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.
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.