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Martin, J P

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1879-1966) UK author, a Methodist minister from 1902; he carried out missionary work in South Africa and was a chaplain in World War One, thereafter remaining in England. His popular Uncle sequence of absurdist children's stories – with, it proved, lasting appeal to adults – comprises Uncle (written 1934; 1964), Uncle Cleans Up (1965), Uncle and His Detective (1966), Uncle and the Treacle Trouble (1967), Uncle and Claudius the Camel (1969) and Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown (1973), all six volumes being assembled with additional material by other hands as The Complete Uncle (omni 2013). These books are quirkily and appropriately illustrated by Quentin Blake; some previously unpublished Blake drawings appear in the 2013 omnibus. The stories were originally told by Martin to his four children; Uncle, the first novel based on his narratives, was offered to publishers from 1934 but without success until the 1960s. After the author's death his daughter Helen Estella Martin (1907-1994), who wrote novels and plays as Stella Martin Currey, edited his remaining manuscripts to produce the three posthumous novels.

The actual tales, though rambling and episodic, have a surreal charm and inventiveness (see Absurdist SF). The setting is a kind of Alternate-World northern England where fantastic locations alternate with disused gasworks or railway sidings, and Talking Animals [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] with wildly eccentric humans, somewhat in the vein of Lewis Carroll. Uncle himself is an elephant characterized by immense wealth, lofty rhetoric, exotic dressing-gowns and a fondness for being driven in a traction engine; his residence Homeward is a vast collection of towers (linked by switchback scenic railways), largely unexplored and reminiscent of both amusement parks and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. Odd Machines abound, including precarious spring-loaded and air-driven devices after the fashion of W Heath Robinson to facilitate ascent and descent of high towers; further whimsical Inventions include an oxyacetylene stove for near-instantaneous cooking, an electric broom for clearing treacle, powered walking shoes (see Mecha), a radio watch, many dubious Drugs and panaceas concocted by the resident Mad Scientist Gleamhound (these invariably have the opposite effect to that claimed on the label), and such Weapons as sleeping gas and the arch-villain Beaver Hateman's doomsday "Z-Bomb". Close to Homeward is slum-like Badfort, where Hateman and his large gang swig Black Tom and Leper Gin, wear scruffy sack outfits, scribble furiously in their "hating books", and continually harass Uncle and friends: many comic clashes ensue.

Martin has been accused of excessive violence – for example, Uncle's cartoon-like habit of kicking foes high into the air when greatly provoked, though never causing lasting damage – and also of "classism" ... but this is to miss the subversive elements. Lip-service is paid to Uncle's wealth, rank and privilege, and he certainly has a good heart, yet he is gently revealed as pompous, patronizing and not terribly bright: in Uncle and His Detective, featuring a treasure hunt for "dlog", he is just a little resentful that everyone but himself unravels this cryptic codeword at sight. Meanwhile the opposition, full of clever schemes and entertainingly wicked energy, puts its own spin on events in the heavily slanted Badfort Times. The deadpan Humour of the Uncle stories is surprisingly durable.

The official biography by Stella Martin Currey, J.P. Martin: Father of Uncle: A Master in the Great English Nonsense Tradition 1879-1966 (written 1984; 2017) includes several deleted chapters and original versions of revised passages from the novels. [DRL]

see also: Zoo.

John Percival Martin

born Scarborough, North Yorkshire: 5 August 1879

died Timberscombe, Somerset: 24 March 1966




about the author


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