Friday, 3 October 2008

Mon Oncle

I have always been an avid reader. I couldn’t think of anything worse than to be stranded somewhere without reading material. There is a very good reason why I have a large, stuffed to the gunwales set of bookshelves in the hallway opposite the bathroom. I usually have a number of books on the go at any one time. At the time of writing these are Joined-Up Thinking (by my long-time friend and former work colleague Stevyn Colgan - well done old chap!); Thames - Sacred River, by Peter Ackroyd; Trains and Buttered Toast, an anthology of the radio broadcasts of Sir John Betjeman; and a tome on the restoration of Victorian and Edwardian houses.

When I was at school way back in the 60s, we were encouraged to order books through the medium of an organisation called Scoop. Aimed mainly at schools, it was a kind of Amazon before the internet. Every couple of months we’d be given a newsletter detailing the latest publications, and, having filled in the order form and paid our few shillings, the books would be duly delivered to us at school a few weeks later.

One set of books I remember with great affection were the Uncle books, written by the Reverend J.P.Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Uncle is an elephant who, in the words of the book, is immensely rich, and has a BA from Oxford University. He is generally to be found attired in a purple dressing gown, and his preferred mode of transport is a traction engine; probably something to do with the weight/space issues in his using a car. Uncle’s dwelling place is Homeward:

Homeward is hard to describe, but 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. The towers are of many colours, and there are bathing pools and gardens amongst them, also switchback railways running from tower to tower, and water-chutes from top to bottom.

Uncle has a number of companions including the Old Monkey, Cloutman, Gubbins, Goodman the cat, the One-Armed Badger and Butterskin Mute (fabulous names!) who join him in his adventures. These frequently bring them into conflict with the inhabitants of a place that is the very antithesis of Homeward - Badfort.

Badfort is a ramshackle castle with sacking stuffed into its broken windows and strewn with the accumulated rubbish of years. If Gustav Dore had executed an engraving of a 1960s sink estate, infested with feral dogs and littered with burnt-out cars, it would have looked something like Badfort. Its inhabitants are untermensch to a man, and include the Hateman family (Beaver, Nailrod, Filljug et al), Oily Joe, Isidore Hitmouse (a tiny, skewer-throwing creature), Jelly tussle (a quivering mound of…um…jelly), and a ghost called Hootman. The inhabitants of Badfort seem to spend much of their time hating Uncle and plotting his downfall (they have special Hating Books for the purpose), getting drunk, and devising pathetic schemes to raise money. Selling themselves into slavery a number of times was a favourite, I seem to recall.

Sadly I no longer have any of the books, but they live on in my memory. But imagine my surprise when I found out that Uncle is not only alive and well, but has his own blog! It seems he is presently enjoying a well-earned break by the sea and you can read his continuing adventures here.

Image copyright (c) the Estate of J.P.Martin and Quentin Blake

3 comments:

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - These are some of my favourite books ever and I did have all of the books at one time. I sold them off a few years ago when money was needed. Scarily, they are now so rare that the money I earned from the five books bought me 3/4 of a BMW. Incredible. Since then I've re-purchased the first two books in their spanky new hardback form and I have PDFs of all the others.

Tony Bannister (who runs the Uncle blog) has done a fantastic job keeping the title alive and has first dibs (from the estate of J P Martin) on the rights to produce a sequel or TV series. I first started talking to Tony about 5-6 years ago as I was up for writing such a thing and even made a start. We're both hopeful that something may come of it one day.

The Uncle books are a sadly neglected corner of children's nonsense literature that deserves a wider audience. It may mean a sight re-write (purists inhale deeply here) because Uncle was a product of his time and hardly a role-model with his bullying, snobbish ways. Mind you, if people like Simon Cowell are today's role-models I can't see the difference.

chris hale said...

Thanks for the information, Stevyn. I had no idea the original editions were so valuable. I've had a brief look at the blog and, from memory, would say Tony's use of language is pretty close to the tone of the originals. I'd love to see some new books but, as you say, they would probably have to be "doctored" to suit the 21st century audience. Mind you, he could always produce two versions -one for children and one for adults, as Charles Dickens did for Oliver Twist - and keep the former "out the back" or "under the counter" for we aficionados!

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