Glass and distinction

Glass and distinction

09 Mar 2010

clare-wright-thumb Dr Clare Wright

First published in The Age on 9 March, 2010

An Italian man walks into a pub. He pushes his way through a throng of suited gentlemen. He reaches the bar. A blonde barmaid smiles sweetly at him. ''What'll it be?''

''If you pleez, I wish to drink some beer,'' says the new chum. ''A schooner or a midi?'' asks the barmaid. The man is stumped. He turns to a bloated, red-faced patron standing beside him. ''How long you been in Australia, mate?'' asks the swollen barfly, before explaining the local glass sizes.

This is not a joke. It is, of course, a famous scene from the 1966 classic Australian film They're a Weird Mob, based on the bestselling book of the same name by Nino Culotta, alias John O'Grady.

The mob is the Australian urban working class of the 1950s and '60s. Their weirdness is seen through the eyes of an Italian migrant, eager to learn the values and behaviours of his host nation.

It's fitting that the pub is used as a key habitat for observing Australian natives in the wild. Since colonial times, the local pub has been a reflection of the community it serves. Pubs have often been blamed for society's temptations and sins. All manner of deprivation, debauchery, oppression and injustice has been attributed to the presence of licensed hotels. But by and large, pubs act as a mirror to society, reflecting wider social and cultural transformations.

Melburnians' love affair with pubs started with John Pascoe Fawkner's shanty in the new settlement of Port Phillip. The romance thrived through a gold rush that saw an explosion in the immigrant population, all thirsting for success and just as eagerly drowning their sorrows at failure. Disappointed gold-seekers sought a surer fortune opening their own hotels. Immigrant Irish, Italians, Jews, French and Americans were soon using hotel-keeping as a reliable route to social mobility.

Melbourne was once known as the place where there was a pub on every corner, and with good reason. By 1885, there were 1046 hotels in metropolitan Melbourne and 4299 in Victoria. Inner-city suburbs such as Carlton, Collingwood and South Melbourne were choking with pubs. The extreme exceptions were Box Hill and Camberwell, where the good citizens voted to make their suburbs ''dry'' in 1928, thus elevating pubs to a symbol of the class and sectarian divides that already distinguished the city. Similarly, in the late 1960s, the Ladies Lounge became an emblematic focal point for feminist crusaders. The sex segregation of public drinking was seen by a new generation of young, educated and mostly middle-class women as a peculiarly Australian, and particularly abhorrent, feature of social life. The Ladies Lounge was, in fact, representative of a wider sexual apartheid, one that saw women excluded from many other arenas of public life. The irony is that female publicans had been a dominant force in the hotel-keeping industry for more than a century.

In 1966, Nino Culotta's post-war Italian migrant walked into a hotel where the only woman present was the attractive barmaid. The all-male crowd was puffing madly on cigarettes. There was no food to be seen. The men all stood, jostling for a spot at a bar that would close at 6pm. Two years later, a revolution in licensing law heralded a new era of public drinking rituals.

If a new migrant walked into the same hotel today, he might find a group of women drinking fine wine on fashionably grungy couches. He might just as well order a meal of deglazed duck with organic bok choy as a pot of VB.

He might encounter a spinning wall of pokies, or a blues band, or a raucous trivia night. The pub might be owned by a major brewery or a single mum. All the smokers will be standing outside, or lounging on the roof-top beer garden.

If he goes to a pub in one of the now-gentrified inner-city suburbs, he's unlikely to find the lonely old men, Aborigines or pea-shelling women of the neighbourhood's past. But he'll get an awesome latte.

Pubs didn't rid the mean streets of their former character but they'll be the first to echo the new mantras.

Today, Melbourne's pubs reflect the remarkable diversity of a truly multicultural city.

The variety of Melburnians' experiences, heritage, politics, values, aspirations and amusements can all, in one way or another, be found at your local.

But the question remains: are we still a weird mob?




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