Will Self, Neil Gaiman and the return of Uncle
If I wanted to be cute, I could call this piece The Elephant and the Jewish Problem, except that while there is indeed an elephant, there is as yet no discernible Jewish problem. And, I have to confess, neither is the Jewish presence exactly Jumbo sized.
Nevertheless, two very talented Jewish writers, Will Self and Neil Gaiman, have helped an obsessed publisher, Marcus Gipps, in his passionate mission to reintroduce a lost classic of children’s literature, the Uncle books, by J P Martin.
And I know I can’t have been the only Jewish child to have read the Uncle books and found myself instantly smitten with their incredible anti-hero, Uncle the Elephant. Unlike the rather smug French trunk-waver, Babar, Uncle is huge, pompous, wears a purple dressing gown and, occasionally, diamond-and-ruby-encrusted elephant boots.
He and his followers live in a fantastic castle called Homeward, whose towers and drawbridges are almost too many to count. His chief assistants — often much cleverer than he is, despite the fact that Uncle has a BA degree — are the Old Monkey and the adoring One-Armed Badger, whose chief purpose in life is to struggle on a variety of expeditions carrying parcels of food. You never know, apparently, when Uncle will require a swift bucket of cocoa.
This otherwise idyllic existence — a ride on a traction engine here, a visit to the fabulous Cheapman’s store there, or a begging mission from the King of the Badgers — is almost ruined by Uncle’s nemesis: the repellent, though endlessly amusing, Beaver Hateman.
They are on a mission to revive a lost classic of children's literature
Hateman and his gang — Hitmouse, Jellytussle, Hootman the Ghost and the rest — live in a rundown heap of hovels called Badfort, which unfortunately faces the calm slopes of Homeward and is a general eyesore.
The hilarity of the books, which can, I am happy to report, be equally enjoyed as an adult, lies in the endless plots devised by Hateman to interrupt Uncle’s glitzy lifestyle.
Though he endeavours to put a calm face on things, from time to time Uncle just can’t hack it a minute longer, and kicks one of his enemies up into the sky. These are glorious moments, to be savoured long after you have closed the pages.
In Uncle’s few non-hilarious moments, I sometimes discern an analogy between Uncle and Beaver Hateman and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But, sadly, the latter is no laughing matter.
J P Martin began the Uncle stories as bedtime tales for his entranced children. He was an improbable candidate for children’s literature hero: a Methodist minister who served in pre-state Palestine, he never succeeded during his lifetime in getting the admiration he deserved.
A considerable part of the books’ charm were and are the extraordinary, spiky drawings by Quentin Blake, whose scratchy depictions of the evil Hateman tell you all you want to know about the Badfort crowd.
After J P Martin’s death, the six Uncle books went out of print. From time to time you could see references to collectors’ items – sometimes at shocking prices, £600 or more.
Allegedly, the publisher Jonathan Cape refused to re-issue the books because they were not politically correct: Uncle was fat, white and oppressed the downtrodden, throwing his money around and being generally pompous — but in a strangely loveable way. I always thought of him as Jewish — large, noisy and opinionated, just like my own real uncles.
Liking the Uncle books became a sort of cult or secret society, to which Will Self and Neil Gaiman are clearly signed-up members.
Late last year, Marcus Gipps, via a crowdfunding endeavour, finally succeeded in republishing an Uncle compendium, with contributions from a number of equally obsessed writers and fans.
It is, at more than 700 pages, the heaviest children’s book I have ever come across. But do not treat it just as a children’s book, for it is a comic masterpiece to be enjoyed by adults and children alike, especially when read aloud.
I urge all who have not yet met Uncle to embrace him and his purple dressing gown with enthusiasm. It could be the best decision you make in 2014.