When controversial Australian painter and novelist Norman Lindsay was told by friends that he should write a children’s book he quickly took a liking to the idea. When his friends told him that the book should be about fairies, goblins and mythical creatures he laughed at the idea and said that kids aren’t into fantasy stuff… they just love fighting, sticking their nose up at authority and eating! When his friends suggested that he was talking bullshit he decided to take up the challenge and prove them wrong. So was born one of the most successful children’s books in Australia’s history. At the heart of his self-illustrated, children’s book, “The Magic Pudding,” are three characters who are dedicated to a life of doing as little work as possible while travelling the world (on foot), exploring, getting into fights, taking the piss out of authority figures and eating themselves silly.
“Helicopter parenting” can inhibit skill development
I recently heard an exercise science academic argue on radio that modern athletes are hampered by a lack of general physical skills acquired through the rough and tumble play that kids used to enjoy. One of the worst aspects of “helicopter parenting,” he argued, is that kids miss out on a huge amount of skill and knowledge development through not being allowed to climb trees, have “wars down the bush”, wrestle and fight, muck around down at the creek or dam, camp out by themselves, jump off things, do crazy things with skip ropes, play rough games of back-yard touch-footy, soccer or basketball and explore places that parents consider too dangerous. In other words, modern athletes may well be able to master very sports-specific skills, but their athletic performance may be hampered by a lack of those more generalized motor and problem-solving skills developed though “risky” play.
Hearing this guy talk about what kids should be allowed to do, reminded me of what Norman Lindsay believed kids really liked to do. Here is a small snippet of “The Magic Pudding.” Maybe our kids should be allowed to be a little more like Sam Sawnoff, Bunyip Bluegum, Bill Barnacle, the Possum, Watkin Wombat and the Puddin’. I wouldn’t want to take this argument too far, though. While the rough and tumble “sporty” lives of these characters is, in many ways, admirable you don’t have to dig very deep into the book to discover that all the characters are deeply flawed by twenty-first century ethical standards!
They were all singing away at the top of their pipe, as Bill called it, when round a bend in the road they came on two low-looking persons hiding behind a tree. One was a Possum, with one of those sharp, snooting, snouting sort of faces, and 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. They were busy sharpening up a carving knife on a portable grind-stone, but the moment they caught sight of the travellers the Possum whipped the knife behind him and the Wombat put his hat over the grindstone.
Bill Barnacle flew into a passion at these signs of treachery.
‘I see you there,’ he shouted.
‘You can’t see all of us,’ shouted the Possum, and the Wombat added, ”Cause why, some of us is behind the tree.’
Bill led the others aside, in order to hold a consultation.
‘What on earth’s to be done?’ he said.
‘We shall have to fight them, as usual,’ said Sam.
‘Why do you have to fight them?’ asked Bunyip Bluegum.
‘Because they’re after our Puddin’,’ said Bill.
‘They’re after our Puddin’,’ explained Sam, ‘because they’re professional puddin’-thieves.’
‘And as we’re perfessional Puddin’-owners,’ said Bill, ‘we have to fight them on principle. The fighting,’ he added, ‘is a mere flea-bite, as the sayin’ goes. The trouble is, what’s to be done with the Puddin’?’
‘While you do the fighting,’ said Bunyip bravely, ‘I shall mind the Puddin’.’
‘The trouble is,’ said Bill, ‘that this is a very secret, crafty Puddin’, an’ if you wasn’t up to his game he’d be askin’ you to look at a spider an’ then run away while your back is turned.’
‘That’s right,’ said the Puddin’, gloomily. ‘Take a Puddin’s character away. Don’t mind his feelings.’
‘We don’t mind your feelin’s, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘What we minds is your treacherous ‘abits.’ But Bunyip Bluegum said, ‘Why not turn him upside-down and sit on him?’
‘What a brutal suggestion,’ said the Puddin’; but no notice was taken of his objections, and as soon as he was turned safely upside-down, Bill and Sam ran straight at the puddin’-thieves and commenced sparring up at them with the greatest activity.
“I shan’t be able to fight any more this afternoon,” said the Wombat, “as I have sore feet!”
‘Put ’em up, ye puddin’-snatchers,’ shouted Bill. ‘Don’t keep us sparrin’ up here all day. Come out an’ take your gruel while you’ve got the chance.’
The Possum wished to turn the matter off by saying, ‘I see the price of eggs has gone up again’, but Bill gave him a punch on the snout that bent it like a carrot, and Sam caught the Wombat such a flip with his flapper that he gave in at once.
‘I shan’t be able to fight any more this afternoon,’ said the Wombat, ‘as I’ve got sore feet.’ The Possum said hurriedly, ‘We shall be late for that appointment’, and they took their grindstone and off they went.
But when they were a safe distance away the Possum sang out: ‘You’ll repent this conduct. You’ll repent bending a man’s snout so that he can hardly see over it, let alone breathe through it with comfort’, and the Wombat added, ‘For shame, flapping a man with sore feet.’
‘We laugh with scorn at threats,’ said Bill, and he added as a warning —
‘I don’t repent a snout that’s bent,
And if again I tap it,
Oh, with a clout I’ll bend that snout
With force enough to snap it.’
and Sam added for the Wombat’s benefit —
‘I take no shame to fight the lame
When they deserve to cop it.
So do not try to pipe your eye,
Or with my flip I’ll flop it.’
The puddin’-thieves disappeared over the hill and, as the evening happened to come down rather suddenly at that moment, Bill said, ‘Business bein’ over for the day, now’s the time to set about makin’ the camp fire.’
This was a welcome suggestion, for, as all travellers know, if you don’t sit by a camp fire in the evening, you have to sit by nothing in the dark, which is a most unsociable way of spending your time. They found a comfortable nook under the hedge, where there were plenty of dry leaves to rest on, and there they built a fire, and put the billy on, and made tea. The tea and sugar and three tin cups and half a pound of mixed biscuits were brought out of the bag by Sam, while Bill cut slices of steak-and-kidney from the Puddin’. After that they had boiled jam-roll and apple-dumpling, as the fancy took them, for if you wanted a change of food from the Puddin’, all you had to do was to whistle twice and turn the basin round.
After they had eaten as much as they wanted, the things were put away in the bag, and they settled down comfortably for the evening.
‘This is what I call grand,’ said Bill, cutting up his tobacco. ‘Full-and-plenty to eat, pipes goin’ and the evenin’s enjoyment before us. Tune up on the mouth-organ, Sam, an’ off she goes with a song.’
Excerpt taken from Norman Lindsay’s “The Magic Pudding” first published in 1918.
Can we learn anything from “The Magic Pudding?” One thing we can learn is that, as is the case in professional wrestling with “heels and faces” (good guys and bad guys), sport is theatre and that the question of who is good and who is evil goes much deeper than the image that is presented in the show. Some of the values presented in “The Magic Pudding” are dodgy. You would be some kind of nutter to advocate beating up your enemies as a means to developing your kids for a future elite sporting life. On the other hand, the example of Bunyip Bluegum, who abandoned an oppressive, stifling home life to pair up with a couple of fellow adventurers and risk-takers, exploring the world, walking dusty trails and roads, sleeping under the stars, not worrying too much about fine manners and sterile conditions and ever ready for a bit of rough and tumble (and even the occasional sitting on a loudly complaining puddin’) in the pursuit of their dream, healthy, lifestyle may not be such a bad example for our cotton-wool protected kids.
Well, maybe. Even if this isn’t true I am still with British novelist, Phillip Pullman, who says that “The Magic Pudding” is one of the funniest books he has ever read.