Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Holiday reading: The Uncle books

The Christmas issue of The Economist proves that the magazine has a heart after all. It carries an article on one of the neglected classics of British children's literature: the Uncle books by the Reverend J. P. Martin.

Who is Uncle? The article explains:

The hero is a millionaire who exercises one-elephant rule over a gigantic, moated castle called Homeward. His domain is so enormous that large parts of the castle—which is linked together by a fantastic array of lifts, railways and secret passages—are unknown even to its owner. Much of the books is taken up with accounts of expeditions to different parts of Homeward, which is populated by hundreds of animals, dwarves, ghosts and other eccentrics. Uncle, who strides around in a purple dressing gown, also has his own devoted (indeed sycophantic) entourage.

But across the moat from Homeward—and sadly within plain sight of Uncle—lies Badfort, an unpleasant shanty town of run-down huts, inhabited by Uncle's enemies, “the Badfort crowd”. While all is elegance and magnificence over at Homeward, the Badfort crowd, led by Beaver Hateman and his relatives Nailrod, Filljug and Sigismund, live a sordid existence. They wander around barefoot and unshaven, dressed in suits of sacking, and living off “skob fish” extracted from a dank stretch of nearby water called Gaby's Marsh, while quaffing an oily drink called Black Tom.

A straightforward battle between good and evil then? Not quite:
On the one hand, the elephant leader is undeniably a goodie and his rivals from the “Badfort crowd” are undeniably bad—gaining their living from a variety of petty swindles. On the other hand, Uncle is humourless and pompous, and many of the barbs slung at him by the Badfort crowd have an uncomfortable element of truth.
The Uncle books have rarely been in print since they came out in the 1960s. In part this is because too many publishers have failed to share Martin's sly sense of humour, and in part because, as the article says:
Quentin Blake, the book's illustrator, muses that “The books have always had terrific fans, but they have never attracted a mass following because they are so eccentric.” Charlie Sheppard at Random House agrees that “there just may not be enough truly eccentric children out there.”
Blake's illustrations help to explain why second-hand copies the books now fetch three-figure sums. Even the paperback reprint of the first two stories, which came out a few years ago, now seems hard to find. (I know. I gave mine away.)

But Uncle lives on amongst a select group of enthusiasts, and the Economist suggests that printing-on-demand technology may be his saviour. In the mean time you can find out more about Uncle and the Revd Martin here or join the Lion Tower discussion group.

Later. I have now found an Uncle bibliography.


Anonymous said...

I regularly borrowed the Uncles books from my library, here in Australia, and just loved them. I often think of then (maybe I am a little eccentric), and wish I could obtain copies to read to my children. Thanks for the information on them.

Anonymous said...

I owned 2 Uncle books as a child, and they were enchanting! I spent years searching the net and asking everyone about them, to no avail until a couple of years ago when I finally discovered someone else who had heard of them. Apparently there was a limited reprint a few years ago, but they are still like hen's teeth - I do hope they will be available to download if not reprinted again soon.


gawain said...

You will be delighted to read - and perhaps pass on - that crowd sourcing has enabled the forthcoming publication of an anthology of all the Uncle books for a reasonable £30. The SUnday Times has details.