Alan Wearne Reviews Ross Gibson

6 February 2018

Okay, one line does not a poet make, though I can think of plenty of poetaster lines which never made a poet. And even with those capable, established Australian poets of 1957, I often saw more ‘poetry’ shown by these cops than in any A D Hope / James McAuley invocation to the muse, the police certainly showing and telling much more about Australia and those times.

(v)

If these are ‘accidental’ poems, accidents can often give folk a certain if temporary place in the sun. If the Sydney underworld operated on a star system, then those chosen by Gibson from the dossier were bit players, the walk-on parts, for there is no sign of Abe Saffron, ‘Pretty Boy’ Walker, Tilly Devine, the young Lenny McPherson (though doubtless they may have made the police listings). It’s as if the Underbelly of Melbourne ignored Alphonse Gangiatano, the Moran brothers, Carl Williams, ‘Benji’ and ‘The Munster’, and instead headed off to hunt out some under-underworld: those embezzlers, brawlers, shoplifters and paedophiles from outer suburbs many may never have heard of.

What shines through many of The Criminal Re-Register’s criminals is their less-than-celebrity status. If they were on 1950s radio they wouldn’t be appearing on some serial, Sunday night play, quiz show or panel program, they would be lining up to attempt a spot on the Amateur Hour. Many of the book are indeed such no-hopers, but the non-celebrity underworld has its tales to tell, its failures needing their own weird celebrating. Being entranced by stories around big time gangsters such as Mr Asia’s Terry Clark and his associates, and by the lies, lives and times of eighties corporate crooks such as Connell, Bond and Skase, I conjured such characters based around them for my work The Lovemakers. Yet I got an even greater thrill imagining this total no-hoper crim, Bernie Millar, based on no-one I’d ever heard of or read about. Bernie starts off proceedings putting the paedo-hardword on a 13 year-old boy and after getting swiftly rebuffed that is as good as Bernie ever gets, being near-to-nothing for almost the entire book. One sees a lot of Bernie Millars in The Criminal Re-Register.

(vi)

But then there are those in the listings who definitely didn’t deserve to be there, those who had been arrested, convicted, fined and even imprisoned for consenting homosexual acts even in private. The Criminal Re-Register being a great jumping-off point for the imagination, one has to wonder about the states of mind in those police writing up about these men and their cases, for the language expressed about such ‘outrages’ is full of a quiet, bureaucratic fury. And those police reading these accounts, were they disgusted or dispassionate, titillated or even aroused? And as for those cops-in-the-closet, how might they have felt reading: ‘… engaged in the act of satisfying the unnatural desires of himself and a youth known as Mattison by placing the latter’s penis in his mouth’? Had such a description been employed in fiction, non-fiction, cinema, drama or poetry such works would have been banned!

All ages have their hypocrisies, which doubtless weren’t recognised as such at the time. Though I noticed how, in the closing hours of the recent same sex marriage debate, Bob Katter MHR railed against the word ‘gay’ being appropriated by homosexuals when it once described … well every decent, hardworking, adult Australian knew what it once described! And reading the relevant The Criminal Re-Register entries I could only conclude that having endured centuries of abuse homosexuals had a solid right to call themselves whatever they wished.

(vii)

Maybe 1957 was on the cusp of change as Ross Gibson promotes in his introduction, though it would take two to three generations for such changes as same sex marriage. Yes, there were some changes afoot, though The Criminal Re-Register wasn’t written to chart them. And they were not heralded, as Gibson hints in his introduction, by Rock Around the Clock with all its associated youth culture. (After sixty years of the stuff, can’t the overblown claims of pop music be finally buried?) Let’s look for something more imaginative, a deal subtler, one indeed involving language.

Around the time these cops and robbers were herbing around Sydney’s streets and roads, Italian journalist Nino Culotta was sent to Australia by his editor, to discover what life was like in this land to which so many Italians were emigrating. After a brief foray into King’s Cross (where he didn’t seem to meet any of The Criminal Re-Register’s formidable cast) Nino found work as a brickie’s labourer in Punchbowl and wrote They’re a Weird Mob based on his experiences. And as the key to The Criminal Re-Register is its highly evocative yet highly quaint police report language, so too is language the key to They’re a Weird Mob. For Nino is a well-educated man who speaks very ‘perfect’ English. His lingo sure isn’t that of Aussie Punchbowl and this running gag works both ways throughout the book. Liking how Nino (alias of John O’Grady) portrayed them, Australian readers of the time (about a third of these survive in today’s population) bought this novel in hundreds of thousands, heard it serialised on the radio and listened to a novelty Top Forty hit it inspired.

Please read The Criminal Re-Register in tandem with They’re a Weird Mob, for although Nino’s Aussie cobbers and their sheilas are ‘us’ (if a very Sydney-centric ‘us’) so too are the crooks and the cops, and with enough imagination both books may well bounce off each other. Reading the hyper-formal law-enforcement English, a not-so-great leap is required to imagine how the brickies must have felt hearing Nino’s idiom-free, well-constructed version, or indeed how Nino must have felt hearing an English he never knew existed. Thankfully both versions, no make that all versions of English are viable.

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