A Wei.rd Mob

Barry York contemplates
how multiculturalism has
changed the immigration
dialogue since John
O'Grady's amusing and
influential book was first
published in the 1950s

             orethan 40 years after its
           publication by Ure Smith,
           John O'Grady's         book
They're a Weird Mob remains a minor
classic of Australian literature.
Written under the pseudonym of
Nino Culotta, the book tells the
fictional autobiographical story of a
newly-arrived Italian in Sydney, his
reactions to the Australian way of life       The novel is sympathetic toward            Definitely weird! John O'Grady
and speech, and the reactions of           its characters     and essentially            seems to be indicating that
Australians to him as a foreigner.         assimilationist in its point of view.         his book, Gone Troppo,
                                                                                         is in print but out of favour
   Language plays a key part in the        The moral of the story comes at the
plot as, before deciding to settle here,   conclusion when Nino declares:
Nino is a journalist working on a                                                        book's most recent appearance was in
report about Australia for an Italian        There are far too many New                  1991, when it was published in John
newspaper. He is completely tossed           Australians in this country who are still   O'Grady Classics, along with Gone
by the Australian idiom, even though         mentally living in their homeland, who      Fishin ; Aussie English and Aussie Etiket.
he has a good grasp of English.              mix with people of their own                  The book was enormously popular
Much of the humour centres                   nationality, and even try to persuade       and sold 300 000 copies in its first
on     misunderstandings           and       Australians to adopt their customs and      three years. This could be explained
colloquialisms. An edition of Weird          manners. Cut it out. There's no better      in terms of levels of prejudice in
Mob, published in England in 1958,           way of life in the world than that of       Australian society were it not for the
required the inclusion of a three-page       Australia.                                  fact that it was popular with migrants
glossary of terms. Ther~ are 89 words                                                    as well as the Australian born. At my
in all, including 'chook' as 'an             The National Library holds several          parents'     home in Brunswick,
uncomplimentary term for a woman,          editions of They're a Weird Mob but by        Melbourne, it was among the most
used especially fO.rolder women'. The      no means all of them. This is                 dog-eared books on our shelves. My
poor English readers were probably as      understandable, given that in 1981 it         Maltese father loved its wit and
bewildered       as Nino      himself.     entered its forty-seventh imprint. The        identified     with many of the
bewilderments faced by Nino. But it       policy that was unthinkable back           which, she maintained, 'the migrant
does not quite work today because         in 1960. Racial criterion            was   experience is presented as a simple act
Australia has matured beyond the          removed from immigration selection         of removing the clothes of the old
period described so humorously and        procedures and toward the end of the       worlds and replacing them with the
charmingly in the book. Australian        1970s there was an unprecedented           singlets and stubbies         of new
literature has also advanced to the       intake of people from Asia. The            Australia'. Nino would not have been
point where overseas-born Australians     singular portrayal of being Australian     accepted by his Australian workmates
are writing       about their own         that was so strongly expressed in          had he not been so completely willing
experiences and there is no longer any     Weird Mob no longer tallies with          to renounce his cultural heritage and
need for the gap in literature to be      demographic reality; indeed, even in       identity as an Italian.
filled by an impostor.                    the idiom used, the book stands as a          The Library holds a copy of the
   John Patrick O'Grady was born in       period piece. The glossary of              1966 film version of Weird Mob and a
Sydney in 1907. He qualified as a         Australian terms that was essential for    rare black-and-white documentary
pharmacist and held a number of jobs      the London edition in 1958 would           about the making of the movie that
between 1929 and 1958. From 1942          not go astray in Australia itself today.   can be borrowed through Cinemedia
to 1950, he served with the Army             In the early        1980s,      with    in Melbourne. The feature film is part
Medical Service and from 1956 to          multiculturalism-the     celebration of    of a double-videocassette     package
 1958 worked in Samoa as a teacher of     diversity-rather    than assimilation      tided Australian Cinema: Mainstream
pharmacy for the New Zealand              the official approach to migrant           Multiculturalism. The package also
Government. Weird Mob was, as he          settlement, O'Grady's book was             contains episodes of the television
explained to Hazel de Berg when she       reviewed from a new perspective. In        series, Acropolis Now! which was
interviewed him for the Library's Oral    her contribution      to Writing in
History Collection in 1960, 'started                                                 First page of typescript
                                          Multicultural     Australia      (North
                                                                                     (with author corrections) for
in New Zealand and finished in            Sydney: Australia Council for the
                                                                                     Your Shout, Mate
Samoa'. O'Grady believed that 'if         Literature Board, 1985), Janis Wilton      by John O'Grady
you're away from the scene', you end      attacked the 'Culotta syndrome' in         From the Manuscript Collection MS8046
up with 'a better perspective'. He
said, 'I could, through my memory,
recapture     the scenes and the
atmosphere and mentally remember
the peculiar pungent Australian
dialogue, because I wasn't hearing any
of it where I was living'.
   The success of Weird Mob allowed
him to become a fulltime writer and,
in all, he had 18 books published,
mostly humorous novels. In 1977,
Ure Smith published the first volume
of O'Grady's autobiography, There
 Was a Kid, which focused on his
childhood in the New England
district of New South Wales. He died
in 1981, without completing the
additional instalments.
   O'Grady was aware that he was
writing at a turning-point          in
Australia's social development. In the
interview with Hazel de Berg, he said:
'We are now in a position, the same
position that America was in some
years ago, when America first started
its major immigration policy, and our
way of life will change and change
rapidly, and the old Australians like
myself will be a thing of the past ....
Possibly if we lived another 50 years
we wouldn't know ourselves.'
   Unfortunately, O'Grady only lived
another 21 years. In that time, he saw
a shift in Australian immigration
                                                                                    (left) Carl Lock
                                                                                    Portrait of John O'Grady 1975
                                                                                    oil on masonite; 92 x 68.5 em
                                                                                    From the Pictorial Collection

                                                                                    (above) Cover of the 1981 edition
                                                                                    (47th impression) of They're a Weird
                                                                                    Mob: A Novel, by Nino Culotta
                                                                                    (Sydney: Lansdowne Press)

                                                                                    (opposite) Cover of a promotional
                                                                                    brochure for the film
                                                                                    They're a Weird Mob,
                                                                                    made in 1966

                                                                                    Collection     at MS8046. These
produced 20 years later and which       worked extremely hard on their              comprise 98 folders and two boxes of
presented non-Anglo ethniciry in an     behalf, usually in jobs shunned by          photographs and include family and
entirely different, assertive and       established Australians.                    general correspondence, diaries and
defiantly proud, light.                    Weird Mob and Acropolis Now! may         notebooks, handwritten and typed
   Acropolis Now! could not have been   be viewed as complementary rather           literary manuscripts      and press
written in the late 1950s or even the   than contradictory. Seen as a serial,       cuttings. Among the papers are the
1960s. Its characters-young Greek       both point to the successful evolution      presumed first draft of Weird Mob,
Australians-are proud to be 'wogs'.     of multiculturalism. Weird Mob serves       handwritten in a minute book, a
They are here to stay-not as polite     to remind us that assimilation had          chapter that was deleted from the
guests of the dominant ethnic group,    noble intentions; it was genuinely          book, and a draft screen play
but on their own terms. If you don't    believed that newcomers would do            treatment. Additional work on his
like them, it doesn't matter because    better in Australia if they changed their   autobiography is also found among
they've done well and they feel good    ways and became like everyone else.         the papers: There Was a Student was
about themselves.                       Generally speaking, the old Australians     to be the second volume, and another
   It would be easy to say that Weird   came to accept the new and the new          section was titled There Was a Ship.
Mob and Acropolis Now! stand at         came to accept the ways of the old.            A detailed description of the
opposite ends in any consideration of   Over time, however, it became clear         O'Grady papers is available on the
immigration        and    settlement.   that people could not just drop their       National Library's Manuscript finding
However, such a view would overlook     cultural heritage. Multiculturalism saw     aids page at http://www.nla.gov.au/
the vital fact that th<: young Greek    value in difference. And Australia          ms/findaids/
Australians in Acropolis Now! are the   moved forward.                                 The other special collection,
children of the Nino Culottas of the       In addition to the recording held in     Pictorial, holds a 1975 oil portrait of
earlier generation. They are the        the Oral History Collection, the            O'Grady by Carl Lock. In the Music
second generation, deriving the         Library also holds John O'Grady's           Collection I found a score titled
benefits of immigrant parents who       personal papers in the Manuscript            They're a Weird Mob, written for
piano and vocals by George Dasey
and arranged by Graeme Bell. I
should also mention that the book
has been published in braille and as
an audio book.
   In addition to the edition published
in London in 1958, the book also had
a New York printing in 1961. 'Weird
mob' entered the general vocabulary
in Australia and left a small mark in
England and the USA. Thus, when
the Polish immigrant writer, Leszek
Szymanski, had his collection of
essays about       life in Australia
published by Trident International
Books of Los Angeles in 1973, he
could call it Living with the Weird
Mob, confident in the knowledge that
Americans would know who he was
talking about.

BARRYYORK'S second home is the
Oral History Section of the National
Library but he has an impressive
knowledge     of all the Library's
material    on    the   subject   of
immigration to Australia. Barry is a
Research     Fellow    at Victoria
University of Technology. His email
address is garocon@pcug.org.au

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