Gosh, I can’t believe I forgot about this reprint of all six of J.P. Martin’s Uncle books.
If you’re not familiar with His Purple Highness, here’s a a piece I wrote for my column:
First published on 8th February, 2009 in The Star
“UNCLE is an elephant. He is immensely rich, and he’s a B.A. He dresses well, generally in a purple dressing gown, and he often rides about on a traction engine, which he prefers to a car.
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 with a drawbridge over it, and you’ll get some idea of it.”Those are the opening paragraphs of Uncle by J. P. Martin. It is the first book in the Uncle series which, apart from Uncle and the second book, Uncle Cleans Up, is out of print.
I am a devoted fan. I adore elephants (they are a divine and delicious and ridiculous shape), and what’s there not to love about an elephant in a purple dressing gown?
Why purple? Because it’s the only colour that is majestic enough for a powerful and royal elephant like Uncle. No, no, Uncle is not royalty, but his regal bearing and aristocratic profile (which he has Quentin Blake to thank for) put even King Babar (the main character in a series of picture books by Jean de Brunhoff) to shame.
And then there is his castle, Homeward. It is vast, a labyrinth, chockful of surprising nooks and crannies. There is a moat with a drawbridge; there are towers of assorted colour; there are bathing pools and gardens; and a switchback railway; and a large swimming bath that could not possibly fit in the space that its in, but does.
Parts of it are inhabited by dwarves, who pay Uncle rent. And there are mysterious bits, called Lion Tower, that no one has explored for fear of getting lost. Uncle himself is always coming across new sections and people when he travels around the place in his traction engine. There is, for example, The Fish Frying Academy; and the Sinking Parade; the Oil Lake; and Watercress Tower.
Uncle is surrounded by devoted friends and retainers with the most fantastic names like The Old Monkey, Canute Goodman, Butterskin Mute, Cowgill and Lilac Stamper. The names of his enemies are no less colourful: Beaver Hateman (he is a man, not a beaver), Flabskin, Hitmouse, Jellytussle, Hootman. Dickens must be turning green with envy in his grave.
The author of the Uncle books was a Methodist minister and missionary. His stories of the wealthy elephant were created for his children. Later he wrote them down and the first book was published in 1964, just two years before Martin died.
Uncle and Uncle Cleans Up were re-issued by Red Fox in one volume in 2000. And both books are now available in hardback as part of The New York Review Children’s Collection [above]. I hope the other books will also be re-issued, but, realistically, it will probably take a Disney- or Pixar-produced film to give Uncle the popularity (and adulation) he deserves (although commercialism would probably kill his charm).
For the moment, his devotees are mainly adults who either remember him from their distant Play Station-less childhood; or (like me) discovered him when they were already grownup. Journalist Tim Martin, in The Guardian‘s book blog, talks about Uncle’s “underground following” and if you check out the various sites and blogs devoted to the millionaire elephant you will agree that he is quite a cult figure. (Martin describes him as “erratic, pompous, dictatorial” but that’s just one way of looking at Uncle – I prefer to say unpredictable, dignified and masterful.)
If only readers (of all ages) would give him a chance though – they will find the stories hilarious, absurd and invigorating.
[Left: This 1965 Sparrow edition of Uncle Cleans Up was my introduction to Uncle. It was a lucky find at Skoob books when it was still in Brickfields, KL].
The illustrations that appear in this post are from the 1965 Sparrow edition of ‘Uncle Cleans Up’.