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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Are You Fair Dinkum?* No, I'm an (Olivetti bashing) Italian! We Sure Are A Weird Mob! Australia Day Special

*Are you fair dinkum? = are you "for real"? (in the modern idiom). The post headline is an adaption of a line from the 1966 Australian movie They're A Weird Mob
Mob = Australian term for any group of people (including the entire nation), kangaroos or sheep, not necessarily troublesome.
*Australia Day (January 26) = anniversary marking the "European invasion"
 "Giovanni 'Nino' Culotta" - Italian comic and actor, Verona-born Walter Chiari (real name Walter Annicchiarico, 1924-1991), who played magazine writer Nino Culotta in the 1966 movie version of John O'Grady's 1957 book They're A Weird Mob. Chiari is seen here typing on an Olivetti Lettera 22 in a sketch on stage in Rome in October 1960. He subsequently used an Olivetti Lettera 32 as a prop in the movie and in real life, carrying it in its distinctive blue with black strip case wherever he went, before and after filming in Australia.
 The original cover of O'Grady's best-selling book, first published in November 1957 but written in New Zealand in 1956.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie of the same name, ostensibly based on O'Grady's book. 
The real "Nino Culotta" - Australian writer John O'Grady at his Olympia SM3 portable typewriter at his home in Oatley, a southern Sydney suburb, following the enormous and instant success of his first novel They're A Weird Mob (from an initial print run of 6000, 130,000 copies were sold after eight reprints in the first year; 47 impressions and 930,000 copies all up). Interestingly, They're A Weird Mob was actually typed by O'Grady on another, earlier portable, in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1956, from O'Grady's handwritten manuscript. O'Grady was in Auckland waiting on his papers to take up a New Zealand Government appointment as official government pharmacist in Samoa. O'Grady sent the typescript back to his son in Sydney while he was living in Samoa, and the book was published in his absence.
The Oatley house was built on the proceeds of the book. The true identity of Nino Culotta was exposed two months after the book's release and at the height of its popularity. O'Grady tried many times to duplicate the winning formula of Weird  Mob, but never again achieved the same level of success, with 15 more books and Cop This Lot, Gone Fishin' and Gone Gougin' all written under the pseudonym of Nino Culotta. Indeed, O'Grady tried to kill off his alter ego and delivered Culotta's eulogy in a pub in Toongabbie in Sydney's western suburbs in 1960.
In the best traditions of Hitchcock, John O'Grady got himself into a scene in the movie of They're A Weird Mob, as an imbiber in a Sydney pub (above). Or was it a Melbourne pub? The movie seemed to drift from one city to another when it came to bar scenes. I thought I spotted Chloe from Young & Jackson's in Melbourne (right) in one. But no, it was Chloe turned the other way in the Marble Bar in Sydney (left).
In a clip from the movie They're A Weird Mob, Walter Chiari as the Nino Culotta character is seen with his Olivetti Lettera 32, a model which did not reach the market until the early 1960s.  The problem with the movie is that it was made eight years after the book was published, and fails to reflect the very different Australia of the mid to late 50s, including matters such as dress, culture and cuisine (or lack thereof). The influences from the post-war wave of European migration didn't start to become so apparent until the mid-60s.
For some time now I had been planning to post on an Australian comic novel from 1957 called They're A Weird Mob, ostensibly written by an Italian immigrant, a magazine writer called Nino Culotta. Australia Day (today) seems as good a time as any, the more so because I am going to watch the movie yet again, at the National Film and Sound Archive here in Canberra, this very afternoon.
The book They're A Weird Mob would today be considered politically very incorrect - labelled as both racist and sexist - which is possibly why it won't be found on any list of Australia's finest home-grown literature, alongside such heavy going works as Patrick White's Voss (also from 1957). But as a book which captures the spirit of a people in a particular era, I think it would be hard to beat. On the score of out-and-out down-to-earth humour, it's impossible to top. It's interesting to read reviews from the time, which were unanimously positive, both here and overseas. John O'Grady's evocative work told vividly of the daily urban experience of many Australians in the mid to late 50s, which Voss did not.
John O'Grady "blows the top off a frothy" at a housewarming party at the home he built in Oatley on the proceeds of his first novel.
I was allowed to read the book when it first came out, which, given I was just nine at the time, and the dialogue was liberally sprinkled with what was then considered a mildly offensive swear word ("bloody"* was rarely uttered in the presence of women) indicates my parents were both reasonably open minded on such matters. However, since they had read Weird Mob and found it hugely entertaining, I guess they saw no reason why I shouldn't be invited to join in the merriment.

H.E. Bates' The Darling Buds of May reached our home library at about the same time, and frankly I was too young and naive to work out what all the fuss was about. Weird Mob, on the other hand, remains perhaps the funniest book I have ever had the pleasure of reading - certainly for the sheer delight it brought at that particular time and age of innocence. Maybe it was simply a case of a nine-year-old being as much amused by the constant use of "bad" language as by the antics of the characters. Actually, I still find what O'Grady called the "integrated adjective" (see his poem, bottom of post) to be the funniest aspect of the Australian idiom, although "bloody" has in the main been succeeded by a much stronger word, or sometimes a combination of both.
(*The integrated adjective and the use of the word "bloody" as an expletive attributive [intensifier] were discussed in a very interesting program on ABC Radio on Sunday morning. "Bloody", it was stated, has been succeeded by the F word. But "bloody", unlike the F word, was misunderstood. It was not blasphemous [as in "blood of Christ"] but came from the term "Young Blood", as in a rowdy young aristocrat.)
Walter Chiari as Nino Culotta arrives in Sydney with his Olivetti Lettera 32 - a scene from the movie.
The main reason I wanted to post on Weird Mob was that, although I cannot recall reference to typewriter use in the book (probably taken as said for a magazine writer), the main character in the movie - made eight years after the novel was published - certainly carried around an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable in its distinctive blue with black strip case. So in my biased mind it's a typewriter-related film. But in my humble opinion, the time lapse between book and film was critical - and shows, to the detriment of the movie. I may well be in a minority of one here, but I have previously found the film deeply disappointing. Eight years may not seem like much, but the book was decidedly a period piece, fully capturing a unique nation at a unique time in its history, and the movie should have been too. On reflection, Australia had changed an awful lot between 1957 and 1965, as the wave of European immigrants in the wake of World War II began to have a far greater influence on Australian society, in terms of culture and cuisine, while the Baby Boomer generation had begun to cast off the post-war shackles of a previously strait-laced (and tightly so) nation.
Not too many bikinis were seen on Bondi Beach in 1956. The photo below was taken there in 1959.
For one thing, dress and some attitudes toward nationality and allegiance had changed markedly, and the jargon had shifted downward drastically. The movie failed to reflect any of that. Trouble is, an Australian director wasn't given the chance to make the movie in 1965, and Weird Mob the movie was made by a Brit, Michael Powell, and scripted by a Hungarian-Brit, Emeric Pressburger. I just don't think either of them "got it".  Fortunately, Australian movie making got a whole lot better in the wake of Weird Mob. The delay in committing it to celluloid was caused, apparently, by Gregory Peck buying the rights in 1959 but failing to get a screenplay written. Peck had been in Australia in early 1959 making the movie of Nevil Shute's On the Beach, with Ava Gardner, and Walter Chiari, who played Nino Culotta in the Weird Mob movie, had been here too at that time, too, as Gardner's lover. Admittedly, Peck wanted to play a role if he had made the movie, so it's probably a good thing he did not.
If they'd made a movie about John O'Grady himself back then, Burl Ives would no doubt had got the gig. O'Grady typed all his manuscripts on portables from drafts.  
Barry McKenzie (Barrington Bradman Bing McKenzie), a fictional character created by Barry Humphries in 1964, also went the way of Nino, on to celluloid. McKenzie had become, by the late 60s and early 70s, such an Earl's Court icon that expatriate Australians living in London began to imitate art. McKenzie started out as an extreme parody of Australians in London, and Australians in London finished up parodying him. It wasn't just weird, and a long way from the true Australians of A Weird Mob - it was downright disrespectful of the real Australian heritage.
Barry McKenzie, as imagined by New Zealander Nicholas Garland.
By the 1970s O'Grady's brand of humour was widely regarded as old-fashioned and unsophisticated, but "bad" language in movies was still mildly funny when Barry McKenzie made it on to the screen in 1972. Nowadays it has gotten beyond a joke. We went to see Suffragette and were astonished to hear the F word used in dialogue allegedly spoken in the presence of  women in a 1912 laundry. Fair dinkum! The producers had gone to extraordinary lengths to film scenes based, almost to perfection, on photographs taken of suffragettes working in their London offices at the time. Why go to such trouble, then ruin in all by having a character say something that wasn't said in such a context in 1912? 
I was reminded of this offence to the ear upon reading posts by two Typospherians - two Australian bloggers who are always considered in their writing, make sense and are worth reading - Rino Breebaart (The long, slow {typecast}) and Steve Kuterescz (writelephant). For example, it struck me that Rino, in writing about "taking the piss out of ourselves", might have considered O'Grady's effort to see Australia through 1950s mock Italian eyes. And Steve, in a review of the movie Atonement, mentions a note containing "two occurrences of the rudest four-letter word in the English language". Again I seriously question the context (in the book and film), in a story set in 1935. Would Briony, aged 13 and living in a posh household, even know what the word meant? Actually, even as the product of a later era, I very much doubt it. Steve went on to mention Atonement author Ian McEwan's use of the word "probity", which he might well have kept in mind when writing his book.
But let's get back to Weird Mob. I went to the National Library to refresh my memories of it. Nino Culcotta says he came from Piedmont in the north of Italy (he's quite racist about Italians from the south) and worked for a major publishing house in Milan, before being assigned to Australia, where he arrived in October 1952 (so the book, presumably, is actually set in an even earlier timeframe than 1956). Having taught himself the Queen's English, according to the Oxford Dictionary (or some proper phrase book), he finds "Most Australians speak English like I speak Hindustani, which I don't."
Nino types
He finds work as a brickies' labourer in Punchbowl and quickly learns that a "schooner" is not a sailing vessel and a "shout" doesn't mean to yell.
Importantly, however, he is always trying to assimilate, no longer the "done thing" in a proudly multicultural Australian society. Early reviews of O'Grady's book praised the "New Australian" (no longer politically correct) for his "triumph over a strange and ridiculous tongue". 
John O'Grady grew up learning this "strange and ridiculous tongue", which he called "Australianese", and knew how to write it. He was born at Waverley in Sydney on October 9, 1907, but his father worked the land around Tamworth, after being with the Lands Department and editing the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales. John became a registered pharmacist in 1929, but the rest of his family were writers. A younger brother, Frank, had published several works of historical fiction, which John called "library novels". Frank, seeking John's opinion of a new book, accepted a £10 bet from John over a family Sunday lunch at Bronte, that "if I couldn't write a better book than that I'd give up". In the beginning it looked like he's lose the bet. Angus & Robertson knocked back Weird Mob because "in spite of some very amusing incidents and a fine command of Australian slang, the story would not make a successful book". Ure Smith published it and Angus & Robertson was left lamenting the loss of almost a million sales (plus a share of movie rights).
Jackie Weaver, now a celebrated Oscar-nominated actress
For the rest of his productive life, O'Grady remained an outspoken eccentric, "an elderly delinquent" who expressed the pharmacist’s contempt for the medical profession and an anti-communist’s admiration for Khrushchev. He died on January 14, 1981 in his home at Oatley.
The integrated adjective
I was down on Riverina, knockin' round the towns a bit,
An' occasionally restin', with a schooner in me mitt;
An' on one o' these occasions, when the bar was pretty full
an' the local blokes were arguin' assorted kinds o' bull,
I heard a conversation, most peculiar in its way,
Because only in Australia would you hear a joker say,
"Where yer bloody been, yer drongo? 'Aven't seen yer fer a week;
"An' yer mate was lookin' for yer when 'e come in from the Creek;
"'E was lookin' up at Ryan's, an' around at bloody Joe's,
"An' even at the Royal where 'e bloody never goes."
An' the other bloke said "Seen 'im. Owed 'im 'alf a bloody quid,
"Forgot ter give ut back to 'im; but now I bloody did.
"Coulda used the thing me-bloody-self; been orf the bloody booze,
"Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin' kanga-bloody-roos."
Now their voices were a little loud, an' everybody heard
The peculiar integration of this adjectival word.
But no one there was laughin', an' me I wasn't game,
So I stood around an' let 'em think I spoke the bloody same.
An' one of 'em was interested to ask 'im what he'd got-
How many kanga-bloody-roos he bloody went and shot-
An' the shootin' bloke said, "Things are crook; the drought's too bloody tough;
"I got forty-bloody-seven, an' that's good e'-bloody-nough."
An' this polite rejoinder seemed to satisfy the mob,
An' everyone stopped listenin' an' got on with the job,
Which was drinkin' beer and arguin' an' talkin' of the heat,
An' stickin' in the bitumen in the middle of the street;
But as for me, I'm here to say the interestin' news
Was "Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin' kanga-bloody-roos."


Ted said...

Happy Australia Day! :D

Steve K said...

That bloody poem reminded me of "The Bloody Orkneys" :)

Richard P said...

I have a feeling both the book and the movie would be wasted on this ignorant Yank!

Bill M said...

Unsure about truly appreciating the movie, but I may add the book to my reading list if I can find it in the USA. When I read the title I thought it may be about typical Americans of this day. The USA keeps getting weirder as time goes on.