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Friday, July 8, 2011

71. Autobiography: Long and lanky, skinny and cranky

Long and lanky, skinny and cranky
That’s how my mum used to describe me when I was 11 or 12 or so, and shooting up like a beanstalk. You don’t hear the word cranky these days. It was a word of the 1940s and 1950s – a word of a bygone era. You don’t hear lanky much these days either. Or cobber or bonzer.

They’ve gone, or all but gone. Like zac and bob and two bob and florin and quid and twopence and ha’panny and tray and deena – all words that have lost their currency.

Should I add the once obligatory ‘If you’ll pardon the pun’? As if there is something unseemly about puns. Critics of puns would inevitably trot out the old injunction: ‘The pun is the lowest form of wit’. For as long as I can remember, I’ve long loved puns and punning. Where did that come from, I wonder? I recall that it was my father who introduced me to puns. One of his favourite jokes concerned Johnny and the teacher:

Teacher: Johnny, I want you to use these three words in a sentence: delight, depot and defender.
Johnny: Sure, Teacher. De light was out, de pot was full, so I did it in de fender.
Dosh and spondoola have also gone, and no one calls anyone a bot any more. For a time bots and botting were transformed into scabs and scabbing, but they too have disappeared – slid out of the language like a kid slipping out of side gate to wag school for the afternoon. Nowadays, if I want to read Kay Arthur’s story Wagging to a group of kids I have to explain what the term means; they understand the concept, of course; it’s just the term they don’t know. Kids don’t ‘nick off’ or ‘play hookey’ or play truant any more. I never once wagged school – I was never game, never had the guts to wag school.

Wag also had other connotations too that no longer have currency. Once you might say of someone: ‘He’s a bit of a wag’ – meaning that he’s a card, or a trick. A wag was someone who could make you laugh at their antics – a practical joker, a trickster.
Then there was chin wag. – or as my dad called it, jawing. A chin wag was a chat, a talk.
I was born in 1953, and grew up at a time when Australians spoke of Japs and Krauts, when the only kind of spaghetti you could buy in a cafe was Kiaora brand tinned spaghetti’ – spaghetti in a thick tomato sauce, and usually served on toast.

I was certainly lanky. At 14 I was already taller than both my father and my mother – the second tallest boy in my class at school. My mother was five foot two ... Being five foot two – petite – was fashionable back then.
Five foot two, eyes of blue
But oh what those five feet can do
Has anybody seen my gal?
Five foot two – I don’t even know what that is in metric.
Dad wasn’t much taller; five foot four.

Linda Robina May Kipping was born in Casterton, and raise in Hamilton, in the Western District of Victoria. She left there in her twenties, and travelled to ‘the city’ as it was then called – or more precisely, The City – Melbourne. She had left school at fifteen, at the end of grade three.
Dad was 14 when he left school. His full name was Herbert Garibaldi Carozzi. When Dad left the Catholic school in Coburg he was in Grade 5. He’d been ‘kept down’ several times, and could neither read nor write when he left.

When I had my growth spurt and ‘shot up’, my mum started saying, ‘We’ll have to put a brick on his head!’ My parents worried about me. They worried a lot, because they were scared that they might ‘lose me’.

They had had a lot of trouble conceiving a child. Over the years I picked up snippets of information. By rights I should have had two siblings - an older brother and a little sister; however, my brother was still born and my sister died within a couple of hours of birth. Mum had also had numerous miscarriages.

Sometimes I think about those little babies, one dead at birth, all blue and limp and lifeless, and what it must have been like for my mother to see such a sight after the nine months of hope and longing and dreaming. And for it to happen a second time.

I witnessed at first hand the births of four of my five children. Back in the 1970s that was a relatively uncommon thing. The stereotypical father paced the waiting room until a nurse emerged to tell him ‘It’s a boy!’ But in the 70s, ‘modern’ men were wanting to be present, and provided you had the doctor’s approval, you could be present – although you were required to be quiet and keep out of the way. You were allowed to hold your wife’s hand and speak quietly to her as she went through the pain of labour and birthing. You weren’t allowed to watch any of the actual birth; you weren’t allowed to see the baby crown, and to watch your child emerged from its mother, all wet and covered in mucous and blood.

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