J. P. (John Percival) Martin(1879 –1966) was an English author best known for his “Uncle” series of children’s stories.
P. Martin was born in Scarborough in 1879. He became a Methodist minister in 1902 and carried out missionary work in South Africa. He served as a Chaplain in World War One, thereafter remaining in England.
After the Second World War he moved to the village of Timberscombe in Somerset, where from 1948 to 1966, he served as a minister to the small Methodist Chapel. A picture of the Harvest Festival, painted by J. P. Martin, hangs in the Chapel over a memorial tablet dedicated to him (see Timberscombe Methodist Chapel for a picture of the tablet and the transcript of a lecture on J.P.Martin by James Currey)
J. P. Martin lived in Timberscombe until his death, aged 86. He reputedly died as a result of catching influenza whilst going out in cold weather to give pots of honey to the villagers.
The Somerset County Gazette reported on Friday, April 1, 1966:
“There were two funeral services for the man who achieved fame as an author at the age of 84, the well-loved Methodist minister of Timberscombe, the Rev. J.P. Martin. He died at the age of 86 on Thursday, March 24th, after a short illness, at his Timberscombe home, here he had lived for 17 years faithfully serving neighbouring chapels as the supernumerary minister in the Kingsbrompton Circuit.
On Sunday night the coffin was taken to the tiny village chapel in Timberscombe where he had so often preached. Family and friends sang the minister’s favourite hymns and a moving sermon was preached by the circuit minister, the Rev. J.E. Melling of Roadwater. The vicar the Rev. J.H. Bury, was also present to pay tribute to “a dedicated man of God”.
Because the village chapel was too small to accommodate the many friends who wished to attend, a second funeral service was held in The Avenue Methodist Church, Minehead, on Tuesday. Nearly 100 people were present.”
Rev. Martin was a keen painter, a member of the Society of Authors, and also vice-president of Timberscombe Cricket Club. A second village plaque in his memory has been placed at the bottom of the St Petrock’s Church steps.
Martin’s Uncle stories were first told to his children before he was persuaded, by his daughter, to write them down for a wider audience. He describes his books as “simply a struggle between good and evil” When they were first published in the late 1960s and early 1970s they were hailed as modern classics of children’s literature. The Uncle of the six books in the series is a millionaire elephant with a purple dressing-gown, a B.A. from Oxford, and a clean-living past marred by a single, never-to-be-forgotten discreditable incident.
The Uncle books are:
- Uncle Cleans Up(1965)
- Uncle and His Detective(1966)
- Uncle and the Treacle Trouble(1967)
- Uncle and Claudius the Camel(1970)
- Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown(1973)
The transcript of an interview by the BBC with J.P.Martin talking about his life can be read at uncle-tv.com
J. P. Matrin’s sister Mrs Dora Fowler Martin published a novel, and so did his son, Hal. His daughter, Mrs Stella Martin Currey, was successful with half a dozen novels and her husband, Mr R N Currey, had several books of poems published. After the author’s death his daughter who wrote plays and books such as “Diary of a 1950s housewife”, edited his remaining manuscripts to produce the three posthumous novels.
Martin’s first book was reprinted in paperback in 2000 by Red Fox. Hardcover reprints of the first two volumes were published by the New York Review of Books in 2007-8
In March 2013, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to reprint all six Uncle books in an omnibus edition. The book was published on 31 October 2013 under the title of The Complete Uncle.
James Currey gave the Lecture below to the St Petrock’s History Group in July 2019 which is reproduced here in full with his permission.
J.P.Martin: Characterful Timberscombe Minister & Author
J.P.Martin was 84 in 1963 when he wrote from Timberscombe to his family : ‘Tremendous news! ‘Uncle’ has been taken by Jonathan Cape. It is a bit startling to me, living in this solitude, to hear that that this family book is getting afloat at last. I can’t help feeling that this is this work of a Higher Power.’
His family could not help thinking that it was the faith of his daughter Stella Martin Currey and son-in law R.N.Currey that had also helped. They had used their every skill as professional writers to keep on searching for a publisher for thirty years from 1934 to 1964. Then in the satirical sixties changing publishing fashions caught up with J.P.Martin. The satirical journal Private Eye had only been founded two years earlier in 1961.
J.P.Martin took publicity in his stride. He took fame calmly. He was after all a lifelong public figure as a Minister in the Methodist Church. His second daughter Grace Perkins came to collect him at Timberscombe to drive him up to the BBC in Bristol for a television interview on the evening programme Points West. The driver was amused that as they left Timberscombe people were standing in the street waving to him and he said “They’ll all be watching Telly tonight you bet.” The Today Programme at breakfast time on the Home Service was already a part of daily life (The Home Service became Radio 4 soon afterwards in 1967). His interview by Derek Cooper was a highlight of the year and repeated at breakfast time on New Year’s Eve 1964.
Uncle Cleans Up followed in 1965 and then Uncle and his Detective. J.P.Martin had two years to enjoy the success before he died aged 87 during an influenza epidemic in in 1966. Between 1964 and 1973 there were six titles to publish and reviewers waiting every time for the next one in the wonderous series about Uncle the impressive Elephant of stature riding on his traction engine in his purple dressing gown and living in a castle with as many towers as my grandfather’s imagination could provide.
J.P.Martin started telling Uncle stories to Stella a hundred years ago at the the time of the 1914-18 War. At Christmas 1934 daughter Stella Martin Currey and R.N.Currey, suggested to J.P.Martin that he ought to write the stories down for publication. His first manuscript was submitted to Jonathan Cape in 1935. Rejected! Rejection after rejection followed. The publishing of ‘juveniles’ in that period was dominated by worthy books considered suitable for ‘the rewards list’ which sold to schools and Sunday schools throughout the British Empire. Uncle was considered too rough and tumble.
The publication of Uncle by J.P.Martin by Jonathan Cape over fifty years ago in 1964 was greeted with reviews comparing the author to the great masters of the English nonsense tradition like Lewis Carroll,Etc
Jonathan Cape were publishers of renowned children’s books. There were the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazon books. There were the Doctor Doolittle books. And Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock worked out The Far Distant Oxus while sheltering with their ponies from the rain on Exmoor. There is a letter to J.P.Martin in December 1964 from Michael Howard, a director of Jonathan Cape. He said ‘I cannot remember any Children’s book, at least since the war, getting off to such a brilliant start’.
The very first review was by Penelope Mortimer in The New Statesman of 13 November 1964. The New Statesman was influential with bookshops and public libraries. Ralph and Stella Currey could not believe J.P.Martin’s luck. He was surprised that they were that they thought the review so important. Penelope Mortimer wrote:
Mr Martin’s Uncle was invented to entertain the author’s four children and only later, like all the great stories, written down. The manuscript was sent … on the round of publishers, and, incredibly, rejected by all of them. Now, at last, it is being presented with all the enthusiasm and care it deserves – Mr Martin, bless him, is in his mid-eighties. . . Uncle is a very likely character, an elephant of stature. The world of some of his characters has the dream-like predictability of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but with Uncle we are part of it, not observing it from the outside through the eyes of a self-righteous and frequently outraged visitor. The illustrations of Quentin Blake are exactly appropriate.
Geoffrey Moorhouse said of the second book Uncle Cleans Up in The Guardian:
Once, or at the most twice, in a generation, someone strikes a vein of fantasy that is acceptable to almost anyone from the age of 6 onwards because it is fantasy within a framework of reality. A hundred years ago Lewis Carroll managed it with Alice… What [J.P.Martin] is really doing is to build a very rare kind of bridge between extreme youth and extreme age.
Philippa Pearce, renowned childrens’ author in her Guardian review, when in 1969 the fifth book was published, put the whole sequence of Uncle books in context:
Each one of the ‘Uncle’ books, including the newly published Uncle and Claudius the Camel, is completely enjoyable and understandable by itself. But it would be misleading only to consider the books individually. They are based on a rich jumble of manuscripts which, in their turn, are based on a great achievement of sustained story-telling, first to the author’s children, then to his grandchildren….
Philippa Pearce makes an important point about how rough and tumble they are. She says:
Battle is essential to the stories, because of Uncle’s deplorable and aggressive neighbours, the Badfort Crowd. In their machinations, ambushes and running fights, there is plenty of violence but very little injury indeed, and no death.
The underlying theme of all the books is the fight between ‘the haves’ in the castle of Homeward and ‘the have-nots’ at Badfort led by Beaver Hateman. Each book builds up to a set-piece encounter of total ferocity between Uncle’s lot and ‘the Bads’. They are certainly not the stories for children to be expected from a minister in the Methodist church. J.P.Martin felt that writing down what he called his ‘grotesque’ stories helped him to cope with the pressures of his job as a minister.
John Wesley insisted that his ministers should change regularly to a fresh circuit to avoid the spiritual danger of becoming too comfortable; he felt in the mid-eighteenth century that too many parsons of the established Church of England settled down in a parish for life.
Certainly Nancy and J.P. Martin had very little chance of ever being too comfortable with limited income and with manses often in slum areas of the great cities. The great September move every three years to new circuits and different manses provided new places for the young to explore. J.P.Martin’s younger sister Dora wrote:
“How we used to pity other children! They did not have the three-yearly excitement of going to live somewhere else. “
One of the most famous journalists in the sixties – indeed for the rest of the century – is Richard Ingrams. He was a founder of the irreverent and satirical journal Private Eye and then later of The Oldie. He took every chance to promote and publicise the Uncle books. He said Private Eye and The Badfort News were just as outrageous as one another. Richard Ingrams even came down to Timberscombe some years after J.P.Martin’s death to interview people about J.P.Martin for a beautifully illustrated article in the Sunday Telegraph week-end magazine.
In a Folio article in 1976 Richard Ingrams recognised how the three year move gave free range to J.P.Martin’s satirical imagination. Every three years he and the children would be able to explore a new city or town with twisting backstreets, gas-works, docks, mysterious locked buildings and with shops with strange names selling curious goods. Jubber Vanty’s rubber suitings. You pay. We spray
Ingrams points out how in the Uncle books “Usually a chapter takes the form of an expedition by Uncle and his party to an unexplored corner or tower in the Castle of Homeward.
“It is during these trips that he comes across a collection of bizarre characters like Professor Gandleweaver who runs a Fish-Frying Academy.
“There is the antique dealer Steiner Brashbag who has in his antiques shop a Spanish spider trap, a mediaeval boaster’s stool, or Robin Hood’s toothbrush. The castle is full of strange museums, libraries and art galleries presided over by eccentric factotums of one sort and another.
“There are also shops like that of Gleamhound the Chemist whose remedies work backwards so that “Stomach Joy” causes severe tummy pains, while “Jumbo Bunion Destroyer” is well calculated to raise bunions on a perfectly healthy foot.”
J.P.Martin was a lover of paradox. He could find pleasure in decaying industrial Manchester. J.P.Martin said “The whole place is full of artistic possibilities.” He says “On one side the stumpy and yet gigantic chimneys of the gas works. The whole mass brutish. All this in the opalescent evening light formed a picture of grim beauty.” His family did not always agree. His son John said one day “Oh Dad! Not another trip round the gas works.” In Uncle Cleans Up Uncle and his friends go for a picnic at “Lost Clinkers” which is a derelict gasworks.
We all knew how important the choice of an illustrator would be for the Uncle books. How did you find an artist who could respond to, enhance your reading of such original books? In 1961 Jonathan Cape had started to commission book illustration from Quentin Blake. He was just out of Cambridge, just going to the Chelsea School of Art. He was totally unknown.
In 1963 the editor at Cape showed the Uncle manuscript to Quentin Blake and she waited anxiously to see how he would react. She told Stella Martin Currey ‘When he started laughing I knew it was all right.’ Quentin Blake was shown J.P.Martin’s own scratchy angular drawings. Quentin Blake’s scratchy angular work was just right. Quentin Blake was to illustrate all six of the Uncle books – the first series he was to complete. He told Stella Martin Currey that he could find marvellous things to illustrate on every page of J.P.Martin’s manuscripts. When there was an exhibition in 2016 about J.P.Martin and Uncle in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol we blew up Quentin Blake’s illustrations on the walls. As children arrived some of them said ‘Look. Roald Dahl.’ Quentin Blake became most famous for his illustrations for all 25 of Roald Dahl’s books. The images in my mind of the J.P.Martin’s Uncle stories are interlocked with Quentin Blake’s drawings.
Richard Ingrams claimed that Quentin Blake’s work in the Uncle books are Quentin Blake’s masterpiece: Richard Ingrams wrote ‘[J. P. Martin] was a man of truly original humour
… Every illustrator must hope that he will be given the opportunity to illustrate a classic.’
J.P.Martin’s father, grandfather and a number of uncles and cousins had been, for over a century, ministers in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Two of his relations, James and Mary Calvert, were what we would now call celebrities for their work in Fiji. Cannibal Island might have been the title of their show on TV. The Calverts and their children lived next to the cannibal ovens, and in England articles, poems and lectures described the spectacular horrors. They provided the public with the sort of excitement obtained today from television. For J.P.Martin the stories of the brothers Grimm were mild compared with the real stories he heard from his mother about his aunt and uncle.
John Martin, the father of John Percival Martin, was offered the biggest and best circuits in the soot-dark cities of the north. Often the comfortable decencies of the manse were surrounded by dreadful slums. J.P.Martin’s younger sister Dora provided a vivid picture of the realities of life for the middle class children of the manse. She told how:
“The most exciting game we played in the Stockport garden was called ‘Trapping the half-timers.’ The half-timers were the older boys and girls who were allowed to go to school for half the day and work in the mill for the other half. The half-timers were of course very strong and sure of themselves and the Minister’s children were one of their chief targets. They used to swing up to the top of our garden wall and shout at us. We used to try and beat them at this slanging match but of course we couldn’t. We did not know enough rich, bad words. My two big brothers devised a means of retaliation and Percy and I had a definite part in this. We were sent to play a noisy and decoying game on the far side of the garden while Harry and Norman, armed with long clothes props, hid under the wall. When fingers appeared on the top of the wall and the enemy was about to attack Norman and Henry used to rush out of hiding and try and slam the clothes props down on their fingers. Sometimes they got the aim right, and there was a yell, and the fingers disappeared. But more often than not a grinning face appeared and the exchange of insults began. There wasn’t any animosity on either side, but the game was never played when my parents were about, and they were astonished because we knew so many swear words and brought them out at inappropriate moments.” You can see where J.P.Martin’s battles with the Badfort crowd came from.
J.P.Martin, in a family photograph at the age of ten has an expression of mischievous interest. Here is the future author of the Uncle books, observing, absorbing, being amused at the contrasts of life in the soot-dark cities.
So it was to be natural for him to write about how the towered glory of Uncle’s Homeward was confronted with the ramshackle pile of the Hateman residence. Badfort was the reality. Homeward was the dream. Here in Uncle is J.P.Martin’s first description of Homeward :
…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 [Homeward]. The towers are of many colours, and there are bathing pools and gardens among them, also switchback railways running from tower to tower and waterchutes from top to bottom… Exploring in Uncle’s house is a tricky business, but, there’s one comfort, you are sure to come across something to eat even if you have lost your way. (Uncle p. 9)
And here is J.P.Martin’s first description of Badfort:
Uncle picked up the telescopeand had a look at Badfort. It’s really rather hard when you have a splendid house yourself that the chief view from your windows should be that of your enemy’s dingy fortress, but this had to be endured, and it’s quite useless to pretend that Uncle wasn’t interested in the huge sprawl of Badfort, and the unseemly Badfort crowd who inhabited it. (Uncle p. 11)
Uncle acknowledges that his life, without the fights with the Badfort crowd would lack the tonic of excitement. As Hateman himself says when Uncle is reproving him for bad manners: ‘Oh stow it, Uncle! You know jolly well you’d be bored stiff if we didn’t have a dust-up occasionally!’
Once these battles start it is necessary for Uncle to win, but his self-important grandeur has to be kept within bearable limits. A platform on which he is sitting as guest of honour is sabotaged from below by the Badfort lot. There are unseemly interruptions to the song ‘Hail to Glorious Uncle!’ Periodically Uncle’s purple dressing gown – his regular wear – is soiled by cascades of ashes or mud. and duck bombs. He is infuriated when they they throw mud on his shining traction engine. There are shouts of ‘He stole a bike!’ There are placards ‘Down with the cocoa-cadging humbug.’ The Badfort News continually shouts ‘Rise in your thousands and do down the dictator.’ Satire came naturally to J.P.Martin.
J.P.Martin had a life of singular variety and interest. He was gifted at finding amusement in the most unpromising situations whether in England, South Africa, Palestine or Egypt. He was brought up in great Northern manufacturing cities and turned 21 in 1900. A Methodist parson, who has to change circuits every three years, comes into contact with people of all classes and in all kinds of jobs, living in positions sometimes of comfort, sometimes of struggle and degradation. The Wesleyans focussed on the urban settlements which had sprung up in the industrial revolution where the established Anglican church was often slow to respond.
JPM volunteered as a missionary and rebuilt a Boer- war-damaged chapel in a South African gold rush town. Its name Pilgrim’s Rest could have come straight out of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Rough hewn miners from Cornwall and Wales placed bets about whether the padre would drown while crossing the flooded river to deliver his sermon to them. He noticed the collection was unusually large. They had all put their betting winnings into the plate in admiration for his bravery. He bought a horse which he rather optimistically called Wesley. But it’s previous owner had clearly not conformed to the teetotal tradition of the Methodist church. It stopped at every bar and refuse to move on and the miners would all be shouting inviting the padre to come into the bar for a drink. When he came to live in Timberscombe he was continually reminded of Pilgrim’s Rest – rugged landscape and rugged people. At Pilgrim’s Rest Nancy and he had a magic start to their marriage. He rapidly came to depend upon Nancy’s organising capabilities to run his circuits.
Their first daughter Stella Martin was born just before September 1907 when they moved to Mafeking. Nancy’s dramatic hats dominate the picture of the merry wives at the Methodist chapel which had been built to commemorate the famous siege of Mafeking during the Boer War. The Methodist mission for the Africans at Mafeking was run by John and Edith Currey whose son Ralph was born there in December 1907. So my parents were babies at the same time in Mafeking. Nancy from England and Edith born in South Africa became lifelong friends. John Currey was a great organiser, much in contrast to J.P.Martin, and was to run the Methodist Church in Jamaica and Panama.
The Martins returned to England in 1913 just before the ‘Great War’ and J.P.Martin became chaplain at Wycliffe methodist public school in Gloucestershire where after 1914 he gave communion to privileged young men who were about to be killed going over the top in France. He chose to volunteer as an Army Chaplain because ‘it would be easier for me to talk to young people if I had taken some active part in the war’. He should never have been allowed to volunteer as Nancy was expecting their fourth child. J.P.Martin might have been blown up on the Western Front but instead was sent in 1918 to the Turkish front in Palestine. The unexpected and sudden Turkish armistice in October 1918 gave him the chance to visit all parts of the Holy Land which, with his knowledge of the bible, meant so much to him personally. And his travels gave him dramatic encounters with camels. (There is whole book called Uncle and Claudius the Camel). He survived the rain of Turkish shells in Palestine. A sister in London was lost to Spanish influenza in 1918.
He became confessor to his troubled friend, the Colonel of his artillery regiment. The Colonel invited J.P. Martin to join him in Egypt early in 1919 on a tour by boat to the extraordinary sites up the Nile at Luxor and Aswan. J.P.Martin described how ‘There was a sort of platform spread with rugs and cushions and on these the Colonel and I reclined in lordly style.’ Many Egyptian images have seeped into the grandiosity of Uncle’s castle of Holmwood.
Camborne in Cornwall was full of Uncle-like traction engines supplying coal to pump water from the tin mines. Stella Martin Currey said ‘I don’t remember whether Uncle rode in a traction engine before we went to Camborne. Afterwards he certainly did.’ The price for coal was going up and, after the end of what was called ‘The Great War’, the demand for tin fell and the price collapsed and the tin mines filled with water. Miners’ families were cast into destitution at the closure of the Dolcoath Mine which literally ran underneath the major Methodist Chapel.
His friends were often out of the ordinary; in Carlisle a fellow preacher was to become one of the first celebrities of the BBC: he was famous as the gipsy Romany on Children’s Hour. At Kingswood to the north of Bristol the strike by coal miners in his congregation in lasted longer than the General Strike.
The Martins then went to Clevedon on the other side of Bristol which, in spite of the depression, was still comfortable with people who had worked in the professions, run the colonies or inherited wealth; they provided a rich crop of characters in Uncle such as General Boar and Lady Lionease in Comfort Cove.
Manchester was a total change with the redoubtable Nancy going out into the red light district to give comfort to a girl who had run away from her home in the country and who did not dare tell her mother what she was doing. That city gave them both delights with its galleries and shops and with cinemas round the corner.
As Mayor’s chaplain in Northampton he was provided with a silk gown made by the tailor to the Quorn hunt and quietly delighted in the pompous absurdities of public life which he reproduced in Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown.
With the beginning of the second world war he was minister in Daventry to the BBC engineers who were transmitting to the Empire at war and across occupied Europe. Before the war they had secret experiments in the development of radar, the weapon which enabled the Spitfires to win the Battle of Britain. German planes crossed his Northamptonshire skies to destroy Coventry and its cathedral. Their nursing daughter Grace was blown under her patient’s bed when her Bristol hospital was bombed.
My mother Stella with my brother Andrew and myself was evacuated at three hours notice because Colchester was the initial target for Hitler’s Operation Sealion for the invasion of Britain in 1940. We were the most fortunate of refugees in Daventry with Nancy and J.P Martin. As a child one was always being told Uncle stories which J.P.Martin had dreamed up in the night.
It was exciting to see J.P.Martin collected in a jeep as a chaplain to conduct services at the army munitions depot at Weedon, which had been built in the Napoleonic wars. He was preaching again to men who again were fighting for freedom, dying in yet another war. Little did he think when he had volunteered as a chaplain in 1918 that he would be talking to his own sons, both born in the first world war and now of an age to be killed for their country. His experiences in the front line in Palestine would have been of great value to him in handling the the psychological damage of warfare. His son John was in bomb disposal and had to come to terms with the memories of calmly working day after day at defusing mines and booby traps and then seeing friends blown up in front of his eyes. His son Hal was nearly paralysed by a disease similar to polio in Palestine and his father had to help him cope with the psychological hammering of the aftermath of the disease.
His wife, my grandmother, Nancy died in 1944. In 1946 he married her sister Jane who was a widow and was to come with him to Timberscombe. His daughter Grace the Bristol nurse was lucky, thanks to a grateful patient, to find them during the postwar housing shortage the last house for sale in the terrace at 8 Willow Bank, Timberscombe. It was as J.P.Martin recorded ‘on the borders of two or more circuits so I could act as a general helper, travelling about and filling appointments.’ He cycled or trudged across the moors to the tiny methodist chapels built by mining commmunities on the Brendons. He was powerfully reminded of his time in Pilgrim’s Rest. He felt that life for people in the hills and moors round Timberscombe was even tougher than for the Cornish and Welsh goldminers of Pilgrim’s Rest. He was shocked when a young man in his congregation was killed as his tractor rolled.
All the time he was recording in his journal and letters his admiration, and indeed his amusement, at the Local Preachers who contributed so effectively to the outreach of the Methodists. One was Mr Jeffery – no relation and spelt differently – who kept the village shop and used to emerge when he saw J.P. Martin about to get on a bus and shout across the road things like “Stalin has gone to heaven.” In one sermon he referred to “the gold floor of heaven” and added ” if there were any Exmoor farmers about they’d soon have it up.” He paid for an organ for the chapel in memory of his wife and emerged from his shop to shout at J.P. and Jane Martin as they left for the sale ‘You’ll be shot at dawn if you don’t get it.’ J.P. Martin said “this for him for was a friendly and enthusiastic remark.”
There were romany gipsies in Hole Square who ‘witched’ neighbours by leaving stuffed leopards on their doorstep and sought support from JPM, although they would never cross the threshold of his chapel..
These characters infused their way into Uncle characters.
The view from J. P.Martin’s study window was across the river to the Methodist Chapel with St Petrock’s behind. His battered typewriter, with the return spring powered by the weight of a gas pipe, continued to pound out Uncle stories. Often at breakfast he would tell the story of dreams he had in the night and by evening they had become new chapters of his stories. Life and Uncle were never far apart. The children of the village found him endlessly amazing.
How was it that J.P.Martin became a Minister? At the age of 17 J.P.Martin had taken the train for London: He wrote ” I set out for London, with no thought of God. In fact the thought of God was the very last one in my mind. To see the world was my idea, and I went away without a word to my parents. I can see now that I caused them great pain, but at that time I didn’t realise this.
“Arriving in London I wandered about in the streets and was overwhelmed by the multitude of people. Suddenly the thought came into my mind: where will all these people be in a few years time? And the answer came they will all be gone. Immediately the thought came to me but God will be here. And at that moment I saw clearly that the main thing to do with my life was to give it to the service of God.”
Hal Martin, J.P.Martin’s second son, wrote about his mysticism: “No portrait would be complete which did not take full account of Dad’s religious devotion; that is difficult to harmonise with the rampaging sense of humour in Uncle. I believe his sense of responsibility to God was sometimes almost crushing, and that he had a rapturous freedom from responsibility in his writing…. Religious thinking by JPM was nearly all conscious (not dreamed) and thus subject to self-reproach. But much of Uncle was dreamed – a product of the mind in its free-est state – an expression of his extrovert side and a form of relief. Dad often said that telling, or writing, the Uncle stories took his mind off the worries of day-to-day life. I do believe that they were also a relief from the pressure of his religious thinking.’
Uncle when published in 1964 was described in The Observer as ‘a classic in the great English Nonsense tradition’? When it was published it was compared with classics such as Alice and Wind in the Willows. Fifty years on from first publication it is not automatically known to a wide audience. Instead in each generation an underground club of Uncle fans have felt that they are the chosen, they are the people who have joined in with Uncle in his battles with the Bads and the explorations of the towers of the the skyscraper city of Holmwood.
In recent years there have been new developments. Marcus Gipp’s Kickstarter crowd-funded the hardback Complete Uncle. The New York Review of Books selected it for their Childrens’ Classics alongside a title by the classic American humourist James Thurber. Puffin at last accepted Uncle fifty years after they turned it down
All these publications have confirmed the faith of the secret army of supporters of the remarkable Uncle still enchanting people a hundred years after J.P.Martin started telling stories to his daughter Stella.