The pharmacist-turned-novelist John O’Grady adopted the pseudonym of Giovanni ‘Nino’ Culotta to write the story of an immigrant Italian journalist who comes to Sydney and writes about the people – and their version of English – he finds there. Nino’s true identity was only revealed two months after publication. It became a hit film in 1966:
Most Australians speak English like I speak Hindustani, which I don’t. In general, they use English words, but in a way that makes no sense to anyone else. And they don’t use our European vowel sounds, so that even if they do construct a normal sentence, it doesn’t sound like one. This made it necessary for me, until I became accustomed to it, to translate everything that was said to me twice, first into English and then into Italian. So my replies were always slow, and those long pauses prompted many belligerent remarks, such as ‘Well don’t just stand there like a dill; d’yer wanta beer or dontcha?’
Nino is a Piedmontese who has several altercations with the Meridionali (southerners who made up the bulk of Italian immigrants) on the voyage to Australia:
…I saw Sydney for the first time the very best way – from the deck of a ship. And at the very best time – early in the morning, with the sun behind us. It was October, and the sun was beautiful. The Customs people were not, but the rest of our Meridionali had to be got ashore, and no doubt that accounted for them being irritable. My promise to the captain was no longer binding, so I said a few words. Which led to a nice little battle, which was ended by some Australian policemen. A big one, with silver stripes on his arm pointed to me. ‘You,’ he said, ‘come here.’
I hit one more of the Meridionali, and walked over to him.
‘You called me, sir?’ I said.
‘Where are your bags?’
‘Over there, sir.’
Two other policemen joined him, so I thought I’d better humour him. I got my bags and came back.
‘Come on,’ he said.
I followed them out, and they went to a taxi, and the big policeman opened the boot and put my bags inside. One of the others opened the door of the taxi, and stood by.
‘Excuse me, sir.’ I said. ‘Where do we go?’
He said, ‘Get in.’
I got in, and the one by the door shut it, and the big one said to the driver, ‘Get going.’ The driver started up and went up the street a little way, and then said, ‘Where to, mate?’
I said, in a very dignified manner, ‘It appears to me, sir, that since you are acting under the orders of the constabulary, you are undoubtedly well aware of our destination.’
He said, ‘Cut the bull. An’ don’ call me sir. Where yer wanner go?’
Some of this I understood, and it was surprising. ‘Do you not know?’ I said.
‘No,’ he said.
After a while, he said, ‘Well we can’t sit ‘ere all bloody day; where we goin’?’
I was silently translating what he said into what I thought he meant in an English I understood, and translating this into Italian, and working out my answer in Italian, to be translated into English, all of which was taking some time, when he suddenly seemed to become very irritable and said, ‘Gawd I’ve been drivin’ his bloody thing since one o’bloody clock this mornin’ an’ now it’s bloody near time for lunch an’ I ‘ave ter get landed with a bloody ning nong who doesn’t know where he’s bloody goin’. Will the Cross do yer?’
By the time I had worked out a few words of this speech, we had arrived somewhere, and he was getting my bags out of the boot. I got out also, and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but do you mind telling me where I now am?’
‘Kings Cross. Three bob.’
‘Excuse me, sir, but do you mind telling me where I now am?’
He shouted very loudly, ‘KINGS BLOODY CROSS!’
I said this to myself two or three times, and decided that it must be the name of a suburb. So I said, ‘Why?’
‘Why am I in Kings Bloody Cross?’
‘Because I bloody brought yer…three bob.’
‘I do not understand what you say, and I do not understand why I am where I am, but I thank you. Could you please inform me, please, where is some place where I may be able to obtain some food?’
‘Anywhere around here,’ he said. ‘Are yer gunna pay me the three bob or ain’t yer?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Look mate, I brought yer from the bloody dock, an’ you owe me three bob. Do I get ut or don’t I?’
I caught the word ‘Owe’ and said, ‘I am reminded of something. You have transported me to this place, and I would like you to inform me how much is my fare, please?’
He became very irate again, and said in a loud voice, ‘Strike me bloody ’andsome, I just told yer. Three bob.’
‘How much is the fare please?’
He said ‘Oh-h-h!’ and something I didn’t understand, then pushed his cap back, and scratched his head. Then he said, very slowly and distinctly, ‘Look mate, have-you-any-money?’
This was very good English, and I answered immediately, ‘Yes.’
Again I was able to answer immediately, and I was wishing he would always speak as clearly as this. I said, ‘Of course, I have three shillings.’
Then he seemed to acquire a great rage, and said, ‘Well bloody give ut to me before I call the bloody cops or do me block or some such bloody thing. Give us me three bob.’
He was holding out his hand, so I assumed he wanted three shillings. I gave him three shillings. He said, ‘Any man takes this game on’s not right in the nut.’ He got into his taxi and drove away without even saying thank you.
-‘Nino Culotta’ (John O’Grady), Australian, 1907-1981