An appreciation of Uncle, the hero of a series of books written by the Yorkshire clergyman JP Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake
I read the first ‘Uncle’ book in the British Council library in Santiago, Chile, when I was about eight and my father was working as a diplomat in the city. I borrowed the next five volumes of the series in turn. I was delighted by Uncle - a millionaire elephant who wears a purple dressing gown, engages in savage skirmishes and is wildly generous to his followers - and he became more famous in our family than Babar. When we returned to England, I was amazed that no one seemed to have heard of him.
Uncle is a distinctly British elephant. Though he is principled and kindly, like Babar, he is also prone to petulance and pomposity, and he is easily bored. To amuse himself, he explores his castle, a tarnished, fantastical labyrinth of skyscrapers connected by water chutes, lifts and railways, and strewn with oil lakes, fountains, walls of sweets and towers of treacle. With his adoring retinue of followers, Uncle wages war against the degenerate crew who live in the neighbouring fortress at Badfort, among them the repulsive Jellytussle (a quivering blue blob) and the cowardly Hitmouse (who attacks with skewers).
Beaver Hateman, the Badfort crowd’s leader, taunts Uncle with being a fat dictator, a bully and a show-off. Uncle is incensed when Hateman addresses him as ‘Unc’, and nothing needles him more than a reminder of his sole misdemeanour: as a student he borrowed a bicycle without permission. Uncle’s favoured riposte is to deliver a ‘kick-up’, booting his tormentor far into the sky.
The series originated in the bedtime stories that a Yorkshire clergyman told his children between the wars, and they have a wonderfully improvisational, careless quality, as do the illustrations by Quentin Blake. I love the picture that shows Hitmouse just after he has been hit by an exploding shell of drawing-pins and ink, a scrawny creature wheeling across the page in a tiny storm of black blots, spikes and smudges.