to ensure that the others follow suit. We should start an official campaign to get the Uncle books recognised for the children’s classics they are. J P Martin has legions of fans including Neil Gaiman, Terry pratchett and the aforementioned David Langford and Will Self. Quentin Blake has said that he’d love to see the books re-issued. In June this year, Guardian columnist Imogen Russell Williams wrote that ‘we should fight to keep it in print, and campaign for the re-emergence of the later books too - I'm desperate to know what happens in Uncle and the Treacle Trouble.’ And designer Tony Bannister – who has long had first dibs on the film rights to the Uncle books – has been campaigning for years to make the books into an animated TV series. The time is right for Uncle to take his place among the giants of quality children’s imaginative fiction.

So come on, Jonathan Cape! Forget the spectre of dodgy 1980s PC politics and enjoy the books for what they are. Let’s get Uncle where he belongs – in the hands and hearts of imaginative children.

If you're the petitioning type, write to Jonathan Cape Ltd, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA and give them a damn good pen lashing.

If you want to read the Uncle books, start here at Amazon with the Red Fox reprint of Uncle and Uncle Cleans Up, published together as Uncle Stories. Or you can buy the new American edition of Uncle here.

Tony Bannister's Tales from Homeward blog is always a good read as is his Uncle website. And there is a Lion Tower newsgroup on Yahoo where fans discuss the books.

All illustrations are Copyright (c) Quentin Blake and the estate of J P Martin. Colouring by Tony Bannister.

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