STRAWS IN THE WIND: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
Prologue / Just a friend of the family / Epilogue
, November 8, 2008
As I've said before, some loyal friends are trying to dig out all the things I've written over the last 40 years, and the results are already resembling a dossier as big as a Stasi file. This one is from the Nation Review
of the early '70s.
;Just a friend of the family
There used to be a friend of the family called Charley, and he was well named. He caused all kinds of mischief and hurt the feelings of all kinds of people, without even really meaning to.
He was one of those lean, tallish Australian men, who never stood up straight, always looked untidy, and had a great deal to say for himself. He had a hide like an elephant, so was a hard man to convince that he might have done something wrong.
For a start, he used to pick on me when I was a baby, and continued to do so when I was a young boy. I don't think he meant it, because in between times he would be quite jolly. Which only makes it worse for the victim. I was, by all accounts, a rather backward child, of whom my mother was extremely fond.
I didn't learn to speak until I went to school - there didn't seem any point. I could get most things without talking, and it is simply not true that speech is necessary to express one's sexual admiration for the pretty ladies. When it is, there is usually a catch somewhere.
Anyway, everybody else seemed to want to talk, and, frankly, I preferred listening as much as possible to my mother's wireless program, which contained a very large component of hymns....
I couldn't have done it better myself. It was easy to evade the manifest disgust of one's sibling, the incredulity of neighbours, and the poker face of my father. If there was too much outside noise, one simply turned the set up.
Charley reacted more vigorously than most to this rather odious situation. He pronounced me mentally backward, hinting delicately to my mother that I must have brain damage, because of the incredible lack of development in the young organism. My mother was not amused, especially when he used to pull faces at the Dauphin. I couldn't be bothered with all this; I knew I was on a good thing.
When I eventually decided that I had to make some
progress, and became a little boy, he did make some inroads into my self-confidence. I had a very large head, quite square, with pale babyish features. He christened me butterbox because my head reminded him of a box of butter.
Occasionally, for short, it would be boxhead or, most insulting, boofhead. The chaps in the nearby factory took this butterbox business up with great enthusiasm, and as I cruised backwards and forwards on my oedipal business, past those raucous little pimple farms, smiling sweetly at their abuse, I used to rack my brains as to how to wither these impudent sorts with a lethal phrase. And thereby hangs another tale.
Charley eventually tired of baiting and annoying my mother, who obviously wasn't giving him enough attention. (Fat chance with me around.)
He could count on an immediate response from her, and this probably prolonged his attentions. He got no apparent change out of me, yet the memory of these insults still rankles 40 years on.
Charley then accidentally stumbled upon another technique which really infuriated both my mother and me, and eventually brought my father into the arena.
We were starting to get the first Polish Jews, in large numbers, in our suburb. Nobody knew much about Hitler - and cared less. No one seemed quite sure why all these foreigners had suddenly arrived in our midst - war was still some years off. Few people in my district had thought of asking the newcomers why they had come, or what their old country was like.
The newcomers, almost all men in their thirties and forties, used to walk around in big groups, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time. They wore long, thick overcoats, and didn't speak in English. They either all talked at once, very excited, or else were dead silent. They seemed to ignore us, and be thinking of other things. And they thought in Yiddish. They didn't seem to have any families.
The general local reaction was fairly apathetic - if they leave us alone, we'll leave them alone. But for a man like Charley - they were fresh targets for his sparkling wit. I remember one morning coming along the street with my mother, only to behold Charley dancing in front of a group of these Polish Jews, as they proceeded slowly along the street towards us.
He was half hunched up, his right hand plucking at an imaginary beard, while he intoned, "Jew boy, Jew, get a bit of pork, stick it on a fork, and give it to the Jew boy, Jew." It now seems like a scene out of the Middle Ages, or the 19th century; come to think of it, the 20th.
The Jews were staring impassively at him - bunching slightly together as they walked. The larger ones seemed to gravitate to the front rank. They too took care not to get too close to him - presumably so as not to give offence.
I had never seen a grown man do such a thing. I couldn't understand it. I knew the chant well enough, but like so many others - Catholic dogs jump like frogs, etc. - it just seemed harmless - just one of the many school-age chants. It might as well have been "Goanna, goanna, lift up your tail and play the piannah." But here was someone singing it to real Jews. Strange.
My mother became quite furious. She rushed up to Charley, told him to be his age, to stop being rude (a portmanteau word for her), and so on.
Charley was delighted. "Why do these buggers walk around in a mob?" he asked. "You can't even use the footpath now these bloody Yids are here."
"I don't know why they go around in groups," said my mother. "Perhaps they're lonely. Anyway, it's their business."
Charley departed. He'd had a field day. It was only years later that I realised that the newcomers used to go around in groups in Poland as well, and did so from an early age. Otherwise they could be sure of being beaten up by Polish Charleys.
Charley used to practise his new skill quite a lot from then on - until one day my father took him aside.
Charley probably hadn't realised what a racist the old man was.
My dad couldn't abide Australians.
Also a foreigner, he knew all the loving ways of dear, civilised old Europe towards its Jews. Most important of all, he was bigger than Charley - much bigger. Thereafter Charley turned to other pursuits - kicking dogs probably. Epilogue
Not many people behaved like Charley - which is perhaps why my mother was so incensed. The only game in town then was the awful Catholic-Protestant standoff, and way behind, those dagos
We never heard of WOPs or WOGs by the way. Much of that talk was really just ritualised xenophobic whinging. That is, until
Mussolini entered the war, after which many local Italians were treated shamefully.- Max Teichmann