from the New Windmill Series edition of 'Uncle', published by Heinemann Educational Books, 1975


Uncle was told by my grandfather to my mother and to her sister and brothers when they were all children. It was only written down for my brother, my cousins and myself. Now at last it has been published. The Editor of that remarkable paper Private Eye welcomed it as "one of the best books of our time"; (he also thinks incidentally that the Badfort News and Private Eye are very similar in their rumbustious attacks on the established order). When Uncle was published the author J. P. Martin was welcomed "to the glorious company of Nonsense Masters like Lear and Carroll". It was only natural that Spike Milligan should read it on Jackanory.

Uncle is a somewhat pompous and extremely rich elephant. He wears a purple dressing gown and rides in a traction engine. He lives in Homeward, a castle as vast as my grandfather's imagination. When my grandfather needed a new adventure he sent Uncle and his supporters off to find a new tower. Uncle's enemies the Bads, led by Beaver Hateman, live near Homeward in a vast derelict pile where all the windows are broken and the doors have been used for firewood. Uncle's crowd and the Badfort crowd are in a perpetual state of hostility. The Badfort crowd are always attacking Homeward, or recovering from the last attack, or scheming over a new and even more vile assault. Beaver Hateman, who has hobnails hammered directly into his feet and who wears a sack suit, yells at Uncle "You know jolly well that you would be bored stiff if we didn't have a dust-up occasionally". And so would the readers. Just as with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and all the great comics, one waits for the battle and the action.

And yet it was this rumbustiousness which offended the genteel ladies and gentlemen who used to monopolise children's book publishing. It took some thirty years for this book to be published. My grandfather, while a man of great gentleness and compassion, loved the contrast of really ferocious games. He was a Methodist Minister and that church keeps its parsons on the move. So they needed packing cases by the dozen. He used to pile them up into a miniature and rickety version of Badfort and everybody would play touch until they were stopped by my grandmother because their clothes were so badly ripped.

He revelled in the macabre and the magical. In the village of Timberscombe on Exmoor some gipsies lived in a house near him. On the whole gipsies keep themselves away from ordinary English people. Everybody, however, knew of their family feuds. One part of the family left a stuffed leopard on the doorstep of the other half. Such happenings brought out all my grandfather's rolling laughter. And yet on a dark windy night when the feud had reached the intensity of the Ridds in Lorna Doone it was my grandfather who was summoned out by them to make peace, even though they would not have set foot in his chapel.

Over all the years that my brother and I knew him the Uncle stories grew and grew. Over breakfast he would tell us of the latest episode he had dreamed in the night. And by the evening it had been hammered out on his ancient typewriter which only worked because it was weighted by an old piece of gas pipe or a pewter mug. And then he would try it out on us as we sat with scorched faces gazing into the fire. And the laughter used to well up inside him and slowly grow like the wind in the chimney. On the fire would be burning the wooden face that we had chiselled out of logs that morning. And the latest episode in the Uncle saga would be interrupted as we watched the face gush flames through the mouth and eyes.

It is suitable that the sixth and last complete book, which was published in 1973 and called Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown, should have so much about the celebration of Christmas. For he always used to plan new games and make new toys and get all the family involved in the most elaborate of charades. And as usual Uncle would spill over into real life. When my uncles were boys they planned one evening to come and sing carols disguised as visitors in order to take money off J. P. Martin for some worthy cause. He came to suspect that this was their plan. So that when singing began at the door of the Methodist Manse he flung open the door like Uncle preparing to kick up the Badfort crowd and, uttering the sort of exclamations Uncle would have done against the scoundrels who dared to darken his doorstep, he chased the singers down the drive. The only trouble was that the singers were not his two sons; they were in fact behind the privet hedge splitting their little hides laughing like two badgers at the sight of their father chasing members of his own Methodist congregation who had arrived to collect an honest and worthy penny or two from their minister.

So these books have been published, several even after the author has died, because people have proved to enjoy what started as one man's entertainment for his family. People in Japan and Holland as well as in Britain and America and the other English-speaking countries have become Uncle addicts. A school in rural England was found with models of Homeward made out of polystyrene packing material. A boy in a Stevenage New Town school did a project on Timberscombe because it was the village where the author of Uncle lived. He found the seat in the village square dedicated to "J. P. Martin, A Friend of the Village". And as you can well imagine, many of his best friends were children.

James Currey