One of the great advantages of acquiring a stepson in my sixties was the excuse it gave me to reread aloud all those children’s books which I had so much enjoyed the first time around – Beatrix Potter (whose Tailor of Gloucester was once ranked by A. J. P. Taylor with ‘the greatest masterpieces of Balzac’), Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and The Wind in the Willows, the last so popular that I think I read it six times in quick succession.
Still, the most popular books of all with this particular boy will be familiar to only a very few devotees, the Uncle series by the Reverend J. P. Martin. They were written by a Methodist minister and the first volume of Uncle was published as long ago as 1964 when the author was in his eighties. As with many great masterpieces it had proved hard to find a publisher, but eventually Cape accepted the book and then had the inspired idea of commissioning Quentin Blake to illustrate it. After J. P. Martin’s death his daughter Stella compiled enough stories for a further five books, the last of which, Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown, was published in 1973 (price £1.75).
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Uncle I should explain that he is an extremely rich elephant, lord of a vast Manhattan-like castle called Homeward, a collection of interconnected towers most of which he has never visited. Put like that it sounds a whimsical idea but because of its vast extent Homeward has proved a magnet for all kinds of charlatans and crooks keen to exploit the inhabitants, who include dwarfs and various kinds of animals. There is Professor Gandleweaver who presides over a fish-frying academy charging exorbitant fees, or Steiner Brashbag, a fraudulent antique-dealer whose stock includes ‘a medieval boaster’s’ stool made to plunge a boaster and ‘a shaving brush last used by Mungo Rasp, the Chinese poet’.
Uncle has a posse of faithful followers, who incl
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