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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

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?”

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