Martin was born in Scarborough in the county of Yorkshire in summer 1879 and became a Methodist minister in 1902 before serving as a missionary in South Africa and as an army chaplain in Palestine during the First World War. After the Second World War he lived in the village of Timberscombe in Somerset, where he died in March 1966. In 1906 he married Nancy Mann in Johannesburg. He later married for a second time. He had four children, two girls and two boys. One of his daughters, Stella, became a playwright and married the poet R.N. Currey.
Martin's Uncle stories were first told to his children before he was persuaded to write them down for a wider audience. When they were first published in the late 1960s and early 1970s they were hailed as modern classics of children's literature, although their fame has faded considerably since then, leading for many years to a complete lack of reprints and great scarcity, although some of the stories were re-published as recently as 2008. The Uncle of the six books in the series is a millionaire elephant with a purple dressing-gown, a B.A. from Oxford, and a clean-living past marred by a single, never-to-be-forgotten discreditable incident. He has many friends and supporters, including the Old Monkey, the One-Armed Badger, the cat Goodman, Noddy Ninety, Cloutman, the King of the Badgers, and Butterskin Mute. He is also the owner of an enormous castle called Homeward:
Homeward is hard to describe, but try to think of about a hundred skyscrapers all joined together and surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge over it, and you'll get some idea. The towers are of many colours, and there are bathing pools and gardens amongst them, also switchback railways running from tower to tower, and water-chutes from top to bottom.
Uncle is the sworn enemy of the inhabitants of Badfort, an enormous derelict fortress that blights the landscape in front of Homeward. When Uncle surveys Badfort through his telescope at the beginning of the first book he looks "with disapproval along the whole length of Badfort, noting that there were more windows than ever stuffed with sacking", and when the Old Monkey goes there to rescue Uncle from imprisonment towards the end of Uncle Cleans Up, he discovers that it has "hundreds of rooms, many with the roofs falling in, and all the passages were piled with rubble and broken glass", while the "only light was an occasional gleam from a scob-oil lamp".
Living in Badfort are the Badfort gang, nominally headed by the Hateman family, Beaver, Nailrod Snr, Nailrod Jnr, Filljug, and Sigismund, with the support of Flabskin, Oily Joe, the dwarvish, cowardly, skewer-throwing Isidore Hitmouse, the scheming ghost Hootman, and Jellytussle, an animated mound of bluish jelly. The Badfort gang, with their Hating Books, constant plots against Uncle, constant schemes to raise money, and spasmodic low feasting and drunkenness, are a large part of what make the Uncle books unique, and the illustrations drawn by Quentin Blake for first publication of the books have frequently been praised for capturing the exuberance and surrealism of Martin's prose.
The Uncle books are:Uncle (1964)
Uncle Cleans Up (1965)
Uncle and His Detective (1966)
Uncle and the Treacle Trouble (1967)
Uncle and Claudius the Camel (1970)
Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown (1973)
The first book was reprinted in paperback in 2000 by Red Fox: ISBN 0-09-943869-0. See also ISBN 0-09-941141-5. Hardcover reprints of the first two volumes were published by the New York Review of Books in 2007-8 (ISBN 1-59017-239-6 and ISBN 1-59017-276-0).
In March 2013, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to reprint all six Uncle books in an omnibus edition. The reprint had the support of — and contributions from — several authors and illustrators, including Neil Gaiman, Justin Pollard, Garth Nix, Martin Rowson, Andy Riley, Kate Summerscale, and Richard Ingrams. The campaign was fully funded in a little over four hours. The book was published on 31 October 2013 under the title of The Complete Uncle, ISBN 978-1783062836.