Mara Moustafine and Arnold Zable.
Writer Arnold Zable remembers the vitality and cultural diversity of the street life of Carlton in the 1950s and 1960s.
02 April 2009
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I think I was very fortunate to grow up in that sort of community and getting that sort of initiation into what it was to be – both Jewish and also a part of a broader community. Now the other side of the equation was, you know was that broader community and in the 1950s, and ‘60s, there was a rich street life in Carlton and it was both beautiful and terrifying in a way. And what I mean by that is that – well first of all our parents were so busy making a new life in a new world that we had a lot of freedom and it’s interesting comparing it to say, middle-class life today where that street life often disappears.
But in the ‘50s and ‘60s there was a – there was a lot of – we roamed the streets. And there were – every now and then we would encounter the gangs that roamed the streets. There was one gang that used to roam the street and they’d chase you and they’d grab you and they’d shove your face in the dirt and say, “Kiss the ground and say, ‘I killed Jesus.’” Like – I mean, you know, you learnt at a very early age, two things: that if someone was your size or smaller, you’d fight and if they were bigger, you’d run.
And so I became a very fast runner. But it was – there was an element but – and I – but I don’t want to overplay it, it needs to be acknowledged though, I don’t want to overplay it because on the other hand and this is something that I wanted to convey I guess in Scraps of Heaven, the novel I wrote about that time, there was also a fantastic coming together across cultures and there was a certain type of Aussie that I liked very much. It’s in the novel it’s personified in a character, Logan, that was a boxing instructor. It’s a certain type of Australian working class person who didn’t have prejudice, you came to the – his boxing gym which was in a back lane of Carlton and a former stable and you went upstairs and all these kids were pounding away and he more or less he was saying to you, “If you’ve got the discipline, if you’re willing to come and train hard..” The footy coach was like that too – you know, “You’re in, you’re part of it.” And I think there’s a very interesting kind of ethos there, an egalitarian ethos –
There is a magnificent story about the Nissen twins. Now the Nissen twins they grew up in Amer Street, it’s part of my beat, part of my childhood neighbourhood. And they were the smallest and skinniest kids on the block. They were actually born in Belsam, in 1946, they were actually born in a concentration camp. Now the Nissen twins kept on getting belted up because bullies are cowards and so they’re the ones that copped it, the wogs, dagos, whatever else they got.
So decided, “We’ve had enough, we’re going to learn how to fight.” So they heard that Peter Reid (sp?) the Australian middle-weight boxing champion had just retired so they went – they went to his –and he lives in Amer Street, and so they knocked – one of them knocked on the door and said, “I want to learn how to fight.” He said, “You’re too small, you’re too skinny, you’re too young. Come back in a few years and..” He comes back the next night. “I want to learn how to fight.” And this went on for a few nights, or that’s the way Henry tells the story from memory more or less.
And then finally he said, “Okay, you’re so enthusiastic, I’ll take you on.” Meanwhile his identical twin brother, Leon, he’s thinking, “What’s going on with Henry? He’s got a secret project of his own.” So he followed him relentlessly around the streets of Carlton until he finally, you know imagine this: two of them, he finds him going to this house, so the two of them standing there, they knock on the door and Peter Reid’s old father opens the door and says, “There’s two of the bastards!” [laughs]
Anyway, he took them both on and within I think, within seven, eight years they were – Henry was so good he was offered the World Title fight and Leon I think was a Commonwealth champion. They always fought in the smaller divisions – in the lighter divisions: bantam, featherweight, but they never fought each other because of their strong bond, they just made sure they never, ever fought each other. And I tell this story because I think they epitomise this extraordinary coming together of the children of the traumatised with the working class Aussie. There was something – there was – there were conflicts, there was a certain symbiosis there. Something that – that they were – they were able to relate to and it often it was through the figure of the – of that boxing coach, who saw, or had a certain egalitarian outlook and admired disciplines and commitment and in this case it was commitment to boxing.
And I think as a kind of a P.S to that story, Henry Nissen has worked for at least three decades or more with street kids and he’s a kind of legend in Melbourne now. I think these connections are the true story of multiculturalism.