Uncle Jim

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Back in 1965 a teenage apprentice journalist started work at the Bucks Free Press, then as now, the local newspaper covering the Buckinghamshire area, places such as High Wycombe, Beaconsfield, Marlow, Gerrards Cross etc. The newspaper had started over 100 years earlier and there was nothing really to suggest that this new trainee was much different to the many that had gone before him except that 2 years earlier at the age of 15 he had had his first story printed in Science Fantasy magazine (volume 20, number 60), more of that particular magazine in a later blog because that is also on my shelves.

The Bucks Free Press had a section called Children’s Circle (the image at the top is scanned from a 1966 copy) which had stories and birthday wishes aimed at younger readers all of which were apparently written by Uncle Jim, the general nom de plume of whoever was tasked to write them and it seemed logical to give the job to the new starter who had already proved he liked to write stories. In the coming years he would write over 80 tales as Uncle Jim nearly all of which were split over several weeks to keep the kids coming back for more, whilst also working as a journalist covering all the things that a local paper needs to do, he saw his first dead body within a week of starting.

The name of this young chap – Terence David John Pratchett, later to become Sir Terence, knighted for services to literature in 2009, or just Terry for those of us lucky enough to have met or indeed spent time in bars late at night with him. Because Terry always had time for his fans and we loved him for it.


Now trying to find local newspapers from over 50 years ago is largely a fruitless task so the first time I saw some of these stories from Terry’s early days was on a website started by the Bucks Free Press in association with the Friends of High Wycombe Libraries in June 2010, which posted 2 of them and the first 4 parts of what would become Terry’s first novel The Carpet People. They indicated that they intended to make them all available before they were told to stop quite quickly after the site was started as Terry owned the copyright. The site never actually added any more work and was eventually taken down by the end of 2012. What they did have on the site though was a partially useful list that showed the first time Terry wrote as Uncle Jim was published on the 8th October 1965 and the last they listed was 20th December 1968, in total there were 167 parts listed making up 47 distinct stories. The earliest was a 12 part story that eventually led to The Carpet People, the next longest were 2 stories, one in 1966 and one in 1968 which needed 8 parts and there were 7 stories that were completed in just one part.

These figures are however known to be incomplete as even the article on the Bucks Free Press website announcing the launch of the site in 2010 states that his last appearance as Uncle Jim was in 1970 and there were some 250 episodes, however they do provide an insight into the first 3 years of Terry’s work on this column and the way the stories were split. In fact there were 247 parts written by Terry between 8th October 1965 and 17th July 1970 making up the 80+ stories but apart from going to Beaconsfield library and reading their newspaper archive that seemed to be the end of being able to access these stories far less being able to have Uncle Jim wish you a happy birthday.

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However as can be seen from the image of the books above there have now been 3 collected volumes and I have all 6 of them. Yes you read that right, each one has come out as a standard edition alongside a collectors version.



So lets make a comparison of the available volumes:

Dragons at Crumbling Castle – published 2014

  • Standard edition – Dust wrapper – 14 stories, two of which went to make up The Carpet People but are here presented as 2 separate works and an introduction.
  • Collectors edition – Slipcase – 16 stories, the two extras being ‘The Wergs Invasion of Earth’ and ‘Bason and the Hugonauts’. There is also a different, significantly longer, introduction; commentaries after each story written by Terry and a colour print tucked inside.

The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner – published 2016

  • Standard edition – Dust wrapper – 14 stories and an introduction
  • Collectors edition – Slipcase – 16 stories, the two extras being ‘Johnno, the Talking Horse’ and ‘The Wild Knight’. Commentaries after the stories were written by Terry’s assistant Rob Wilkins as Terry had sadly passed away in March 2015 and there was also a postscript added by Rob by way of a eulogy to his boss and friend. Again a colour print was included as a loose insert.

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard – published 2017

  • Standard edition – Dust Wrapper – 11 stories, including one of the stories from The Dragons at Crumbling Castle, ‘Father Christmas goes to Work at the Zoo’.
  • Collectors edition – Slipcase – Identical text to the standard edition but on better paper and all the illustrations are in colour. No other extras

This means that 42 (or 41 if you regard the two parts of The Carpet People as 1 piece) have now been published which is roughly half of what appeared in the newspaper all those years ago.

The books are great fun, the pages are covered in typographical games, at one point when the lights go out in a story the next two pages are white text on black, and there are numerous uses of other fonts and text sizes to emphasise the action.


The colour edition of Father Christmas’s Fake Beard is also a joy to own, the original looks great but the colour just looks fantastic.


During Terry’s tenure as Uncle Jim a lot of the stories are centred on the fictional county of Gritshire, its county town of Blackbury with surrounding towns like East Slate and Umbridge (on the river Um) and the notorious Even Moor where strange things happen in the wild places. The characters gradually develop over the stories so you really feel that there is such a community where odd events occur almost every day and almost feel sorry for the largely incompetent county councillors who just seem to invite disaster with their every plan for improvement. I suspect that this was Terry letting his main job. which included reporting on local government decisions. drift into his fantastical imagination.

I shall finish with the two prints from the collectors editions. The one on the right of Sir Terry as a knight in armour includes his actual coat of arms as ably described in this Wikipedia entry. Let’s hope to see more of these wonderful stories from Terry aka Uncle Jim being published in the future, after all there is still 50% of the work unavailable apart from in frustratingly difficult to obtain old newspapers.



Persian Poets

In 1997 I was in Iran and in the Tehran museum saw fabulous hand painted pages from the great classics of Persian literature some of which were 1000 years old, so were contemporary with the great early medieval illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks in Western Europe that I was already familiar with. However these pages were on a different level being more miniature paintings surrounded by text rather than marginal images, a complete book would be a wonder of any age but few have survived intact.

The great epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdosi (also Ferdowsi, Firdusi etc. Persian to English isn’t a precise transliteration) was one of the stars of the exhibition with several wonderful pages on display and at over 100,000 lines it is the longest poem ever written by one author. Written and revised between 997 and 1010AD the 1000 year old poem tells the tale of Persia from a mythological start and the creation of the world, through a time of legendary heroes to historical accounts up to around 750AD and the fall of the Sassanid rulers of Persia. Despite the age of the text it is still perfectly readable to modern Iranians whereas Geoffrey Chaucer (who lived roughly 400 years later) is about as far back in English that you can go and  have a reasonable chance of being able to understand the meaning. Regrettably I don’t read Persian so the text is beyond me but the illustrations made me yearn for a copy for myself. So along with a couple of rugs my souvenirs of Iran included a book in tribute to this great work and the ancient illustrations that so fascinated me on first seeing them.

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The book was printed in 1991 and describes itself as a commemoration of the millennium of composing Shahnameh by Ferdosi. It was a few years early but the 1000 years have now passed and I’m glad it was early or I may not have been able to obtain this lovely, if somewhat large (42cm x 30cm), volume. The basic premise of the book is that 22 paintings by Mahmoud Farshchian done in the old style of Persian miniature art that I so admired would be used to illustrate sections from the heroic phase of the poem, it is written mainly in Persian with some English to explain the paintings.  The introductory pages are truly beautiful

and then we get into the main work which is the 22 modern interpretations of pages from the ancient works, I love the way that the pictures reach out beyond the frame. Click on the pictures to access full screen versions.

I have chosen 5 pages from the book to illustrate it and these are:

  • In his third labour, Rostam slays the dragon
  • Sohrab launches an offensive against Persia
  • Siavosh undergoes the ordeal by fire which Keykavus has arranged
  • Rostam sets Bijan free from the well where he has been imprisoned by order of the Turanian ruler
  • View of the Hunting Ground, with Bahram Gur talking to the harpist maiden

Ferdosi is not by any means the most famous of the Persian poets, that honour probably goes to Hafez and the annual Hafez festival was on when I arrived in his birthplace of Shiraz. He lived from 1315 to 1390 and like Ferdosi his name is more of an honorific, the difference is that we don’t know the real name of Ferdosi but Hafez was Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad. Being called Hafez indicates somebody who has memorised the Koran, which apparently he did at a remarkably early age and that is the name with which he has gone down in posterity. Also on my bookshelves is the programme for the event.

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and I took several photographs at his mausoleum which is where recitals and singing of his poems were taking place. He is a much loved poet in Iran which is odd when you consider that most of his poems involve wine, love or the beauty of women; hardly the subjects that are approved of in conservative Iran.

There are fortunately several good English translations including Penguin paperbacks of Hafez’s works, and now Ferdosi has also been included in Penguin Classics so let us leave this blog post with some words by Hafez from The Penguin Little Black Classic “The nightingales are drunk”

With wine beside a gently flowing brook – this is best;

Withdrawn from sorrow in some quiet nook – this is best;

Our life is like a flower’s that blooms for ten short days

Bright laughing lips, a friendly fresh-faced look – this is best.


Penguin Drop Caps

In 2012 Penguin Books started a series of books for sale in the USA and Canada and it made use of their extensive back catalogue along with some newer modern classics in a handsome new style hardback binding. The tagline of the set is

It all begins with a letter

and the concept was to produce 26 titles where each letter of the alphabet was represented by the surname of the author. An interesting idea especially over the choice of names for some of the more difficult letters. What made the set a cohesive whole was the decision to have all the letters on the covers designed by one person, Jessica Hische, and for her to create an evocative set of designs. Adding the input of Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley we ended up with a rainbow of classic books which call to you from the shelves and look totally different to anything else I have. Good design has been the hallmark of Penguin Books from their beginning in 1935 and it’s good to see that tradition being respected in a modern set.

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Of course a set like this appeals to the collector part of me, especially when they are not officially available in the UK as I like a challenge, but it also harks back to the very first Penguin Books I initially accumulated, then decided to collect, which was the early (first 125) Penguin Classics.  Buying a set of books forces you to purchase authors you may not have been intending to buy or even to have heard of and once the book is on the shelf it would be remiss not to at least give the book a go. The first title is a case in point; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is not a title that has ever appealed but I have to say that much to my surprise I’m really enjoying it. I have also read Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Five Children and It, and Cannery Row so far and I’m looking forward to tackling authors I don’t know at all such as Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset.

The full list is as follows:

  • Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
  • Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
  • Cather, Willa – My Antonia
  • Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
  • Eliot, George – Middlemarch
  • Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
  • Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
  • Hesse, Hermann – Siddhartha
  • Ishiguro, Kazou – An Artist of the Floating World
  • Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Kidd, Sue Monk – The Secret life of Bees
  • Lee, Chang-rae – Native Speaker
  • Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick
  • Nesbit, E – Five Children and It
  • O’Hara, John – Butterfield 8
  • Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
  • Queen, Ellery – The Greek Coffin Mystery
  • Rushdie, Salman – Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Steinbeck, John – Cannery Row
  • Tan, Amy – The Joy Luck Club
  • Undset, Sigrid – Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath
  • Voltaire – Candide
  • Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose
  • Xinran – Sky Burial
  • Yeats, William Butler – When You are Old
  • Zafon, Carlos Ruiz – Shadow of the Wind

A to F came out in 2012, G to P in 2013 and Q to Z in 2014 although I only started to collect these books towards the end of last year (2017) so the last 5 have only recently arrived and I didn’t buy them in alphabetical order but rather which 4 or 5 a month I could find at a sensible price.  Their official retail price varies on the copies I have between US $23 and $30 although the Canadian prices fluctuate much more widely between $24 and $40. The cheapest I found one in the UK was around £10 and had to spend up to £17 to get the last few I was missing.

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The spines are also attractive and make a bold statement on the shelf next to me as I write this, as can be seen in the picture above the page edges are also coloured to complement the cover and the rear cover has a short quote from the book that Penguin have turned into a parlour game

Mine is from Great Expectations:

Suffering has been stronger than all the other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.

and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race

Not the cheeriest of quotes but I’m not going to let them put me off reading all these as they are lovely books with a clear font (Archer) as you would hope from a series that takes lettering seriously and a pleasure to pull off the shelf and sit down with.

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a retelling of the Old Norse myths in a straightforward style aimed at the young adult market. He begins with a brief introduction to Odin, Thor and Loki and then the other characters that populate the myths are explained as we meet them.  The book has had a small number of poor reviews on Amazon, but mainly by people who were expecting a Neil Gaiman story rather than an introduction to the Norse mythology and were therefore disappointed not to find one. For me however it took me back to my childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s reading childrens’ magazines such as Look and Learn and World of Wonder, both of which regularly dipped into mythologies from around the world for features or retellings.

The dustwrapper is beautiful, featuring Thor’s hammer Mjollnir against a background of stars but how many people have taken this off to find the hammer again on the cover of the book

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There are 15 tales included, ranging in length from 3 to 23 pages, so this can be dipped into as a quick read over a period of a few days, but equally it doesn’t take long to read the whole thing. They are easily approachable, avoiding the temptation to explain everything with additional notes which can be a failing in editions aimed at adults which can fall into a scholastic tone. As Neil himself says in his introduction

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, where the stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the Northern Lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

And that I think is the essence of Neil’s book, they feel like they are tales as told to an audience rather than pinned to the page like a specimen butterfly, they have a narrative flow and it doesn’t matter that Yggdrasil and the nine worlds is only 3 pages long, it tells you what you need to know and that information will illuminate later tales.

The book is of course just a brief introduction to the huge body of Norse tales and it would be nice to think that readers today will be inspired, as I was all those years ago with the magazines, to explore further and then maybe try some of the Icelandic sagas which I have enjoyed over the intervening years. More of those I think in a later blog. So thank you Neil for reminding me of the pleasure I got when I first encountered the Norse myths when I was 6 or 7 years old and the joy they still give me.

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Footnote: I thought the UK hardback cover was beautiful and then saw the American paperback due out next month…

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