One afternoon, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I was standing in the queue for the children’s counter in a library in Davyhulme in Manchester. I was carrying four or five books and an older girl read out the title of the one that happened to be on top: Uncle and the Treacle Trouble.
It was meant to make me feel stupid, but it didn’t much. Don’t judge a book by its cover – or its title. Like Uncle and Claudius the Camel or Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown, Uncle and the Treacle Trouble might sound twee and childish: in fact, it’s one of the cleverest, funniest, most surreal children’s books ever written. The six books in J.P. Martin’s Uncle series deserve to join Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh among the classics, delighting both children and adults all around the world. Alas, they never have and probably now never will. That gives them a cult cachet, of course, but I’d rather have less cult and more cash for the publishers willing to re-issue them.
How to describe them? “Alice in the Willows” is one way: they combine the surreal invention of Alice in Wonderland with the proper stories of Wind in the Willows. Anthropomorphic animals have odd and interesting adventures. Uncle is a Trunkle: a millionaire elephant living in a city-sized castle with lots of other walking, talking animals. And with humans too, like his loyal librarian Will Shudder, his horticulturalist Butterskin Mute, and the Badfort Crowd, Uncle’s sworn and socialist enemies. Another way of describing the books is to say they might have written by J.G. Bilne or A.A. Mallard: imagine mixing the vivid surrealism of J.G. Ballard with the sun-kissed camaraderie of A.A. Milne. Or the snow-cloaked camaraderie. The Uncle books are set in all the seasons and appeal to all the senses, including the sense of wonder. Martin’s surreal invention is actually oneirography: in part, the books are transcriptions of his dreams.
That’s one reason I would put them above Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. I like all of those books, but they don’t create worlds as large, crowded, and endlessly detailed as the dream-world of Uncle, which has no borders and no barriers. Lewis Carroll’s invention can seem contrived or even didactic. He distorts the real world and plays games with it. Grahame and Milne verge on cosiness or never leave it at all, some would say. Martin doesn’t contrive or do cosy, and his hero has feet of clay. “See that pompous humbug Unc/On the platform raise his trunk…” sing the Badfort Crowd, down but not out after Uncle has thwarted another of their schemes, and they’re right: Uncle, though good and kind-hearted, is pompous. If you wanted to get Nietzschean about it, you could say Uncle represents the calm and ordered world of the Apollonian and the Badfort Gang the chaotic and destructive forces of the Dionysian. But that would probably be taking things too far. Uncle is nearer whimsy than wildness. I would like to know more about J.P. Martin’s education, but if he was influenced by Greek and Roman mythology, he adapted it for a cooler climate and more muted skies. Apollo and Dionysus may do battle in his books, but they do so in the hall of Hypnos, god of sleep. Reading J.P. Martin is like dreaming awake.
But you’ll have sweet dreams, not sour ones: if Martin ever had angst-ridden or ugly dreams, he didn’t transcribe them into his books. He can also, like the late, great Peter Simple, invoke the “mysterious urban poetry” of slag-heaps and abandoned factories. Perhaps Simple, born in 1913, was a fan of Martin, born in 1879, or perhaps they both drew on the same gentle, subtle English traditions of nonsense, whimsy, and satire. Either way, I would place Martin above even Simple. Both are dead now, but the written word, more lasting than bronze, allows their souls to sing on.