An Interview with James Currey - Part One

Q. Can you tell me about the initial reaction to the books and the public's reaction to them?

A. It was a terrible shame that Uncle was launched by Jonathan Cape on the very same day as “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and so of course Fleming got all the publicity. The real problem though was that they failed to sell it to Puffin. They were published by NEL and later Sparrow, but they were not as big as Puffin and not able to give it the same amount of publicity as Puffin would have been able to.
My parents did an enormous amount of work on the books with my grandfather - my grandfather, you know, just rattled them off, but my parents did there best to remind people - if you see a complete paragraph it's almost certainly an insertion by may parents - not that they did it without my grandfather - but to remind people who Cloutman and Gubbins were.

Q. What a lot of people are interested in is the actual origins of the stories - when J.P. Martin first invented the stories?

A. Well there is some evidence that they go right back - he had 4 children, my mother Stella - who did all the work on this with my father R,N.Currey - and then there was Grace and John and Hal. The other day, in January, John the last of the surviving children died and he told me quite recently that he remembers how J.P.Martin used to lie on the bed between them telling them stories - so that would be in the 1920's.
My mother was born in 1907 and I think that she remembers stories being told to her and that would have been at the time of the Great War - the First World War. I don't think she remembers ever not being told Uncle stories.

Q. He served in the war didn't he?

A. He was a Methodist parson, He volunteered to go out to South Africa. And then he came back - Methodists always move on after three years - all there family. The Methodist circuit provides a manse so they always have a substantial home to go to. Then he came back from Africa and he worked at Cambourne in Cornwall - then they were at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset and he really felt that he had to volunteer - because after the War it would be difficult for him to minister to men who had been to the War if he had not experienced it himself. He was sent by the army, as a Methodist minister, to Palestine and Egypt for two years. Leaving his wife with 3 young children and a fourth on the way.
He came back in 1918. He had had a chance to travel with one of the officers up the Nile which was an amazing privilege in those days. There were virtually no other foreigners there because of the war.
Then he came back and became a chaplain at a Methodist public school called Wightcliffe College in Gloucestershire.
They got into the rhythm of moving every three years. He really had quite a penchant for the North. One of the circuits he had was one that had fallen on bad times in Manchester. This involved him with allsorts of human tragedy - living next to very deprived families, particularly the kids, crowded on top of each other and living in terrible tenements.
But being a middle class family his children had some quite rough times because of course they were singled out because they had shoes and socks and things!
So, although the Badfort Crowd are all jolly, actually I think that this business of living amongst allsorts of rather hostile people in the books may have come from this.
In the early thirties my mother got a job as an apprentice journalist for one of the Bristol papers. One of the things about our family was that practically everyone wrote - partly just to get money. Even though they were middle class it was a pretty marginal existence on what a parson earned. Anyway, she was made redundant when the two Bristol papers were merged. My father was a school master at that time. Both of them were writing short stories and they had the idea that J.P. Martin should write the stories down. That was in the early thirties.
My Grandfather had actually written several novels and was trying to get published - one of his brothers got published quite regularly, and one of his sisters too, and he was the one who was failing to get books published. My brother has the manuscripts and you can see they are rather 'Unclish' in style. Even though they were aimed at adults they are stories about rather desperate circumstances in big cities about ordinary people in slums.

Q. Did they have a humorous element to them?

A. Well they were full of funny strange names. He was very good at that I remember my mother saying that he needed a name for one of the characters in the book and he gave it to her just like that. He seemed to be able to immediately think of these names - and the thing is he is able to mix them in with these perfectly ordinary events.

Q. Prior to publishing how many of the Uncle books had been written down?

A. Well after working as a journalist my mother became a novelist and had about 6 or 7 of her own novels published and was writing short stories. Before the Second World War they made an effort to get the Uncle books published. In fact, one of the first people they approached was Jonathan Cape -then the Second World War came and my father had to go off to India. Then after the war they had another go and got very close with the Oxford University Press but that didn't come off. But, my father had done some broadcasting and got to know some people at the BBC and one of the people in the Overseas Service was called Mary Treadgold who was quite a successful children's book writer. She came to stay with them one weekend and mentioned that Tom Maschler at Cape had employed her as a scout for children's books. She suggested to my mother that she write a children's book for them. So, my mother reminded her that she had told her about her Father's books. So, she read them and was very taken with them and showed them to Valerie Kettley who was the Children's books editor. Well, she used to cycle home with a basket of manuscripts and her son used to russle through the basket to pick one to read and he was absolutely immediately taken with Uncle and it built up from there.
What they were absolutely delighted about was that fact that there were six manuscripts. Well certainly three or four were there and he was working on the others.

Q. Was J.P. Martin disappointed or discouraged by the time it took to get the books published?

A. No the Uncle stories were sort of organic to his life - he really did them for the best of reasons - which was to amuse himself and his family second. You would come down to breakfast and he would say “Oh I had a good dream about Unc last night”. Then he would tell you about it and even that day he would have written it down. A Parsons life is quite good for a writer. The stories were just one of many things he loved - he loved fires - he was always hunting for unusual shaped logs. He also made allsorts of games. There was one called 'Alsatia' which was all about going from the squalid areas of towns to the rich parts - there were 4 parts to the board. Then he invented a game called 'Markets' which was about trading commodities. So he was always inventing things.

Q. He never tried to sell any of his games ideas?

A. Well once again my parents did - they took out a patent on the “Markets' game.
My brother and I were evacuated to live with my Grandparents during the war. He was the chief Parson in the Daventry circuit and he used to cycle out to places like Naseby and Badsby and I would go with him and he would tell me stories.

Q. It must have been quite a pleasant surprise when the books actually did get published?

A. Well yes enormous - he was quite mystical person - he really did believe in seeing the light - there were various times in his life when he saw the light - a feeling of being in contact with God and so on. He was slightly inclined to attribute everything to the Almighty. Which slightly annoyed my mother because she had worked so hard to get the books published! It wasn't all the Almighty's work!
Although he was in his early eighties he was quite fit - he used to walk between the chapels on Exmoor and in a way that is the way that we thought he would go - between chapels!
Then, of course, there was press interest in the books and BBC Bristol set a car for him down from Bristol to have him on a programme - he revelled in this and really enjoyed being a bit of a celebrity.
One of his phrases about his own family - who were getting their books published - was “reflected glory!” He liked the reflected glory of his family achieving things. Once he was published he used to say “Bit of a change - your having the reflected glory now!”

Q. When he died how complete were the later manuscripts?

A. I think he was working on 'Badgertown' - I don't know how much he had slowed down - I think 'Badgertown' must have been substantially complete. My parents were quite discreet about the way they handled material. They did quite a bit of rearranging and so on. He was really just full of appreciation for what they did. My mother had a good sense of plot and character as a professional writer - they did get him to write more about particular characters and that sort of thing. I don't know to what extent they had to work on the last ones - very little I think. It was mostly a matter of, - as I said if you see a paragraph four or five lines long without speech then almost certainly that was them - reminding people about, for instance, the traction engine. Because of course it appeared in the earlier books but of course my grandfather just rattled on assuming that people would remember all these different things. On the whole children remember very well and don't need a lot of help. They were anxious that the editing should be very light.

Q. Are there any unpublished Uncle stories?

A. I think that it is very unlikely. I don't think much was totally rejected. Shortened or strengthened - bring on more on Goodman, or something like that they would suggest to him.

Q. The other topic I would like to discuss is the popularity of the books and the various translations?

A. When the 'Battle of Badgertown' was published there was a feeling that they had not quite taken off in the way that was expected.

Q. Even though at the time they were hailed by many critics as a new children's classic?

A. Yes - quite - I was talking to a detective storywriter the other week and my connection with J.P.Martin came up and he was absolutely ecstatic about the books. People certainly know about the books that you bump into.
The problem is keeping the books in the bookshops - but these days it has completely changed with all this buying on the net. I really hope that Random House do this print on demand. We are doing it for our business and there is a demand for some of our earliest titles. For us of course we are pleased with 50's whereas Random House are talking about needing 500's for their system.
The books need to be available though. It keeps people knowing about them and improves the chances of people doing something with them.
People ask me what age the books are aimed at and I say from 8 or 9 to 90. People now talk about the cross-over market which is just trade jargon that grew out of publishers surprise that they could sell an adult binding of Harry Potter. I think that you and I have talked about this before - they are the sort of stories that adults could sit down with children and watch and enjoy if they were on television.
The problem Random House have is getting them into the paperback space because the children's book industry is so big now and the competition so ferocious. If a breakthrough could be made on television I think it would change matters.
There was an American edition, and the Dutch and even a Japanese edition.

 

Part Two of the interview can be read here