Sunday, September 29, 2013

the combined rattle of the many hundred irons

Port Arthur in both of those books is a degrading place -- this is the authors' point of view, which is not the point of view of the woman in Hoe, who saw Port Arthur un-degrading the degraded criminals: "you have only to look at the numbers of them who came on and did well for themselves to realise that it was not so bad after all" -- but in Leakey and Clarke it degrades the convicts and it degrades the people who have been sent to guard or look after the convicts; an ordinary church service in Leakey gets polluted by by a "tremendous" "rush of chains."

The hum of the responses blended with the occasional clank of fetters, or every now and then was wholly drowned in the combined rattle of the many hundred irons. Bridget no longer wondered that Mr. Herbert felt the impropriety of the service, it was a pain to hear it even.

This is how Leakey works her degradation, everyday scenes are polluted and electrified, Bridget opens her window to see the morning sunshine and instead she sees a swarm of prisoners who are being forced out of bed by a bell.

And that way of doing things is introduced in the first chapter, before the story has found its way to Tasmania, when it is still in England: "Why do they let those happy bells ring?" -- when criminals are preparing to be sentenced, bells ringing for the assizes and bells also ringing from the church of St Judas, "The bells from St. Judas are made to outswell the prison bell," (suggestion of dishonesty and denial from St Judas). A ball is coming up. "Placards announce a ball -- and the newspapers hint that this ball is to be a nonpareil." "It is the festival of the assizes! and the ball the 'Assize Ball'!" "Carriages throng the thoroughfare, and from the carriages fashion and beauty gaze placidly on the crowd."

The shape of that dichotomy staying the same as the book goes on but the scale changing, the contrast becoming more domesticated, no longer a person in chains ("sorrow, punishment, death") versus an expensive ballgoer "as elegant in person and deportment as in attire" but instead an ordinary woman opening a window expecting to see the sun. Degradation appears with a bell, this borderland between brightness and darkness is a bell'd borderland, as in those old books-on-tape for children that told you to "turn the page when you hear the chimes ring, like this," so you do, and a shadow swings back over the page you have finished until it is buried, and like the underworld on Mayan artifacts it is painted black, along with foreigners and dead kings, populated also with anthropomorphic singing deer in some cases, ditto again the underworld of the Mayans.

"Oh! let the merry bells ring round," she writes, followed by the assizes. Personally I do not often hear bells, this apartment having no doorbell, and telephones make music instead of ringing, and there are no schools nearby, I never ring for a servant as these characters do (what would that be like, and did you worry before they came?); nobody rings bells at me, though a car in the carpark outside has been running its engine, wum wum wum for the past quarter of an hour like a wobbleboard, and so I hate abrading noises as she seems to do: she itches at the stabbing bell, the chains in the church, the sound that enters like a disease, a sound or a sight enters Caroline Leakey, it is recognised as an invasive presence, the world is ready to be warm and then the corruption arrives, the book reacts violently, the characters twitch back, "Bridget hastily closed the shutters" -- why does this have to be?

There could be a ball and nothing but the ball. Instead there are prisoners and grief as well as the ball.

As if life is constant shocks and imperfection is a horror and a sadness for Caroline Leakey.

The Mayan point of view (anciently, I don't know about today) was not like this, so a somewhat-expert told me last week, explaining that the Mayans were fascinated by the presentation of opposites: the dark and the light, she said, day and night, life and death together on the same pot.

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