Childhood books, games and memories, and a slightly pompous elephant
Published on: 22 Medi 2014 Author: Philip Ardagh
My happiest childhood memories don't generally include other children. I remember lying under my granny's dining room table - the feel and the smell of the sun-warmed carpet on my cheek - looking across the floor to her copy of Born Free at eye-level on the bottom shelf of her dark-wood bookcase, its yellow dust jacket tattered. Much of early childhood seems to take place at floor level.
I remember playing with my Timpo wild west figures - 'cowboys and Indians' - in their little plastic wild west town built up, building by building, over the years as birthday and Christmas presents. The largest building was the saloon with its quickly broken (and quickly repaired) swing doors; the most exciting, the jail, with its simulated stone walls and a wooden bar across the door.
I remember endless hours of playing with my trolls' house. Built of shoe boxes, it housed an assortment of long-haired plastic trolls originally intended for the tops of pencils. As time went on, additional visitors arrived and stayed, including a small rubber kangaroo who, for reasons long forgotten, I named Ventilator. There were small rubber aliens, and a plastic dragon that lived in their bath.
I had toy cars: Matchbox, Matchbox Superfast, Hotwheels and Corgi but to me they were characters not vehicles. There was Daring, the hero in his Jensen Interceptor, Clastor the baddy boss in his red and yellow tip-up truck, and Bashboot the inspector in his liveried police car.
Just about all my games were about telling stories. When I ran around with my big brother, we were usually agents on a mission or something involving pretend - or often imaginary - guns.
Then there was my own writing, scribbled on scraps of paper, in old diaries and 'books' made from folded and stapled-together A4 paper (which often had type on other side because my father brought home his wastepaper from work). There were my homemade comics where, to begin with at least, the pages were taken up with far more thought and speech bubbles than actual pictures. (These included a Daring-Clastor-Bashboot spin-off, with one area of play spilling over into another.) I also created newspapers for non-existent lands and recorded 'radio plays' - where I did all the sound effects and voices - on an old cassette recorder. (Lego bricks crashed around inside an old, round Quality Street tin made a great 'explosion'.)
But, as well as the stories of my own creation - my own worlds - there was a way to enter other people's worlds: the world of the Moomins, of Narnia, of Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, of Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine Club, of Blyton's Famous Five. And J P Martin's Uncle books, illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Ah, the Uncle books. What extraordinary books they were. For me, Martin and Blake's collaboration is second to none. Dahl and Blake doesn't even come close. Quentin Blake and his style was given incredible free rein in Uncle's world, with his sooty, smudgy subject matter.
For those not familiar with the books, Uncle is a purple-dressing-gown-wearing elephant. He is vastly rich and the apparent hero of the tales. His enemy is his rather grubby neighbours the Badfort crowd, led by Beaver Hateman. They spoil his view. Hateman's gang includes Hitmouse, Flabskin, Oily Joe, Jellytussle and the Wooden-Legged Donkey. Uncle's friends and supporters include the Little Lion, Butterskin Mute, the king of the Badgers and the Respectable Horses. The names - and what fantastic names they are - say it all, really...
...but the more I read, the more I realised that maybe Uncle was the pompous oaf the Badfort crowd claimed him to be. But then again, those Badforts really could be bad. So maybe, like life, it all came down not to black and white but shades of grey. The stories really are fantastical and gadget-filled (of the Heath Robinson variety) and Martin's love of wordplay shines through on every page.
Few people seem to remember the Uncle stories -- their being out of print for many years -- but those who do remember them are generally BIG fans. Then, in 2013, ex-bookseller-cum-publisher Marcus Gipps started a Kickstarter campaign to raise £7,000 to publish The Complete Uncle, made up of all six books. Instead of £7,000, he ended up with over £29,000 and now Uncle is back out there.
I've never read the entire series and now's my chance. I rather wish I could sit and read it in the tree house my magical granny built us in her garden but, sadly, both she and it are long, long gone. But there are still the memories: those memories of childhood days of endless imagining. Now I do it for a living, as an author. As for cars, they're still characters to me. I haven't the slightest idea how to drive.
I'd be interested in your favourite childhood books and memories and, if you have them, your thoughts on Uncle. Please add them to the comments below.
Check out Philip's book
More from Philip's time as Writer in Residence.