South Park Self

the groping and floundering condition

I'm not entirely sure why Bleak House is my favourite Dickens novel, but there it is. I think my fondness for Esther, the main character for about a third of it, is akin to my liking for Mansfield Park's Fanny Price: they're both quiet, apparently submissive female figures who seem to conform to the stereotypes imposed on them by their world, while actually having a great deal of internal strength, both of purpose and of belief. They're sneaky. By way of counterpoint Bleak House also has Lady Dedlock, quite one of the most compelling of literary women. We like Lady Dedlock. One of these days I'll actually get around to watching the BBC mini-series of Bleak House which features Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. And, of course, Bleak House's version of Chancery, and the great lumbering endless complexities of the famous case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, is a marvellous and terrifying satire.

It was a little bizarre, however, to find myself forcibly reminded of Bleak House, a Victorian version of English law, while spending five and a half hours in Wynberg Magistrate's Court on Wednesday. I was summoned for 9am to give evidence against the Extension Cord Con-Man. (Remember him?) I spent three hours waiting in court, watching various other cases drift past before they started ours, at which point they promptly sent all the witnesses outside. Then it was the lunch break and the magistrate buggered off. Finally at about 2.45 they hauled me into court to give approximately ten minutes of rather stunned-herring testimony, since by that stage I was exhausted and mazed and sore from sitting on the ridiculously hard wooden benches.

And I had Dickens flashbacks. This is a South African court engaged in Roman Dutch law, but its atmosphere of slow, smug, sleepy, self-contained self-importance is absolutely identical. Here are, as in Dickens, the lawyers "mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might." Our lawyers mumble rather than declaiming, but they do so in medieval robes, and they bow to the magistrate when they enter the court. "Well may the court be dim ... well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof..." In the three hours I watched they brought seven different malefactors before the magistrate, of which six were merely brandished in a ritualistic fashion before their cases were postponed. The public prosecutor had lost her notes for the one case which was actually heard, and was unable to sum up; she was sharply reprimanded by the magistrate, who was a forceful woman with a short way with inefficiency and patently absurd attempts to stall made by the defense lawyer in the Extension Cord case. There was a lot of inefficiency. It was very salutary. I hope I never have to set foot in the place again, it's too depressing to think that this self-satisfied, wholly inefficient and cumbersome system is what passes for justice in this country.

Of course, matters were not improved by receiving the phone call, while pacing the corridor outside the courtroom, from the alarm company people to say we'd been burgled. Again. Through the front door this time. The burglars were clearly interrupted by the alarm and took only the EL's computer, my monitor, the TV and the EL's leather jacket, and they left a beautiful thumb-print on his bedroom cupboard. But it all seems rather ironic, suggesting that crime will not be brought to justice on approximately all fronts. Phooey.