A good kicking
That jumped-up bastard Babar was to blame. Frances Cornford celebrates the unjustly neglected aristocratic
‘Uncle‘ is not. as some might think. a : kiddies‘ step-by-step guide to pawning the family silver. but is one I ofthe finer llowerings ofthe British ecclesiastical imagination. While the Rev. Awdry was churningout ‘ political allegories about true blue Thomas the Tank [Engine versus the ‘bolshie' Red Engine. the RevJ. 1’. Martin was inventing a brilliant and nonsensical. albeit equally imperialist. world.
Uncle himself is an immensely rich elephant who wears a purple dressing gown and lives in a vast
castle called Homeward that has never been fully explored. His faithful followers include the Old Monkey. the ()ne Armed Badger. the Muncle (the monkey's uncle. a shoe fetishist) and (‘owgilL who drives the large traction engine that is Uncle‘s preferred means of transport. His arch-enemies are the Badfort crowd. led by Beaver Hateman and the ghostly Firlon Hootman. who live in a dingy fortress opposite Homeward. They are constantly plotting Uncle‘s downfall — one oftheir chiefaims is to expose the fact that he stole a bicycle while at university.
What characterises Uncle. besides a genius at inventing names. is a fascination with commodity and exchange. When Uncle is not watching convoys of goods trains unload their cargoes oforanges. corned beef. dried goat‘s meat etc. at Homeward. he is shopping at (‘heapman's stores in nearby Badgertown. ‘A delightful place. You can get things there for next to
nothing. Nearly all the badgers shop
there. ()fcourse.‘ Martin continues with a typically surreal touch. ‘there are other shops. but they have a struggle. They get what customers they can by weeping at their doors and entreating people to come in.‘
Uncle‘s dealings with others are punctuated by gifts of money or of vast amounts of provisions. especially at moments of high emotion — viz at the victory celebrations for the defeat of the Badfort crowd. Uncle ‘had decided that the whole pile should be given to the assembled multitudes. and. besides that. he had added a pound note for everyone. and an enormous sack of mixed foods and goods. So big were these sacks. that the dwarfs in particular found it impossible to move them and had to hire transport.‘
The Uncle books must have enjoyed some popularity among the clergy. who could dream of all that conspicuous consumption as they huddled around the one gas fire in the vicarage. Modern readers can reminisce about those good old days of nub/ass? oblige when even the tyrants gave you cases of condensed milk. although as the books are. alas. out ofprint. they will have to go along to their crumbling local libraries to do so.
Butterskin Mute an ally of Uncle‘s. and the best farmer in the district. A little smiling man who sometimes wears boots with spades attached to them for digging.
Alonso S. Whitebeard an old man who
CHRISTMAS BOOKS SPECIAL
has long white whiskers down to his feet and is a great rniser. He has a giant silver sixpence as big as a rnillstone which he spends his time gazing at. Not a favourite of Uncle's. but tolerated by him.
Jellytussle one of the most objectionable of the Badfort crowd. He is a repulsive creature covered with shakingjclly ofa bluish colour.
When not at Badfort he lives in the
Uncle indulging in his favourite sport- kicking up Jellytussle. pay—box of a disused bathing pool out by the marshes. Hitmouse a little coward. who carries skewers as weapons and hates anyone else to be prosperous. He lives in a Nissen but outside the gates of Badfort. Old Whitebeard Alonso's stepfather. a hideous old man hated by both sides whose atrocious laugh makes everybody feel ill.
Rene Taylor selects the year's best for kids, from picture books to teenage novels.
1990 may have been the year of the Turtles but thankfully our ‘heroes in a hall-shell“ have not conquered the children’s book scene. Presumably ‘You‘ve seen them on TV now read the book' is not so lucrative as‘. . . now wearthe pyjamas and eat the pizza'. One cool dude who has made many conquests over the last few years is The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. This yearthe original version is back, but with words (The Snowman Stbrybook, Hamish Hamilton £5.99). They aren‘t really necessary—the wonderful illustrations work admirably—but for
children just learning to read, the
words are a bonus. Anotherwell-known character, Noah, has gone green in the excellent Wake Up, Mr Noah! (printed on recycled paper) by Pippa Unwin and Kate Petty (Macmillan £6.50). Just when he thought histroubles were farbehind him and he could enjoy his retirement, Noah hears of today‘s threats to wildlife, from partnerless pandas to
A V\\ e O
oil-slicked seabirds, and brings the Ark l out of mothballs.
Noah literally pops up again in his ' more familiarsetting in a pop-up story book fortoddlers, Noah and the Rabbits by Sally Kilroy (Viking £7.99), in which tardy rabbits find it’s not so easy to get a berth on the Ark. What with seals in the shower and frogs in the first-aid kit, will the rabbits find a hole? Does Bugs Bunny have buck teeth?
Another clever pop-up book is Wings by Nick Bantock (Bodley Head £7.99), but since it’s for over-10$ we'll call it a book of paper engineering. The history of flight is shown in a series of pop-ups: insects, birds and planes, with slide-alongs and lift-up tabs revealing the unfolding of a chrysalis or a Russian swing-wing fighter plane. The piece de resistance is a beautiful coloured macaw flashing his wing span
— at last a bird worthy of a centrefold.
Also for older children, Thawing
Frozen Frogs by Brian Patten (Viking £7.99) is a collection of cheeky, cheerful poems about grown-ups, new babies, dying uncles and animals out for revenge, situations in which kids find themselves or would dearly love to find themselves, in real life. Just the thing to have a good giggle over at the end of a really boring day.
Life just can‘t possibly be boring for brother and sister Sam and Seb in Glad Rags by Joan Lingard (Hamish Hamilton £8.50). In the sequel to Rags and Riches, they are faced with disappointment (the cancellation ofa holiday in Greece when theirparents quarrel) and a variety of trying situations: Seb being accused of stealing, how to afford the upkeep of a family castle in Argyll, their parents' stormy marriage and embarrassment when their granny enlists as a dinner-lady at their school. Who‘d be a teenager?
The List 23 November— 6 December 199089