Hands up any of you who have read They’re a Weird Mob by Nino Culotta, or seen the film. Not many young folks in that sample. Yet in its heyday it was the biggest selling Australian novel in history. It was first published in 1957 and Nino Culotta was quickly revealed to be the pen-name of John O’Grady.
I have just re-read it and it is a fabulously funny book, a brilliant satire of Australian slang, pronunciation and social mores. Like much satire, it is more an affirmation than a criticism. It delights in what it laughs at.
However, I am almost fearful of revealing that I possess a copy. For the novel contravenes a huge swag of today’s social prohibitions. Actually, this adds to its value as a historical document, for the Australia it lovingly describes, of barely 60 years ago, is now totally gone, though echoes of it persist.
Take cultural appropriation for a start. O’Grady was an Australian of Irish heritage. Yet the book is ostensibly a first-person account by an Italian migrant in Sydney. It celebrates the high point of the ideal of assimilation. Culotta, speaking as an Italian migrant, scolds those Italian parents whom he hears talking to their children in their native language.
Yet the book is also full of sympathy for the migrant experience and makes brilliant comedy of the difficulty of any foreigner coming to grips with Australian slang.
For example, one of Nino’s friends says of his son: “Cut ’is fingers orf before you make a brickie out of ’ im.” Nino points out that if a migrant spoke correct English and could actually make out the words, he would think it an instruction to cut the boy’s fingers off, then make him a bricklayer, a brickie. In fact, it means that even cutting his fingers off would be better than letting him become a brickie.
And yet there is an even further irony. The man making the statement is himself a happy brickie, as is Nino.
The book is also an unabashed celebration of an admittedly very benign version of heavydrinking Aussie male mateship. For example, O’Grady/Culotta writes: “And when somebody says to you, ‘ Yer know wot yer c’n do yer bastard’, and you say, ‘Yeah an’ you know wot you c’n do’, and he says to the barmaid, ‘Give us another one fer this drongo’ you know that you have been accepted, and will soon be an Australian and your troubles will be over.”
This was a remarkably unapologetic cultural high point of positively celebrating excessive drinking. Similarly, the relations between the sexes as presented in They’re a Weird Mob are unimaginable today. There is no suggestion that any man in the novel, which is light and humorous and good-hearted, would engage in domestic violence, and Culotta himself practises an admirable old-world gallantry, but there are virtual jokes about domestic violence: “He’ll break your neck if you don’t marry him.”
And while all the men treat all the women in the novel well, the way they talk about women, though not remotely hateful, would be absolutely unacceptable today. But there is a huge gap — and this once was a key Australian reality — in the way the men speak among men, and the way they speak in mixed company.
All the men are carpenters, bricklayers or builders and the New Australian is astonished at the fluency and vividness of their private conversation, in contrast to the tongue-tied inarticulacy they exhibit if asked to make a speech.
And yet, wholly realistically, Nino at work discusses with one mate the meaning of life and the nature of God. Nino meets the girl he will marry at Manly and she allows him to walk her as far as church, where she is going to benediction. Only the oldest Catholics today would even remember what benediction is — the adoration of the consecrated host, the eucharist.
They’re a Weird Mob certainly presents an idealised version of a long past Australia. It’s worth reading not only for its wit and hilarity but because it shows that even things we have rightly discarded from that era had their benign version as well.
Nino Culotta believes he’ll know he’s in heaven when he hears God say: “Howyergoin’mate orright?”