AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - A WEIRD MOB
A Weird Mob
a Weird Mob leapt out of
Australian bookstores from November 1957. By Christmas, the first
edition of 6,000 had sold out. Five reprints followed before the end of
February. Before 1981, A Weird Mob
had sold half-a-million, making it Australia’s best-selling novel.
Its author was “Nino Cullota”, which
proved to be the pen-name for Australian-born John O’Grady (1907-81).
“Nino Cullota” could be translated as “Little Fatarse”. Publisher Sam Ure Smith “exposed” the author’s
identity as part of the marketing.
With little formal schooling, O’Grady
began publishing stories in the late 1930s. As an erstwhile builder’s
labourer, he dedicated A Weird Mob
“to all Australians who work with their hands, in gratitude for their
very real contributions to my education.”
Australia’s largest publisher, Angus
& Robertson, had rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it had
too much to say about “damp courses, concrete foundations and other
aspects of the building trade.”
O’Grady was right about the
contribution of Southern Europeans to the construction industry.
Labouring offered unskilled, often illiterate immigrants the chance of
work. In the late 19th century, they had spread terrazzo.
From the 1950s, cementista
supplied more concrete than coffee to the remaking of Australia.
During the first ten years of post-war
immigration, the number of Italian-born in Australia rose fivefold to
180,000. Nino was unusual. A journalist, proficient in English, he
arrives in 1952 to report on how Italian newcomers were faring. That was
a bad year for them because of the credit squeeze. Had Nino been an
assisted immigrant, he might have ended up unemployed in the Bonegilla
camp, outside Albury, in time for the July riots. Instead, he worked for
spec builders around Sydney.
A communist organiser with the NSW
Builders’ Labourers’ Federation welcomed A Weird Mob for teaching “that the Australian and the New
Australian can easily get together for their mutual benefit if they are
prepared to try and understand one another and if the newcomer will show
readiness to adopt the Australian way of life and, in fact, become an
Australian.” Nowadays, McGill’s hopes sound patronising, putting
most of the responsibility for assimilation onto the immigrants.
Many Anglo-Celts suspected that
“dagoes” were not quite white. Yet, the most prejudiced person in
the story is Nino. He despises Italians from the South, the Meridionali,
with their knives. He fights them with his fists, but goes to the
defence of their women. Nino’s bias is a reminder that some of the
most bigoted chauvinists are still in ethnic minorities, immured against
O’Grady aimed his jibe of “Weird
Mob” at the Old Australians more than at the newcomers. He thought it
weird that so many blokes chose not to speak properly for fear of being
thought dills. Nonetheless, the Old Australians welcomed a foreigner who
did not have to be told to “Speak English, why don’tcha”.
Weird Mob appeared just after the vernacular had triumphed on stage
in Ray Lawler’s Summer of the
Seventeenth Doll in 1955. O’Grady’s prose lacked the vibrancy of
The Doll’s colloquialisms,
as in “Getting a sea breeze off the gutter”. Nor did A
Mob aspire to the lexical wit of Let
Stalk Strine in 1964 from “Professor Affabeck Lauder” (A. A.
Morrison), resplendent in his “gloria soame”. Instead, A
Weird Mob was slanguage-based. “Mate” or “matey” appears on
an average of once for each of its 200 pages, on top of a chorus of
O’Grady confirmed prejudices about the
workers’ twang - “ut” for “it” - at a time when proper people
said they voted for Mr Menzies because he spoke so “naicely”. That
class divide has dissolved. The ABC would not have allowed many of its
current presenters to go to air in 1957. Australian English now has a
few Italian inflections.
Mob’s popularity came from its reflecting back the amiable aspects
of Fifties Australia. Like one quarter of the population, Nino built his
own house at weekends. The story lauded the U-beaut country, where the
outsider can marry a contractor’s daughter, becoming a boss himself.
The cultural divide appears as little more than learning to cook and eat
spaghetti which has not plopped out of a can.
O’Grady’s Australia has no Communist
menace, no Labor split, no sectarianism, and none of the “ugliness”
that architect Robin Boyd attacked in the suburbs being run up by Nino
and his mates. In short, Nino settled into the land of “No worries”.
Indeed, Nino steps outside his place in
the action across to his persona as reporter to reassure his
working-class readers that they have hearts of gold: “Strangely
profane and cynical and abusive, but basically such good men, delighting
in simple pleasures.” He continues, however, to be perplexed by the
gender divide in Australian life. How can men bear not to have women
Other writers presented tougher tales of
immigration. Also in 1957, playwright Richard Beynon in The
Shifting Heart portrayed an Italian family in Collingwood, whose
teenage son is kicked to death at the local dance hall.
A 1962 Greek-language play by Theo
Patrikareas depicted the bleak life of single men in an inner-Sydney
boarding house. One resident suffers a nervous breakdown. A 35-year old
character reflects: “If I knew English when I arrived, I would be
something better than the builder’s labourer that I’m now.”
O’Grady churned out seventeen more
books, starting in June 1960 with a sequel, Cop this lot, in which Nino escorts his Australian mates to Italy.
Their wives travel separately. The tone is different, as if O’Grady
felt game to toss in more swearing. Even trade unions got a friendly
mention. Yet, the plot conformed to the armchair tourism that sold well
in the days before mass travel.
A third Nino title, Gone
Fishin’ (1962), came closer to hard truths. Nino has returned to
find the building industry slumped from another credit squeeze. When he
overworks to make ends meet, he breaks down. That outcome was typical of
an industry where few labourers lasted ten years.
As Nino wore himself out, his story found
fresh life as a feature film, itself a minor miracle in the Australia of
those days. A few months after the publication of A
Weird Mob, the founder-editor of the fortnightly magazine, Nation,
Tom Fitzgerald, reflected that “a locally made film takes some story
as the excuse for an observant romp over familiar streets. The workaday
world is integrated with the world of one’s imagination. It is
disastrously not so in Australia. The daydreams we get from celluloid
are not Australian daydreams.”
The situation got worse. Between 1955 and
1960, one Australian-themed feature had been released each year. Then,
there was nothing until A Weird
Mob in 1966 with a Italian star, Walter Chiari, opposite Claire
Dunn, with cameos from Chips Rafferty, John Meillon and Graham Kennedy.
Despite thin characterisation and limp
dialogue, the movie enjoyed record-breaking seasons. It gave Sydneyites
their first chance to see their contemporary selves in colour on a big
As a result, the movie made a $3m profit,
of which the distributors took $2.5m. Nothing went back into film
projects here. The producers did not recoup their costs until 1974. One
of them remarked that the financial arrangement brought “a very poor
return for the grower of the vegetable.” Box-office success and the
creative drought spurred on the locals who wanted their own industry.
They lobbied the Federal government into setting up the Australian Film
Development Corporation in 1970.
Today, both novel and film can seem
little more than curiosities. Yet, they offer a place from which to
ponder the recasting of our daydreams, and nightmares.