It’s a strange feeling when people you grew up with begin to have children. Around this time last year, my cousin and his wife had their first child and as I tried to think of a gift to welcome the little man into my family, I was struck by the completely coincidental presence of influential things in childhood. We have so many childhood recollections – music, books, food – whose impact on our lives we often regard with some sort of pre-ordained destiny but in reality, it’s a combination of happenstance and the often dubious tastes of our family and their friends that allow us to experience these things at all.
As my memories of childhood gradually become more opaque, it is increasingly instinct that guides cognition in my recollection. And so it was that I made my selection and set about writing an inscription in the sleeve of a new copy of The Magic Pudding – purchased for a little person that I was yet to meet and would hopefully grow to know – with the intention of placing in his childhood something that was such a treasured part of my own. Despite not having read The Magic Pudding for over twenty years, I knew I loved this book.
As I wrapped the gift, I thought about the profound influence this book had on my life, shaping not only my cultural identity and doubtless my love of the absurd, but defining me (nominally at least) through my formative years. As a child I’d adored the wondrously farcical yarn so much that I was given the nickname Puddin’ by my parents; a nickname that was casually overheard and adopted by my mates in primary school. The nickname outlasted the puppy fat that created a fun double entendre for my friends, and variations of the nickname live to this day amongst those who went to primary and high school with me. Not bad for a turn-of-the-century tale of anthropomorphic Australian animals with an ill-tempered, spellbound dessert.
At the start of this year, I re-read the Magic Pudding in an effort to recapture the feeling of wonder that I had so loved as a child. I finished it in a matter of hours – left in a sort of disillusioned daze, shocked not that I still found it immensely funny, but that it was so short. Its unexpected brevity after all these years gave me a feeling similar to the one I got from returning to my childhood home after 20 years. Where the dimensions of the house seemed impossibly small against my childhood memories; the tale of Bunyip Bluegum, Bill Barnacle and the ever-irritable Pudding seemed a miniaturised version of its remembered-self.
Where had the smell of the eucalypts come from in my childhood recollections? Or the feeling of foreboding that stalked the Noble Society of Pudding Owners as the Possum and Wombat drew near? Had this story not unfolded over a period of years, with the emotional attachment of the Pudding Owners to Albert the Pudding adding weight to each walloping they dished out to the “puddin’ thieves”? Surely it must have been in these pages somewhere?
But the tale is as it ever was, created with the perfect amount of room for a child’s imagination to explore itself, fuelled by the timeless drawings and whisked along by the crackle of whimsy, the rhythm of Lindsay’s language and, of course, a good portion of magic. Though the re-read of the Magic Pudding made my adult mind feel slow-footed and dull in comparison to the one that had so artfully embellished the book in my memory, it gave me great joy to imagine the augmentations and additions my new cousin could add to it as his growing brain gambols across an Australian tale that will be almost a century old by the time he can read alone. And though the book itself was almost bigger than him when he received it – with any luck, the story will be many orders of magnitude bigger than the words and drawings on its pages by the time his young mind is through with it.