Sunday, October 13, 2013

the right of precedence

The Broad Arrow starts with the same kind of "Oh!" that she uses in the poems; the first word is "Oh!" -- "Oh! let the merry bells ring round" -- summoning your attention, she tells you look, see, listen to "the clank of the felon's chain," pay attention to these ideas that she will propose -- "Does not the sight of the plumed hearse fill the breast with solemnity? ... Do not the voice of laughter and the song of thoughtlessness involuntarily cease, or drop to softer tones, when the toll of the death-bell meets the ear?" The speech is melodrama. Everybody is so anguished they're posing. "Ay! he will break some other heart when mine is sinking far away," bursts forth Maida, rattling her irons in a cell. "He never loved me!" ("Bursts forth," Leakey wrote, once upon a time. Little image of a pen shitting like a horse as it passes by.)

Maida receives her sentence and goes away on her convict ship. Then the author sends a family of not-prisoners to Tasmania. They are attached to the prison ministry in Hobart. Like magic the Oh-language dissipates. She still likes to address the audience sometimes, but the moans have become passé. "Does not the sight -- Do not the voice --" she doesn't want to shotgun you with those phrases any more. The impulse has left. She slows down, she makes a survey, and if she was thinking of stage performances for the first part of her story then she might be recalling an actual memory now; a young woman like herself arrives in Tasmania naively: the purpose of the writing changes, it still presents you with cruelties and inequalities and innocent people bullied, but it goes into the social nuances among the convicts.

In leaving the room Tammy punctiliously observed the right of precedence. With a circular jerk of her elbow she edged Diprose back and herself forward: it was not to be thought of, that a new expiree should walk before her, who was almost due for her ticket.

Tammy and Diprose are incidental characters; the point is not them, it's the noting of the nuance. The author is making fun of them but the comedy is the vehicle for the nuance. And the tone of the paragraph is modified as it goes, starting with the tongue-in-cheek over-explaining voice, "punctiliously observed ..." (she wants you to credit her with a sense of humour) and getting into the language of the convicts themselves: watch yourself mate, I'm due for me ticket -- going there through that moment of formal humour, which you could see as a softening agent -- humour loosening the grip of the literary language and making a loophole through which the slang could enter.

"Due" is the giveaway: it is a very subtle change of language into greed and expectation, and it is the language people still use: I'm due for a beer, I'm due for a smoke, there are still voices saying those words though voices do not say "punctiliously observed," or not often, not where I can hear them.

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