Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dinky Di

In Australia, we have an idea of ourselves as pretty wild, iconoclastic types. The word for the kind of person we like to imagine we are is 'larrikin' (the origin of that word is discussed in a fascinating contribution over at the Dabbler). I was thinking about this yesterday while I read a book that was published in 1912 and has brittle pages, which means you have to wear white gloves before you can look at it (it's kept in a research library).

I know the lady who gave me the book - that is, I don't know her name but she's dealt with me before and she knows I'm not a lunatic (good acting on my part, heh heh). You are supposed to read such material at a table very close to the desk where you are given it. As these tables were all crowded, I went and sat at a table still in view but further away and with lower chairs that had higher backs. Strictly speaking, I wasn't completely visible, but, on the other hand, the lady had my name, address and telephone number, so she would know where to find me if the material vanished while in my care.

Anyway, I was reading away happily, undisturbed, and after about half an hour I saw the lady who'd given me the book walk past and go out the door. She glanced in my direction and gave me a nod. I realised later that she must have been leaving at the end of her shift. A couple of minutes later, I became aware of a figure hovering nearby, in the manner of one of those insects that are so annoying in Scotland - midges?

A second after this, the midge addressed me: 'With those materials you have to sit at one of the tables over there', it said. I looked up at the midge. It was a middle-aged bearded midge with receding hair - what was left of it somewhat greasy and curling over the collar. It was wearing ill-cut grubby brown trousers, trainers and an off white shirt, adorned with a lanyard from which hung a perfect reproduction of its pasty face (in other words, it was a specimen of a fairly common Canberra type).

I looked over at the tables, which were still very crowded. 'I am wearing the gloves,' I said. 'With those materials you have to sit where I can see you,' the midge told me. 'I haven't got a pen or scissors in my hand, I'm not going to suddenly rip the book up in a frenzy or eat it.' 'I'm following procedures,' the midge said. I may have muttered the word 'officious' as I gathered up my stuff and moved towards one of the tables, or even let slip something about the same excuse being used at a certain time in history in Germany. I regret that – especially as the midge wasn't listening.

Needless to say, there was still no room at the tables and so I packed up my stuff and left. And as I seethed my way home, I started thinking about what had become of our famous larrikin spirit and how we can go about priding ourselves on being easygoing and relaxed and unstuffy, when, at odd and perplexing moments, those qualities disappear. Somehow the convict spirit of scoffing at authority, of using your judgment and bending the rules in favour of practicality and sanity, of exercising discretion and waving a mild but perfectly harmless alteration through - all that vanishes and we find ourselves up against a genuine homegrown Australian jobs-worth; isolated and astonished, our wild-colonial-boy, happy-go-lucky spirit comes face to face with a genuine 'just following orders' git.

Where do they come from, such people - my midge friend and his ilk? I suppose it's obvious really – they've been here all along. Although their forebears were never as numerous as the convict settlers, they arrived on the First Fleet too. There had to be someone to wield the whip and bark the orders – and even prison guards have children. Sadly.

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