November 22nd, 2009
The sprightly and anarchic illustrative work of Quentin Blake is only one reason to seek out Uncle.
Uncle accounts for a series of six children’s books by Methodist Minister J.P. Martin about a fabulously wealthy elephant who lords it up in Homeward, a walled city of towers, gardens and switchback railways. First published in the sixties and seventies, the Uncle books have been long out of print but are now available to fill your Christmas stocking thanks to The new York Review Children’s Collection who, much to my delight, have decided to printed the first two volumes, ‘Uncle’ and ‘Uncle Cleans Up’.
When first published, the Uncle books were favorably compared to the works of Lear and Carrol. Spike Milligan read ‘Uncle’ on Jackanory, the BBC’s long running storytelling series for children. The Editor of Private Eye, that irreverent organ of Oxbridge types, described Uncle as “one of the best books of our time”. The series even has a cult following among the likes of David Langford and Neil Gaiman. First editions change hands for hundreds of pounds and Langford reports that a fanatical collector has instructed London dealers to buy him every copy of every edition.
I have the last in the series – ‘Uncle and the battle of Badgertown’ although it shows signs of the wear and tear of a much loved book and no one can have it, so there! Actually getting my hands on a hardback was quite a feat mainly because hardback books for children were an expensive luxury item in sixties Britain, but I also suspect it’s rarity speaks to the fact that ‘Uncle’ sat uneasily alongside the accepted cannon of proper reading for posh young boys: Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and The Water Babies. Back then, persuading my folks to buy me Dr Seuss (‘Green Eggs & Ham’) was seen as a dangerous concession to the modern world that threatened to bring down the last bastion of 1950s Blighty holed up somewhere in the somnambulistic suburbs of Cardiff.
Reading Uncles’ cast of battling Badgers and Wolves it is impossible to believe that this whimsical world is not an influence on the goggle-eyed comedy of Harry Hill. Certainly the opening chapters of Uncle were enough to remind me how influential the books had been on my own writing. It’s not surprising that, with aid of £175,000 from Brussels to dramatise the coming challenges of the information society, I should have turned subconsciously to Martin’s own universe because it dramatises the kinds of class conflict that still underpin today’s digital divide. Uncle lives in Homeward, a magnificent city/castle/theme park of 100 sky scrapers while his “detractors” live in the squalid confines of Badfort a dump of a place located on the banks of Homeward’s moat.
And it’s because of Martin’s particular Manichean world view that the Uncle books remain out of print. Whether you feel critics are just being politically correct in their disapproval of Martin’s work, the fact is the Uncle universe is starkly capitalistic and divided into opposing factions based on wealth, patronage and taste. The opposition between the good and the bad is spelt out right from the start in a cast list of opposing forces. Uncle has over thirty “followers” while Badfort is populated by a desultory “crowd”. Nomenclature spells out their essential difference. Uncle’s followers are respectable types: The Old Monkey, The Old Man, The Respectable Horses, Dr Bunker, The King of the Badgers, The Marquis of Wolftown. The Badfort crowd are cursed with names such as Beaver Hateman, Oily Joe, The Wooden-Legged Donkey, Abdullah the Clothes-Peg Merchant, Crackbone. While Old Whitebeard is, we are informed, “hated by both sides”.
Quite simply the good guys are pals of the wealthy Uncle and love him because he seemingly deserves his riches, in that, although he doesn’t pay his workfocre a decent living wage, he does shower them with gifts. In contrast, the Badfort inhabitants are just ill mannered working class or, rather, lumpen proletariat scum. The appeal to the snob in some of this is all too obvious. The badfort crowd aren’t bad because they are poor, they are bad because they are bad. No, it just happens that their home is “dingy”, they dress badly and are unpleasantly oikish. To this end Martin piles on the abjection to a hilarious degree “one of the most objectionable characters is Jellytussle… He is covered with shaking Jelly of a bluish colour, and whenever he is about Uncle looks out for trouble”.
Slowly Martin’s paranoid world of envy, hatred and just plain impoliteness is built up over the course of a variety of incidents in which the Badfort crowd don’t exactly reveal their true colours so much as conform exactly to the way they’ve been coloured from the moment we met them. Uncle takes Beaver Hateman et al on a trip to his secret bath house, but the yobbos refuse to leave and have to be flushed down the drain.
In line with all this abjection is one of the most startling features of Martin’s work: its willingness to address the baser emotions. Typically Martin does this in a breezy style. Badfort inhabitant Hitmouse is described as “a little coward”, “Beaver Hateman and the Wooden-Legged Donkey are always together, always quarrelling” and “Since Uncle became rich,” Martin notes “people who live at Badfort have been his chief critics. They are jealous of him and are delighted when they discover anything against him”. Interestingly however, Uncle isn’t immune from less noble emotions “Uncle likes playing spigots because he always wins”.
The conflict between noble and ignoble is gleefully violent. Uncle enjoys kicking members of the Badfort crowd up in the air. Punishments and punishable acts are delivered with delicious detail. Here Beaver Hateman plans an attack on Homeward: “Some can be filling the waterpolo ball with glue and ink and tin tacks, and remember to rub it thin in one place just before you throw it at the Old Monkey. Others “can be putting drawing-pins in their bathing suits”. Uncle, for his part, gives as good as he gets. When Jelly Tussle arrives at Homeward to deliver a challenge, Uncle “Kicks him up”. As Martin writes “There was a squelching thud and the body of the messenger could be seen rising in the air”.
Sometimes the stories’ eccentricities become bizarrely fetishistic. When The Old Monkey is visited by his uncle – called Muncle- we learn of the uncle’s obsession with shoes. “He was wearing an enormous pair of travelling boots… He always keeps a lot of stuff in them, including several pairs of smaller boots and shoes”…”he is always terribly afraid…that Beaver Hateman, the leader of the Badfort crowd, will splash his boots with mud”. On greeting Uncle the Muncle first notices the state of his nephew’s own footwear “I am sorry to see his shoes are dusty. Nephew, open the right-side compartment in my travelling boots and you’ll find a pair of dove-coloured visiting shoes.” Even Uncle is not immune from criticism “your shoes are somewhat shabby. I wonder if you’d gratify me by putting on a really nice pair?” The episode climaxes with The Old Monkey reading out some of the Muncles poetry entitled ‘The Foot-Lover’. Uncle’s verdict “Shoes are a good thing, but we should not make them the sole object of life.” Ho ho. Elsewhere we learn that Dr Lyre, head of a ‘Select School for Young Gentlemen’ keeps a bundle of great canes and a thing like a flail by his desk. While the aged Noddy Ninety “loves to get in the bottom form and Pretend he’s a schoolboy”!
Martin’s work should come with some kind of mental health warning the books are an aggressive meme replicating another century’s class snobbery for a new readership. On the other hand Langford is surely right that, not only is Uncle not very bright, his pretentions are forever being sent up. And Uncle’s beneficence, certainly to modern eyes, begins to read like bribery, buying loyalty with gifts of ham, herrings and Turkish delight. In the final chapter, after victory over the badfort crowd, the Old Monkey confides to Uncle “I was never so happy in my life, sir…The main thing is that you’re safe and sound!” Uncle made no reply, we are told, “but put his hand into his pocket and pressed a five pound note into the Old Monkey’s paw”.
Ridiculous, ribald and sometimes reprehensible, ‘Uncle’ and ‘Uncle Cleans Up’ will fill your stocking with incredulous laughter.