This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt image is of a small boy with a fish. I invited my husband Greg to write an entry for my online research journal.
In Australian country towns you used to know your place. We were Upper Lower Middle Class (somewhere, perhaps, on George Orwell‘s mocking scale), which meant for one thing that although Dad worked as a labourer on the railways—transhipping goods from five-foot-three inch gauge Victorian trains to four-foot-eight-and-a-half NSW trains and vice versa—his wages reached Mum on Friday night untaxed by the six-o’clock swill at Ryan’s Hotel. It helped to be Protestant too. We looked down on the Irish Catholic kids next door, whose father, a plasterer’s labourer, weaved from side to side on his way home along Macauley Street.
That made them Lower Lower Middle class, the necessary foundation of our superior status. But when their old man got a skinful of Victoria Bitter and sang Roll out the barrel‘ with his mates in their backyard, they got indulged by their parents, at least at the maudlin sentimental stage of the booze-up, while we could only peer through the paling fence in jealous disapproval.
This principle also applied to the way we spoke. Rough kids had a richer and freer vocabulary, but we knew how to employ the second-person plural personal pronoun correctly and that to use the wrong form marked you as an ignoramus, destined for an early exit from schooling followed by a dismal apprenticeship in panel-beating or something of the sort.
One day my brother and I, fishing in the river, began talking to a boy—we were about 10 or 12 years old—whose smart rod and reel but shabby clothes and worn shoes marked him as the usual product of poverty: combined parental indulgence and neglect. When he got a bite and missed he damned the uncooperative fish as a ‘bloody black Assyrian bastard’.
We were profoundly shocked and delighted. Here was a phrase crying out for use and re-use. It had alliteration, rhythm, a racial slur, and two powerful swearwords fore and aft. The ‘Assyrian‘ bit was a puzzle, but it seemed to imply contempt for foreigners, a good thing, and it sounded Biblical too, so as a bonus it was probably also sacrilegious.
I am grateful to that Lower Lower boy for introducing me to his splendid incantation. Over the years I have found it very useful for opening screw-top jars and starting small petrol engines.