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Second Childhood:
JP Martin - the creator of Uncle

by David Langford

It's time to rip the lid off a secret cult lurking undetected in the sf/fantasy community ... a cult so obscure that most of its cover scanmembers don't know that it exists. These people are the fans of Uncle.

I discovered this sinister cabal at a post-convention restaurant meal where half the writers round the table suddenly started talking excitedly about the Uncle novels. Neil Gaiman was so boggled to find his enthusiasm shared that he momentarily forgot to look cool. Diane Duane explained that she'd named her web site "Owl Springs" after a location in one of the stories. Groans of envy greeted my boast that I was writing the Fantasy Encyclopedia entry on Uncle's creator, J.P. Martin. Peter Morwood started reciting long chunks of the books from memory, until gentle hands appreciatively forced the table-cloth into his mouth.

Yes, we are talking "cult author" here. John Percival Martin (1880-1966) may sound an unlikely source of cult material: he was a Methodist minister and missionary who liked to tell his children stories about talking animals. But, after all, there was once an ordained deacon who told stories to children and became quite well-known as Lewis Carroll ...

The wonderland of Martin's books is reminiscent of Carroll's, but far more modern and seedy, with lumps of industrial archaeology lying about the landscape. Its central character Uncle is a vastly rich elephant who affects purple dressing-gowns and lives in an improbable edifice called Homeward -- 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. They revel in evil. They are the sort of wretches who would say snide things about The X-Files.

Naturally there are plots, confrontations, and mighty uprisings against Uncle's benevolent overlordship. All of this is surreally funny and certainly accounts for Martin's cult popularity. But what's truly bizarre is that according to enthusiasts who beg for reprints, the original publishers Jonathan Cape don't wish to reissue Uncle ... owing to the spectre of political correctness, always at its worst in children's publishing. Specifically, the books are regarded as "classist" because Uncle is rich and insufferably complacent. Also they are "over-violent", owing to mighty battles in which Uncle lays about him with a stone club and kicks Hateman hundreds of yards into the air -- all somewhat tamer than Tom and Jerry. No one is ever really hurt.

As usual, the PC police are missing the point with accusations of "classism": the books are actually rather subversive. Uncle's pompous pretensions are forever being sent up. 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 books are hard to find. There are six, three of them edited from Martin's MSS by his daughter after his death: 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 splendidly illustrated by the great Quentin Blake. My ace book-hunter Brian Ameringen tells me that one fanatical collector is making the series even more difficult to trace, by instructing London dealers to buy him every copy of every edition.

Are they so addictive? Well, Homeward includes one building which is cracked like the House of Usher and therefore, in a stunning 1966 prediction of later drug culture, is known as Crack House ...


As Dave says, the Uncle novels are hard to find, but the first two were reissued as an omnibus volume in 2000, with a paperback edition in August 2002:

  • Uncle by JP Martin, Quentin Blake (Illustrator)
    Paperback (1 August 2002) Red Fox; ISBN: 0099438690

Hopefully the remaining four will follow.

It would also be worth trying some of the specialist bookshops listed in the infinity plus bookshop.

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© David Langford, 1997, 2002
This feature first appeared in Dave's column in SFX 21, January 1997.

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