Cloud Chamber 114
February 2001

There seems no end to the paperwork and legalities of settling my father's estate, with a vast queue of bureaucrats all wanting to see the death certificate or (still in the works) the grant of probate. At least my mother, normally phobic about forms and technicalities, is coping pretty well. Slow progress is made.

By way of distraction I've been working obsessively on that John Sladek collection, and have now bagged all the solo fiction he's known to have published. Another long afternoon at the British Newspaper Library produced copies of the supposedly four '1969-1972?' Titbits stories, actually six, all in 1968. A letter from the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden explained that it was totally impossible to locate the short story 'It Takes Your Breath Away' (printed only in 1974 London theatre programmes) without further information; in the same post, the Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection sent a photocopy of it. Not long after, another line of enquiry – a letter to The Stage – produced a second copy from a different programme. Maybe it's in yet more programmes printed by Theatreprint, but I'll leave that to the bibliographers.... The last story was in Men Only magazine, whose owners the Paul Raymond Organization were and are totally unresponsive; which the British Newspaper Library doesn't archive; which the British Library itself couldn't help with, though tantalizingly pointing out that Cambridge has copies from 1950 to 1963 only. I wanted 1974. Searching for Men Only on the web produced many blush-making pages, but the answer is in fact out there once you know where to look:, a database of UK university library catalogues. From which it emerged that this naughty magazine is held in (long dramatic pause) the restricted stacks of the Bodleian Library. This was daunting, but researcher-on-the-spot Tanaqui Weaver stormed the citadel and escaped with a photocopy. Hooray! Onward, now, into the murky waters of very very early collaborations with Tom Disch.

Random Reading

Now that Ian has introduced an element of terrifying competitiveness by publishing statistics of books we've reported reading, it's tempting to boost one's figures by listing all the usually omitted rereads (e.g. I numbly went through the whole Nero Wolfe canon in December-January: 46 books, gorblimey). But I'll spare you the full details. Weird coincidence dept: oldies reread towards the end of January included Brian Ball's Sundog and Gordon Dickson's Tactics of Mistake; the following week brought news of Dickson's death and out-of-touch-for-decades Ball's enquiry to the BSFA about an approach from Cosmos Books (passed to me by Lizbeth). Read a few things for review, including McCaffrey's The Skies of Pern, Card's The Shadow of the Hegemon and a crap Star Wars novelization about which the less said the better. Most challenging read: proofs of John Clute's sf novel debut Appleseed, for which it definitely helps to have read the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, since large chunks of Appleseed are a kind of sf actualization of several intensely argued EoF themes: BONDAGE, FACE OF GLORY, KENOSIS, LIMINAL BEINGS, LITTLE BIG, MASKS, RECOGNITION, THRESHOLD ... and of course there's a socko SLINGSHOT ENDING. Oh, the vocabulary: sf 'tractor beams', 'parsecs' and 'nanoforges' jostle on the page with the high-flown 'azulejaria' (cautiously defined, along with 'mappemonde', in a prefatory Author's Note), 'flyte', 'herm', 'krewe', 'pleroma', 'tesserae', etc etc, plus more demotic terms like 'Okey dokey', 'pong', and 'spam'.

Movie Report: Yvonne Rousseau

For gloomy distraction – giving way to morbid curiosity, I've heroically been Looking Into the awful fate of Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding: both the film and the book of the film.

The Lindsay family, having turned down offers from Walt Disney and others, finally succumbed to Energee Entertainment, headed by siblings Carmel, Gerry and John Travers. The film director Karl Zwicky and the animation director Robbert Smit then worked with a series of writers – including Morris Gleitzman, Greg Haddrick, Harry Cripps and Simon Hopkinson. Carmel Travers was executive producer.

Geoffrey Rush supplies the voice for Bunyip Bluegum, Hugo Weaving speaks for Bill Barnacle, and Sam Neill (with an irritating whistle prefacing his sibilants) for Sam Sawnoff. John Cleese is the voice of the Pudding himself – Albert – and is splendid, though the script isn't. Objectionably, the poet Egbert Rumpus Bumpus is interpreted by disgraced-but-going-strong Sydney radio-talkback veteran John Laws (he who fails to see any harm in taking six-figure bribes from banking companies to change over to favourable observations about them in supposedly non-promotional news and comment: unjustly persecuted, he proclaims himself).

But Bumpus has changed character anyway. Instead of being consulted while at his valuable work ('Don't interrupt the poet, friend, / Until his poem's at an end'), he woffles of his own accord into Uncle Wattleberry's abode in order to ensure that Bunyip learns, upon the appropriate birthday, that his parents may even now be alive: they failed several years ago to return from a visit to the town of Tooraloo.

The characters and incidents of the original book are used chiefly as triggers for free association, thus reminding me of The Mrs Bradley Mysteries – strange 1999 BBC television adaptation of Gladys Mitchell's novels, which was seen in Australia from October to December 1999. In these, the names of Mrs Bradley and her chauffeur George have been retained, while Mrs Bradley's character (stylishly played by Diana Rigg in elegant between-the-two-World-Wars costumes) has avowedly been re-invented (about the only point of resemblance in their histories is Mrs Bradley's high reputation as detective and pathological psychologist). Instead of being a minor but impressively Jeeves-like enigma, her chauffeur has become both an ever-present Doctor Watson and a possible lust-interest for his employer. Episodes are given the names of actual novels – names of some characters and sites are used, as are some murder methods – but (in a typical example) the nature of an admirably progressive school is utterly altered (it now stars an apparently straitlaced but avidly prurient headmaster), and the plots and motivations are also altered, to accord with the scriptwriters' stereotypical notions of what people between the wars ought to have been preoccupied with, and how they ought to have behaved.

The film of The Magic Pudding begins with the shipwreck of the Saucy Soup Tureen. As Pudding-lovers will remember, Bill Barnacle sang of this ship's wrecking near 'Barbado' where Sam Sawnoff, employed as 'a foremast hand', miraculously rescued two passengers – the Earl of Buncle and the Earl's daughter, 'A maiding fit to be a Queen', whom Sam had fallen in love with at first sight, although 'the Hearl of Buncle, / The lovely maiding's Uncle, / Regarded him with scorn.'

In the film, the shipname and the name Buncle have been transferred to Antarctic regions. There (as Pudding-lovers know) the shipwreck of the Saucy Sausage was survived only by Bill Barnacle, Sam Sawnoff, and a cook known as Curry and Rice: the inventor of the Magic Pudding. From Norman Lindsay's illustrations, I have always supposed this cook to be Chinese. If so, he would have been colloquially designated 'a Celestial' (member of the Chinese or Celestial Empire).

In the film, the Antarctic wreck of the Saucy Soup Tureen has been survived only by Bill Barnacle, Sam Sawnoff and an evil wombat named Buncle. The Magic Pudding is thereupon created by celestial intervention (lightning descending from the heavens) – not by a Celestial. Greedy Buncle wishes to have the pudding all to himself, but he loses it when the ice he is standing on splits and he is washed away and supposedly drowned, leaving the Pudding to be shared by Bill and Sam. Thus, in the film there is no guilty shadow over the beginnings of the Noble Society of Puddin'-Owners: no call for Albert to remember, about his rightful owner's death: 'it's my belief that if he hadn't been so round you'd have never rolled him off the iceberg, for you was both singing out, "Yo heave Ho" for half-an-hour, an' him trying to hold on to Bill's beard.'

Unlike the original Albert, the film's Pudding is loyal to Bill and Sam. He assaults Bunyip Bluegum at their first meeting, accusing him of being a Puddin'-thief. Bill Barnacle accordingly measures Bunyip's height – much as, in the book's Third Slice, when resolutely indulging in 'terrible suspicions', he measures Finglebury Flying-fox to see whether he might be the Possum in disguise. However, the film gives no explanation of why Bill concludes that Bunyip is too short to be a Puddin'-thief.

The film's Possum pedals around on a penny-farthing bicycle attached to a sidecar (boatshaped, with mast and sail) with the wombat as passenger; they knock Bunyip down before he ever meets the Noble Society of Puddin'-Owners, and then crash into a shop kept by Benjimen Brandysnap (no longer a market-gardener or an important character). The thieves' disguise as firemen is retained – likewise, Bunyip's luring them out of Watkin Wombat's summer residence by the promise of a patent Pudding Enlarger. However, the film also has them disguising themselves once as French hot-dog chefs and once as a baby and its mother (the mother being the wombat, who is equipped with balloon-breasts which the Puddin'-owners deflate).

The new plot of Bunyip's quest for his parents involves a riddle, a frog to question, and an underwater psychic communion with Bunyip's mother. Meanwhile, Bunyip's parents are imprisoned in an underground cavern near the town of Tooraloo. They are enslaved, with a hundred other captured travellers, by the evil Buncle whose commands are enforced by a dominatrix bush-mouse named Ginger. Tooraloo itself is no longer the preserve of 'legal ferrets' feloniously wolfing down Puddin' and port. It merely stands in the path of water escaping from a burst dam, and is rescued by a ploy of the Puddin'-owners: Albert spoons out vast quantities of slices of himself which are used to fill sandbags to create embankments which preserve the town from the flood.

Despite their own greed, the Wombat and the Possum are actually being employed to obtain the Puddin' for Buncle, who requires enormous quantities of food. Suitable food supplies are now exhausted, so Buncle prepares to conquer his aversion to eating meat. Bunyip's parents (who nobly offered themselves in place of any of the other slaves) are accordingly about to be lowered into a cooking pot or on to a barbecue grill when Albert rushes in, followed by the Puddin'-owners. Cavernous Puddin'-eating ensues – the structure of the universe is threatened by Buncle's greed in wishing both to enlarge and to multiply the Puddin' – the consequent explosion blasts Buncle back to the Antarctic while the Puddin' lands once more at the feet of the Noble Society of Puddin'-Owners and proves (despite their initial misgivings) to be unharmed.

When the film's Pudding says 'Shut up and eat me' instead of 'Eat away, chew away, munch and bolt and guzzle, / Never leave the table till you're full up to the muzzle' – I reflect, regretfully, that the original Puddin' invitation has nowadays ceased to be shockingly subversive and is simply in the spirit of any television advertisement for fast food. Meanwhile, almost no trace of the rhyming speeches wrought by high emotion remains (no Puddin' song of lamentation, either): and it's actually a relief that the film attempts only one giving-way-to-despair song (using parts of 'It's worse than weevils, worse than warts, / It's worse than corns to bear. / It's worse than havin' several quarts / Of treacle in your hair'). On the other hand, the film's very own original songs include Bunyip's celebration of his departure from Uncle Wattleberry's whiskers, which ends: 'Don't hold me back / I'm on the track / Farewell to this / Hello to that / Bring on the fray / I'll be okay / It's a wonderful day.'

Scholastic Press of New South Wales has published The Magic Pudding: The book of the film (2000), as 'retold' by S.R. Martin. This is classified as a children's picture book, and omits many of the film's details – such as the popping of the Wombat's fake breasts. Its back-cover blurb ends with a disconcerting play upon Albert's 'cut-an'-come-again' character: 'Here is the story of the film together with full-colour illustrations, so that readers can read-and-come-again ... and again ... and again ...'

Mailing 96, January 2001

Andrew: Though I didn't stay long (shagged out from researches at the British Newspaper Library), I agree that the Rising Sun in Cloth Fair is a welcoming little pub, much better suited to BSFA meetings than the dread upstairs room of the Florence Nightingale. Must attend more often, now. • KVB: According to W.S. Baring-Gould's The Lure of the Limerick, 'There was an old man of St Bees' was written by W.S. Gilbert. • Chris H, Paul K: I forwarded the BSFA and Clarke lists to Alastair Reynolds, who replied: 'I don't know what the other shortlisted authors think, but at the moment, being about halfway through his book, I'm in total awe of Miéville and thinking of giving up this writing lark and leaving it to the experts ...!' • Gary: To be fair, the first (as far as I know) fanzine cover CD-ROM was done by the Plokta cabal for the issue which formed the programme book of plokta.con in May 2000. Maybe mine was the first for an APA, though. • Maureen: I kept being tempted to pirate Martin Rowson's 'Pantheon' cartoons in CC, but usually managed to resist. Now he's several weeks into a new Independent on Sunday sequence, 'The Abuses of Literacy', with cartoons and sub-Belloc verses depicting the appalling deaths of various literati. Unfortunately he refers to them by first name only and includes contemporary hacks, leaving me feeling a bit pig-ignorant. I spotted Kerouac ('JACK, acolyte of The Beat, / Got scoffed by bears 'til they, replete / [...] Ambled out to dump their load / Leaving poor JACK On The Road') and Iain Sinclair (Goreyesquely devoured by bookworms) but was mystified by novelist India (Private Eye has since mentioned an India Knight), literary award judge Valentine and vampire critic David (Aaronovitch?). Oh dear, I'm out of touch. • Hey, Hazel and I finally won a Spectator crossword competition after years of trying. Pure jam: the 'cryptic' overall title was 'Polygon?' and at once I jokily suggested that the many, many words without clues must come from the Dead Parrot Sketch. This proved to be the case, and we celebrated by opening an internet bank account to hold our colossal winnings. (Necessary because NatWest, where we have separate accounts, won't accept cheques made out to 'David and Hazel Langford' even if we both turn up laden with ID and willingness to sign things.) Well, well.