BOOK REVIEW / Underrated: The fan from Uncle - The case for Uncle, the Elephant

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The Independent Culture
Uncle is an elephant. He's immensely rich, and he's a BA. He dresses well, generally in a purple dressing-gown, and he lives in a house called Homeward, which is hard to describe, but try to think of about a hundred skyscrapers all joined together and surrounded by a moat.

Uncle was the principal character in six books by J P Martin, a Methodist minister who wrote the stories to amuse his children. The first, Uncle, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1964, two years before Martin's death, and they carried on publishing them until the early Seventies. Uncle and Uncle Cleans Up (1965) were briefly reprinted in paperback in the early Eighties; but then they vanished.

This is a great shame. The books are very funny, installing a large cast of unlikely characters - the Old Monkey, the One-Armed Badger, Cloutman, Gubbins, the Respectable Horses, Alonzo S Whitebeard and his detestable father - in a world of mildly squiffy logic (Cheapman's stores sell vast quantities of goods at loss- making prices, yet make a huge profit; the geography of Homeward defies all laws of time and space). And the illustrations are among Quentin Blake's best work, scrawls and splotches that finally and unarguably distill character.

But most important, this is political satire of a high order - Animal Farm for the pre-teens, but wittier and more relevant to our own world. Because the point about Uncle is not that he's an obvious tyrant - he poses as a philanthropist. You have to work out that he's a bully and a hypocrite for yourself. Just like real life.

It isn't hard to spot. Blake wrote of Milton that he was of the devil's party without knowing it. Likewise, Martin's sympathies lie ostensibly with Uncle's followers, but really with the Badfort Crowd - the rabble of drunken malcontents led by Beaver Hateman that torments Uncle. In a world where children are subjected daily to deliberately positive role-models, the Hateman clan, Jellytussle and Hitmouse, with their poisoned skewers and mugs of Black Tom, are a necessary antidote: they show that an appearance of wholesomeness, or wickedness, isn't the same as the real thing. If that isn't educational, I don't know what is.