Monday, August 23, 2010

or, as I heard it called by street-patterers, "sing-song"

I sat down at the computer on Saturday evening, thinking that I was going to write about Dune, but then I made the mistake of checking twitter for news of the election, and for hours after that I was a lab rat with a lever. Press, press, press, I went. Pellets? No pellets. In place of pellets I got the news that Steve Fielding was out of a job, Adam Bandt was in one, and the seat of Longman in Queensland had fallen to Draco Malfoy, ho, ho, and ha.* Wyatt Roy jokes went on for hours, and then eventually came jokes about hung parliaments, and the news that a Family First representative named Daniel Emmerson had called the Greens "filth," and then gloating over the removal of Wilson Tuckey, who has been -- had been -- in politics for more years than I've been alive. Someone compared him to a couch.

aplund RT @madeinmelbourne: Sky News "Wilson Tuckey is a part of the furniture of parliament". Yeah, unfortunately we need a representative member, not a weird couch. 1 minute ago via Seesmic

Who came up with that? Who started it? The social media moved at such speed that not only the hung parliament jokes but the backlash against the hung parliament jokes was in place before midnight.

djlukeleal I think it's time to call a moratorium on the hung parliament jokes. #fb 4 minutes ago via Twitter for iPhone

By Sunday morning the diversity had more or less settled down (evolving and refining itself and discarding the unhandy freaks and sports, as nature is assumed to do in search of perfect finches) to a single example that was still being retweeted hours later on Sunday night.

Johan_Vonshag RT @tynanbryant: RT @oldspice Hello Australia. Look at your Parliament, now back at me. Sadly, it isn't me, but it is hung like me. #ausvotes 2 minutes ago via TweetDeck

Kiel RT @calebo: Hello Australia. Look at your Parliament, now back at me. Sadly, it isn't me, but it is hung like me. #oldspice #ausvotes 1 minute ago via Itsy!

danjohnwatson RT @_mesmeri: RT @oldspice Hello Australia. Look at your Parliament, now back at me. Sadly, it isn't me, but it is hung like me. #ausvotes 4 minutes ago via web

And so on. "Our brains must love tools," I thought as I was turning that trend over in my mind, "and they will make a tool out of anything. The Old Spice commercial is ... it's a modern version of the sticks and stones that people used to sharpen and shape so that they could be used as weapons, or to dig -- to attack the world, in fact, or to alter it, or to speak to it, however you want to word the idea -- this everlasting and perpetual search for intermediaries, this unexhausted search, going on and on -- what energy we have. What fantastic energy." Dickens, who was so famous for energy that he killed himself with exercise, had an eye for these magpie borrowings and cross-pollinations. He was a borrower himself, and he noticed other people borrowing. When Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop realises with horror that the shadow she sees creep into her room at night has the form of her grandfather and he is there to rob her, the author echoes Macbeth's reaction to the apparition of Banquo at the banquet: "The time had been / That when the brains were out, the man would die / And there an end."

She sat and listened. Hark! A footstep on the stairs, and now the door was slowly opening. It was but imagination, yet imagination had all the terrors of reality; nay, it was worse, for the reality would have come and gone, and there an end, but in imagination it was always coming and never went away.

There's nothing obtrusive about this, and nothing studied. It looks as if his brain, once it lit on the subject it was dealing with, quickly surrounded it, observed it from all angles, perceived the correlation with the play, and swept it up, absorbed it, and made it a natural part of the sentence. He incorporates Biblical phrases as well, and pieces of ballads, and proverbs, and of course one of the Old Curiosity Shop's characters is a magpie of a speaker. This is Dick Swiveller, who makes his conversation ornamental by patching it up with lines from popular songs, like a sort of human bower bird searching the forest for decorations. He advertises the songs, and the songs advertise him. It's a symbiotic relationship. Mrs Jarley, who runs a travelling wax-works, draws her promotional material from the same pool of songs, adapting the lyrics to suit her purpose.

... she brought forth specimens of the lesser fry in the shape of hand-bills, some of which were couched in the form of parodies on popular melodies, as 'Believe me if all Jarley's wax-works so rare ' -- 'I saw thy show in youthful prime' -- 'Over the water to Jarley;' while, to consult all tastes, others were composed with a view to the lighter and more facetious spirits, as a parody on the favourite air of 'If I had a donkey'

Dickens delights in this; he writes like a man who loves Mrs Jarley's inventiveness. The popular songs themselves, in unJarlified form, were treated like merchandise by London's street-sellers, and sold in three-yard lengths, as Henry Mayhew recorded.

The paper songs, as they fluttered from a pole, looked at a little distance like huge much-soiled white ribbons, used as streamers to celebrate some auspicious news. The cry of one man, in a sort of recitative, or, as I heard it called by street-patterers, "sing-song," was, "Three yards a penny! Three yards a penny! Beautiful songs! Newest songs! Popular Songs! Three yards a penny! Song, song, songs!"

The traders could be particular, noticed Mayhew. They had standards, or said they did. "Indecent songs are not sold by the pinners-up. One man of whom I made inquiries was quite indignant that I should even think it necessary to ask such questions." This is something I've noticed in Dickens as well, the people who distinguish themselves by insisting on some slight thing that marks them out, and who cling to this difference. It is their bit of power, such small self-appointed power (the author often sounds amused when he records it), although a character who has some other kind of power as well can use their particularity cruelly. Particularity itself is a tool. It costs nothing. Anybody can wield it. A few pages on from Mrs Jarley and her ballads, I come across the bullying headmistress Miss Monflathers who uses the common property of popular recitation not to open her wares to people, as the wax-work woman does, but to enforce her power by setting up conditions under which the recitations may or may not be used. "'The little busy bee," she says, referring to Dr Watts' morality poem, "is applicable only to genteel children." Then she goes on to outline the poetry that should be applied to non-genteel children such as Nell, who is unlucky enough to be standing nearby. Mrs Jarley used her tool to draw people in, Miss Monflathers uses it to keep them out. Advertising becomes an expression of generosity.

* This ho ho and ha was inspired by the bus driver whose bus replaced the train I wanted to catch on Saturday morning. Two teenagers in the front seats were talking to him and he said, "It's going to be on again tomorra." [meaning buses replacing trains] "So remember that. OH SIGH."


  1. Loved this post of yours, Deane!
    Have you seen this one?

  2. I found a link to it yesterday. It's good, isn't it? Not only is it funny, but Hitler's got a point. "Treat the public with respect." Stop tearing the other party down like a pack of schoolkids. Etcetera. There's somebody over in the Washington Post who thinks this is a victory for the right (and getting very moist and thrilled, poor lamb, because he thinks the universe is sending his country a sign) but it seems to me that both major parties should be blushing in shame, left and right, because the electorate has taken them out the back into the carpark and slapped them.