“Uncle is an elephant. He’s immensely rich, and he’s a B.A. He dresses well, generally in a purple dressing gown, and often rides about on a traction engine, which he prefers to a car.”
Surreal, often darkly humorous and hugely entertaining, Uncle is the first of J. P Martin’s books about the titular pachyderm and his adventures.
First published in 1964, Uncle quickly became something of a modern classic of children’s literature and, along with the other books in the series, a huge influence on a generation of fantasists and fabers from Neil Gaiman to Will Self and all points in between.
I’ve been aware of the Uncle series for a while now, but since the books have long been out of print and second hand copies notoriously expensive, hadn’t read any of them until the start of this year. However, thanks to a fan-led Kickstarter, the Complete Uncle is once again available.
And it’s been well worth the wait.
I made a very deliberate decision to make Uncle my first book of 2014, but approached it with a little bit of trepidation – it is often the way with cult items that fans tend to overplay their quality and latecomers can sometimes be left scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Not so with Uncle.
Like Lewis Carroll or (perhaps more accurately) Mervyn Peake, J.P Martin created a beautifully realized and contained world that plays by no rules other than its own. So the fact that a talking elephant in a purple dressing gown is the hero here is never questioned, nor indeed are any of the other equally strange characters who populate the book – characters like Jellytussle who is continually covered in the jellylike substance that gives him his name (or did the name come first?) the spectral Firlon Hootman (a ghost intensely disliked by his fellow ghosts), Noddy Ninety (an ancient old man who insists on, literally, reliving his schooldays).
Set in and around the vast, sprawling castle and estate of Homeward – so vast and sprawling that there are places that even Uncle has never seen – and, at times, in the rival settlement of Badfort where Uncle’s fiercest rivals, the Hateman clan, live the first Uncle book is less of a narrative than a somewhat eccentric travelogue that takes the reader through a little of Homeward, introducing many of the principal and supporting characters and places such as Cheapman’s Store, the Haunted Tower, Owl Springs, the Oil Tanks and Dr August Lyre’s School.
Of course, this is not to say that there isn’t a story here as well. The Badfort crowd take offence at Uncle (offence mixed liberally with jealously since Badfort is a ruinous, slum version of Homeward) they resolve to be revenged on him and, throughout the book, are continually playing spiteful pranks which culminate in Uncle’s capture (and, of course, eventual rescue since all ends well).
Although comparisons are always odious, a useful shorthand for Uncle might be to describe it as Gormenghast for younger readers. The same delight in language, the same sense of dark absurdity and the same elastic approach to narrative exist here as in Mervyn Peake’s writing. Similarly, there is a somewhat Dickensian delight when it comes to naming characters: Beaver Hateman, Nailrod Hateman Senior, Nailrod Hateman Junior, Butterskin Mute, Hitmouse, Crackbone, Dr A Liar (as he sometimes forgets to spell it Lyre) Will Shudder, and many others.
Holding it all together is, of course, Uncle himself – generous to a fault, flamboyant and full of the joys of living – the very picture of a slightly odd yet loveable aristocrat for whom the world is a playground and the function of life is to do good unto others.
Illustrated by Quentin Blake, an artist who’s work adorned many children’s classics – particularly the work of Roald Dahl – Uncle is a delightful start to the series and a real treat for readers of all ages.