This month I’m following David McLaughlin’s lead, and succumbing to the lure of the Text Australian Classics. There are times when I have a yen for an Australian flavoured yarn or two, and the Text series is a great (and cheap, and well designed, and well bound) way to satisfy that urge. (And for those of you with the reading tablet addiction, Gleebooks has the whole Text Classic range available for purchase in digital form).
So I’m on a sort of dig through the many faces and myths of the ‘lucky country’s’ inhabitants—each book coloured with the distinctive lingo of its era. And where better to start than the language divide between English and Strine? At the moment I’m deep in the masculine utopia of the Menzies era post-war building boom—the hard yakka, beer, good blokes and (occasional) sheilas of Nino Culotta’s (aka John O’Grady) They’re a Weird Mob. I first read this in my white bread early teens and thought it hilarious. On a re-reading many multicultural, post-colonial, post-feminist, post gay liberation, post-terra nullius years later the image of these diamond in the rough ‘owyergoin mate, orright?’ ozzies with their ‘he’s an Itie, but he’s ok’ riff have lost the shine of innocence, but still manage to keep their literary charm.
‘There are far too many New Australians in this country who are still mentally living in their homelands, who mix with people of their own nationality and try to retain their own language and customs. Who even try to persuade Australians to adopt their own customs and manners. Cut it out. There is no better way of life in the world than that of the Australian.’ Thus lectures Uncle Tom New Australian, Nino, at the fully assimilated end of his fish out of water tale. A blond northern Italian, Nino has always had the good fortune to be able to pass as an Australian (as long as he doesn’t open his mouth and speak proper English). Unlike his darker knife-wielding Southern ‘meridionali’ brothers—against whom Nino has his own ancient prejudices, aside from the newly minted one that they maintain their difference and refuse to fit quietly into their new surroundings to keep the ozzies happy and unchanging. Written by an Australian assuming the identity of an Italian who can pass for an Australian, the exhortation to cut out this outrageous insistence on keeping hold of any identity other than ozzie—god forbid you should attempt to infect the natives with any strange eating habits or formalities from the old country—the book could be a xenophobic diatribe. But in the historical context it reads as a completely unself-conscious picture of the contradictions that the multicultural project founders on in the face of an, in the case of the ‘Australian character’, supposedly benign national identity—you can be different as long as you’re just like us ... mate.
Equally unself-conscious is the portrait of a world where the sexes live in completely separate spheres. The men with their kegs, rollies, hunting and mateship, and those terrifying civilising straitjackets—the wives and the skirts with their afternoon teas, shirt and tie, and lawns to mow. I know who I wanted to be when I read it as a 10 year old female, and my position hasn’t changed. All this could possibly lead you to think I didn’t enjoy Weird Mob, but far from it—thought provoking to look back on, but also a bloody beaut read. Next cab off the Text Classic rank will be Fergus Hume’s 1886 novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. That’s if I don’t open up David’s recommendation Sydney Bridge Upside Down first—Kate de Goldi’s intro. is very inspiring. Winton