An Interview with James Currey - Part Two

Q. At various times the books have been damned or praised in a contradictory way for being either a savage attack on a capitalist society or for glorifying the fascist character of Uncle - what were J.P.Martin's political opinions?

A. Well. I think he was the sort of classic non-conformist Liberal i.e. he was non-Tory. He used to read liberal papers like the News Chronicle and that sort of thing. Because of his job he was very much in touch with the working class but I think he was not a very political person. He used to do enormous scrapbooks from newspapers and I used to follow the war with him in the News Chronicle - maps of Libya and things like that. What comes out in my mothers account of his life was that a Methodist parson had a very marginal income and one of the things that obsessed him was the price of coal and of course the Nationalisation of the coal industry after the war was a great step forward in Labour party terms. Everyone depended on coal - ordinary houses did not have central heating and a lot of his work in Manchester was amongst destitute people during the depression. Destitution - in a way that I think we simply don't understand in terms of this country. We see it in Africa and so on but we are insulated from it. But he wasn't insulated from it. It was members of his own flock who were suffering this. People dying on his doorstep and so on. The poverty. His own boyhood had been in places such as Leeds.
The Methodists were very concerned about this poverty and, of course. the other thing they were concerned about was drink. Enormously cheap gin and beer causing awful alcoholism and violence associated with that.
I don't think he was a very political man but I think he was a man of
enormous compassion. I can remember the enormous interest in the 45 election. As a child I could not understand why Mr.Churchill was being flung out but I can remember my grandfather and mothers delight at all these things coming in like the National Health Service.
And I remember them explaining that you paid while you were well so you wouldn't have to pay when you were sick. And all the Nationalisation by labour after the war they considered generally an improvement - particularly coal. His father and grandfather came from Cornwall and there seemed to be a feeling that the Liberals were being forced back to the Celtic fringes! Methodism is immensely strong in Cornwall.
He wasn't campaigning in anyway though - and I don't think he began to put any political message in the stories - people who read political messages in them are wrong I think - it's fun to do so but I think that J.P. Martin's response would be “Well, certainly never occurred to me!”
I think he was in a position, though, where he could see how awful thing were after the First World War. A lot of the people who he knew had been soldiers he could see destitute on the streets and dying. When he worked at the cemetery people would be brought in off the streets for him to perform the last rites on.

Q. There are some elements in the books that seem very prescient of what was to come - cities of skyscrapers for instance.

A. Well I think that Chicago was the first great city of skyscrapers wasn't it - which was the late 19th Century. He never went to America but I think he had grown up in a time when there was a feeling of huge change which was central to his imagination.
When I was young I tried to do maps of Homeward - try and make sense of it all. There are vague relationships as to where towers are from each other but essentially it's just like being in a city. There are all these dwarves everywhere who are just like the faceless masses.
On the whole there are very few dwarves who are characters - apart from Mig who does the cooking. But there is this enormous feeling of a tremendously crowded city. He never saw any skyscrapers when he was writing the stories but certainly by the fifties and sixties cities did start to explode in the way he envisioned. Places like Manchester and Leeds had lots of big buildings but not high-rise.
Of course his vision was a city of many towers and I think this was essentially somewhere like Chicago and the great American downtown. I have been to a lot of cities in the Unite States and you can see if you are approaching them that they really stand out - they stand out like Homeward.

Q. What is interesting is the mixture of the old and the new. Homeward is a series of skyscrapers but it's also a traditional castle with a moat and a drawbridge and Quentin Blake's drawing fits the description so perfectly.

A. Yes they are very exact aren't they - you turn the page and there are the things that my grandfather was writing about.

Q Did J.P. Martin like Quentin's illustrations?

A. Yes. Tom Maschler and Valerie Kettley at Jonathan Cape had shown my Grandfather and Mother various examples of different illustrators and my parents were very reserved about them. At that time I was working for the Oxford University Press in Cape Town in South Africa and my father was coming out to do a lecture tour. The Oxford University Press represented Jonathan Cape there and I showed my father some proofs of a Jonathan Cape book that Quentin Blake had illustrated and we were all immediately taken by his work. So the suggestion that he be used actually came from us. I think it was only his third commission. He had only done a couple of books before 'Uncle'. He had been at Cambridge and then gone on to do teacher training and managed to get some commissions particularly with people like 'The Spectator'
J.P. Martin actually did his own pictures of Uncle. It would be quite interesting to see them wouldn't it ?. My brother who is a librarian looks after the J.P. Martin archive so I will have to ask him.
He was an amateur artist - he used oils a lot - fairly crudely. He used to do quite a lot of these scratchy drawings that gave everyone an idea of what was necessary for the books and Quentin Blake was just right because it was this sort of scratchy zany style that rather echoed my grandfathers style of drawing. Of course that's Quentin Blake's style but it wasn't so far away from my grandfathers. They are just superbly done instead of terribly amateurish. I think Quentin's drawings have been terribly important because I think Quentin Blake is intrinsic to the books. He's pinned down a lot of my imagination about the stories - I really don't think he gets much wrong.

Q Did J.P. Martin have any real person or persons in mind that he based the character of Uncle on? Had he met any potentates or magnates or read about them?

A. I think that this is addressed in my mother's biography of my grandfather. I'm not sure what to do with it but I certainly intend to get it edited and typeset because I think that it would be good to have it accessible. She goes into this a bit - Lady Lionease seemed to come from allsorts of dreadful tea parties he had had to sit through. My Grandfather was my Grandmother's despair because he never seemed to be able to wash his hands properly. “Oh I'll just give my hands a rinse!” - and the dirt was ingrained from oil painting, from working in the cellar or hauling coal. But of course as a Parson he would often have to sit in on tea parties and I think someone like Lady Lionease he would have encountered at such a tea party. Major Bore is another. One of the interesting things is the way that animals and human beings float into one another. When he first meets Brass, Brass has a terribly sharp bark and Uncle says you have a terribly nice speaking voice - use that instead. Brass is a dog and yet can speak. And Uncles Aunt is a human being and not an elephant. It never seems to bother children. He may also have drawn inspiration from characters in Newspapers and Magazine stories - as I mentioned he kept scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings and magazines such as the illustrated weeklies and so on.