Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cry Uncle!

I first discovered J.P. Martin's Uncle books in the late 1960s, in my local library. I was an introverted teenager with a bad reading habit (I spent one rainy fortnight in Bognor Regis reading through about six feet of UFO books in the library - there must have been some serious UFO watchers, in Bognor). I had read everything on the science fiction shelves, and had begun to mine the rest of the adult fiction stacks, picking up whatever hooked my interest, from Beryl Bainbridge and John Updike to Angela Carter and Richard Brautigan. And these odd books with an elephant in a purple dressing-gown on the cover, apparently written for children but shelved with Thomas Mann and Carson McCullers.

Maybe a librarian decided that they were too subversive for children; or (I hope) maybe she thought that adults shouldn't miss out on the fun, and ordered two sets. But by whatever means, it was my great good luck that they ended up there, for here was an antic world that fully engaged the imagination, a kind of cross between Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels, and The Goon Show.

Based on stories that J.P.Martin, a Methodist minister, originally told to his children, the Uncle books describe the adventures of their eponymous hero, an immensely rich elephant who lives in a vast and rambling castle, Homestead, whose secrets and geography are unknown even to him:
...try to think of about a hundred skyscrapers all joined together and surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge over it, and you'll get some idea of it. The towers are of many colours, and there are bathing pools and garden among them, also switchback railways running from tower to tower, and water-chutes from top to bottom.

Many dwarfs live in the top storeys. They pay rent to Uncle every Saturday. It's only a farthing a week, but it mounts up when there are thousands of dwarfs.

A slingshot from Homestead's moat is a shantytown, Badfort, where Uncle's rivals guzzle Black Tom and constantly plot his downfall and humiliation. There's also a vast department store close by (possibly modelled on London's lost bazaar, Gamages), where everything is fantastically cheap, and a rival store where the unwary pay equally fantastic high prices. In this pocket universe of vivid contrasts, Uncle is a kind of benevolent dictator who isn't quite as bright as he likes to think he is (despite his BA). He's also something of a snob, but he engages the reader's sympathy because his considerable dignity and boldness is undercut by unexpected reversals and undeserved pratfalls and humiliations during his wars of attrition with his rivals in the shanty town of Badfort. It's a comedy of embarrassment and exasperation akin to Laurel and Hardy.

The first Uncle book I read, Uncle and the Treacle Trouble, was the fourth in the series; I immediately doubled back and read the other three, captivated by the surreal deadpan humour and the richness of Martin's imagined world, full of unmapped mysteries and underpinned by a zany logic. Somehow (probably because I left for university) I missed the last in the series, Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown, and while I kept an eye out for secondhand volumes they seemed to never turn up, and now first editions go for impressively high prices. The Uncle books are scarce, and there are a lot of Uncle fans, including a good number in the SF/F field. Although the first two books were recently reissued by the New York Review of Books in nice hardbacks, the others have long been out of print.

But now, at last, I have all six Uncle books inside the covers of a lovingly-produced omnibus, complete with Sir Quentin Blake's evocative ink-spattered illustrations, and with an introductory essay by James Martin Currey, J.P.Martin's grandson, essays by distinguished fans, and much else. The omnibus is the work of Marcus Gipps (disclosure: he's one of my editors at Gollancz), who funded publication with a Kickstarter campaign that was fully funded within four hours. The original plan was to produce 200 copies; in the end, 750 books have been printed for supporters, and another 750 are available in shops and online. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to dive back into Homeward's endless summer...


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