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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Cultural Studies »

John Lack on the complex and changing attitudes of Australians to new immigrants

John Lack and Mara Moustafine.

Historian John Lack describes the complex and changing attitudes of Australians to new immigrants



Date Added:

13 February 2009


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But you know, there was that – that animosity in post-war Australia to migrants. I mean: why do they speak their own languages? Why do they take up the whole footpath? You know, all of this. But then things changed. I mean, it was very hard to resist Italian fashion: the shoes, the shirts, the beautiful linen shirts, the colours; lilac shirts, pink shirts, marvellous in the ‘50s. The hairdressers, who totally transformed the short back and sides old Aussie scene, with the wonderful crew cuts and duck’s tails at the back. You know, the Cornel Wilde and other movie star –they changed things. Even down to Paul – bless his heart – Paul who was – came as a single – he was a married man, came alone, lived in a room opposite us in Footscray. A whole group of young and middle-aged Italian men took over a house.


“Oh!” We all said, “heavens above! The beds are never cold!” You know. “They’re just living like whatever.” Got to know Paul, he earned his living and in his part-time mended our shoes. Beautiful shoemaker he was and shoe repairer. It all changed, I mean, you couldn’t feel animosity to these people who were just like us. They were all struggling working people, trying to put a life together. You know, my Hungarian friend, Lorrie, he was Lorenzo, we “Lorried” him. Lorrie and his wonderful parents who gave wonderful parties with Hungarian pastries and cakes! And you know, then there was the Polish boy whose parents were struggling so hard to put a second marriage together, her husband simply having disappeared in the war – his – my friend’s father – her first husband.


And who had numbers tattooed on their wrists. That was pretty sobering to see that. It just opened us up to all this different experience and different life experience, different fashions, different foods, it was an extraordinary period to grow up in really. I mean we continued on pretty much, a meat and three vegies family. You know, and – but by the same token, my father particularly was open to these people and had wonderful workmates: Maltese, Italian, particularly the Maltese who’d had a long history in Melbourne’s western suburbs, going right back to the 1900s. I wasn’t even aware of it. To me, Guy Buttergig (sp?) as I knew him, this was an exotic name. No it wasn’t exotic, it was like “Smith” in Malta. But, you know, Guy came home with his family and Dad welcomed him in. No, it was – it was good.


... it was about girls. It was over women. Because they were dashingly dressed and they could dance, my god they could dance! And they were attentive. A bit like the animosity the American servicemen got from Australians. The American servicemen were, you know, I know it’s a bit of a cliché but they were attentive to women. The – many of the Italians were – well they were handsome, they were well-groomed, they were attentive to the girls and that’s what a lot of it was over.


There were fights. Lone Italians were bashed up. The best record of this is William Dick’s novel, A Bunch of Ratbags, which is set in Footscray. This is spot on. And Bill Dick has been very honest, it’s a semi-autobiographical novel – he’s been very honest in talking about that.


Yes they were and, you know, some Italians responded by carrying weapons to protect themselves and that fed the stereotype of the knife-wielding dago, this sort of stuff. Yeah, there was – no it took a physical form, it did. But then there was the other side, there was the lady at our street, who ran off with an Italian. You know, and it created, there was, “Tut-tut, isn’t this outrageous?” Well when you thought about it, she had a good deal. She probably found someone who was really nice after years of living with a slovenly, drunken, horrible working-class Australian. [laughs] You know, I mean although the – the wowsers “tut-tutted” about it, you privately thought to yourself, “Well, alright. I think..” No it was dramatic, the changes were dramatic –


End transcript