‘I loved growing up in the ’50s and ’60s with my non-Australian friends’

Feb 12, 2019
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Greek immigrants to Australia attend English language lessons at the Bonnegilla Reception Centre near Alderbury, Victoria. Source: Getty Images

A great number of us in Australia have European names and origins because, as a nation, we embarked upon what I deem an essential immigration process after World War II. A burgeoning, developing land, we were in desperate need of population to take us where we needed to go and to develop a workforce that would provide us with what we had lacked until that time, a manufacturing industry. Until then, Australia had, literally, ridden on the sheep’s back.

Many thousands came to us from every country of war-ravaged Europe. A great number were DPs – Displaced Persons – who’d lost not only home and family through war, but country of origin as well. It was an amazing time for me because, as a young man, I grew up with Poles, Dutch, Lithuanians, Greeks, Germans, French, Jugoslavs, Italians; you name a country, I had a friend who came from there.

Australia is (or at least, before political correctness, was) a country of jokers. Because of this one of the most difficult things for our newcomers to learn was not necessarily how to speak English, rather understanding the all too often confusing Australian adaptation of the ‘Mother Tongue’. We leant heavily on the Cockney, but took it even further. Australian English is a language with an enormous plethora of subtleties and nuances. Many of us who were born to it don’t always understand it too well and it was made even worse for the newcomers by our own added twists and turns, making our language almost a dialect, which created difficulties for our ‘New Australian’ friends.

As an example:

An aunt, widowed during World War II, became engaged to an ex-Polish Air Force Spitfire pilot. She brought him home to meet the family about 1950. It was summer time and we were standing outside having a barbie and a beer. Szcsepan (Steven) swung his hand and squashed a mozzie on his arm. He proclaimed, loud and clear – and in an almost perfect Australian rendition – “Gotcha, ya bastard!” The poor bugger (and there I go!) didn’t understand the difference between Aussie idioms and polite speech when in mixed company.

Cockney-style rhyming slang was also common – and another catch for the newcomer. My sister was keen on a Greek lad. We were all seated in our lounge, his visiting family and ours, about to do justice to a dinner over which Mum had slaved for a number of hours. One of our number was missing as Dad prepared to propose a toast. He asked, “Where’s David?” and Vasilis replied: “He go for a hard hit…!”

That actually brought the house down!

I’ll divert for a moment and slip in an ancient joke that dates back to those times. It’s ‘on’ the Italians. My lifelong mate Joe – Giuseppe – and I cried into our wine laughing about it only last week.

Gino and Mario arrived on a migrant ship. On their first day here, they went to St Kilda pier and ordered a hot dog each. Sitting in the sun, Mario opened the paper bag containing his snack. He took one look, quickly closed the bag and said: “Eh, Gino, what-a part of the dog did-a you get…?!”

That little story does little to explain where I’m coming from, other than maintain a touch of pertinent humour in the article. As a people, we always had a good outlook; certainly, because we had a great capacity to take a serious dig at ourselves, we could also laugh at others.

At this point, finally, They’re A Weird Mob enters the picture. It was written by the brilliant John O’Grady in the 1950s. The book featured an immigrant, Nino Culotta, a journalist who came to Sydney to write for an Italian publishing house. He was to produce articles about the Australian way of life for consumption in Italy, the thought being to enhance Italian migration. The publishing house had gone broke prior to his arrival and the would-be journalist, instead of hacking away at a typewriter, ended up a brickie’s labourer.

Nino arrived with a reasonable grasp of ‘proper’ English. The humour of O’Grady’s writing devolves upon Nino’s difficulty in understanding how Australians – especially good, honest, hardworking folk – used the language. Nino had trouble with our twisted pronunciations, not to mention meanings that are all too often different to those found in the Oxford Dictionary.

The book was a humorous work with many a laugh and, perhaps, at times, even a touch of discomfiture at how we so often treated our newcomers. It was a tongue-in-cheek social commentary that poked fun, not so much at Nino and all those who found us hard to get to know, but at our existing society.

Sixty-two years ago, They’re A Weird Mob was actually a satire on the immigrant country we already were – but failed to acknowledge. Sadly, there are probably a few among us who still don’t get the point…

Do you remember reading They’re A Weird Mob? Did you grow up with people who had come from another country? Did you enjoy their exotic names and ways?

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