A Weird Mob

They’re 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 multi-culturalism.

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”.

A 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 “Howyergoin’mate orright?”.

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.

A 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 around them?

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 screen.

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.

Age, November 2007