Norman Lindsay had a robust idea of children’s literary taste. Given a choice between fairies and food, he believed, they’d go for food every time; fighting and eating were what stories should be about. The result of this conviction is The Magic Pudding.
Quite simply, it’s the funniest children’s book ever written. It concerns the adventures of Bunyip Bluegum, ‘a very well-bred young fellow, able to converse on a great variety of subjects, having read all the best Australian poets’, who sets out to see the world and meets Bill Barnacle the sailor and Sam Sawnoff, the penguin bold, the owners of the Puddin’.
‘Bill was a small man with a large hat, a beard half as large as his hat, and feet as large as his beard. Sam Sawnoff’s feet were sitting down and his body was standing up, because his feet were so short and his body so long that he had to do both together.’
The Puddin’ is magic, because if you want to change him from steak-and-kidney to boiled jam roll or apple dumpling, all you have to do is whistle twice and turn the basin round; and no matter how much you cut from him, there’s no sign of the place where he’s been sliced. Clearly this Puddin’ (whose name is Albert, and who possesses a pair of extremely thin legs and a filthy temper) is highly valuable, and this provides the mainspring for the plot; for the book consists of a series of adventures in which the Puddin’ is repeatedly stolen by the Wombat and the Possum, professional Puddin’-thieves, and regained by the daring and resource of the rightful Puddin’-Owners. That’s where the fighting comes in; the eating is passim.
In one way, writing about The Magic Pudding is easy; all you have to do is quote and go on quoting.
‘The other was a bulbous, boozy-looking Wombat in an old long-tailed coat, and a hat that marked him down as a man you couldn’t trust in the fowl-yard.’
‘The Rooster was one of those fine upstanding bumptious kites who love to talk all day, in the heartiest manner, to total strangers while their wives do the washing.’
‘… his face was one of those feeble faces that make one think of eggs and carrots and feathers, if you take my meaning.’
What these word-sketches (and many, many others) have in common, besides the brisk vigour of their characterisation, is an intensely visual quality. Lindsay was a fine draughtsman, and a large part of the delight of the book lies in its illustrations.
He was born in Victorian Victoria, and from an early age displayed a talent for drawing which, if he’d lived in Europe or America, might have made him an artist of some importance; but the only model of Great Art he saw as a boy was a lamentable oil by the third-rate Symbolist, Simeon Solomon, which had somehow ended up in the Ballarat Museum. At a time when the greatest upheaval in the visual arts since the Renaissance was taking place in France, the young Lindsay, twelve thousand miles away in the bush, was passionately struggling to depict Life, or Woman, or Temptation, in a manner that had been worn-out for decades without his knowing it.
In the course of doing that, however, he acquired a facility with the pencil that allowed him to earn a living as a cartoonist; and it’s that aspect of his talent which is so brilliantly displayed in The Magic Pudding.
A characteristic delight of the book is the way in which characters break into verse to express heightened feelings. For example, Sam Sawnoff is explaining to Bunyip about the free-and-easy behaviour of Puddin’-Owners at breakfast:
‘”None of the ordinary breakfast rules, such as scowling while eating, and saying the porridge is as stiff as glue and the eggs are as tough as leather, are observed. Instead, songs, roars of laughter, and boisterous jests are the order of the day. For example, this sort of thing,” added Sam, doing a rapid back-flap and landing with a thump on Bill’s head. As Bill was unprepared for this act of boisterous humour, his face was pushed into the Puddin’ with great violence, and the gravy was splashed in his eye.
“What d’yer mean, playing such bungfoodling tricks on a man at breakfast?” roared Bill.
“What d’yer mean,” shouted the Puddin’, “playing such foodbungling tricks on a Puddin’ being breakfasted at?”‘
At this tense moment, Bunyip Bluegum restores the goodwill of the Puddin’-Owners by reciting:
‘Then let the fist of Friendship
Be kept for Friendship’s foes.
Ne’er let that hand in anger land
On Friendship’s holy nose.’
‘These fine sentiments at once dispelled Bill’s anger,’ says the author, and well they might. The method is typical: earnest pomposity brilliantly rendered ludicrous by the last word.
The book ought to be back in print. But there’s one moment towards the end that raises the political correctness question. It comes in another verse:
‘So I’ll tell you what to do
You unmitigated Jew,
As a trifling satisfaction,
Why, I’ll beat you black and blue.’
What should we do about that? Personally, I’d substitute another word to rhyme with blue. That’s not tampering with a sacred text – it’s common sense. So is a lot of political correctness; but that’s another question.
For a review of Philip Pullman’s latest book, Northern Lights, see Wendy Cooling’s round-up on page 24.