Pair of ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

MY favourite sub­jects at school were English and his­tory, but I have to ad­mit the at­trac­tion of the lat­ter was very much the “swords and san­dals’’ el­e­ment, as David Hunt re­calls of his own black­board years in his win­ning book Girt: The Unau­tho­rised His­tory of Aus­tralia. Hunt says he loved the “schem­ing Ro­man sen­a­tors, Athe­nian thinkers ... and Mace­do­nian war­lords’’ but Aus­tralian his­tory bored him to tears: “As far as I could make out, it was all about crim­i­nals and sheep.’’ This was my ex­pe­ri­ence, too, and it’s why I still know more about the Pelo­pon­nesian War than the Rum Re­bel­lion, which hap­pens to be handy, as my eight-year-old is ob­sessed with the Spar­tans.

Any­way, Girt slipped un­der my guard when it was pub­lished in Au­gust. I was away at the time, but let’s not make ex­cuses. When the book was named best non­fic­tion at the re­cent In­die Awards, I re­trieved a copy so I could write about it here (yes, some­times this col­umn is the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of a mop and bucket). I’m glad I did, be­cause Girt is a rip­ping read.

Hunt’s writ­ing in­ter­ests span com­edy, pol­i­tics and his­tory, a happy tri­umvi­rate when your sub­ject is Aus­tralia. As he says, the more he learned about our his­tory the more he re­alised it was “fas­ci­nat­ing ... and bloody funny’’. Hunt em­pha­sises the sec­ond as­pect, which re­in­forces the first.

The re­sult is a hu­mor­ous his­tory that is ac­ces­si­ble enough to share with the eight-yearold. He loved, for ex­am­ple, the chap­ter on James Cook, Joseph Banks and the En­deav­our, es­pe­cially the foot­note ex­plain­ing the deriva­tion of the phrase “You’re blow­ing smoke up my arse”. (Hunt’s foot­notes are a de­light in gen­eral.) And he made me read the sec­tion on Matthew Flin­ders’s cat Trim twice, which I gladly did just to take a breather from those san­guinary sons of the Pelo­pon­nese.

Girt starts with the var­i­ous Euro­peans who bumped into bits of the Aus­tralian coast­line (though it later re­traces to con­sider pre-colo­nial times) and ends with Lach­lan Mac­quarie’s forced res­ig­na­tion as gover­nor of NSW in 1821. Hunt has a knack for con­nect­ing the then with the now to sug­gest how lit­tle times change: “A conga line of suck­holes queued at his door to de­nounce the gover­nor.’’ He also sprin­kles his story with ref­er­ences to liv­ing his­tory-mak­ers such as Shane Warne and Tim Flan­nery (won­der­fully pegged as “one of Aus­tralia’s best­known know-it-alls”) and al­lu­sions to con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal is­sues such as the asy­lum-seeker de­bate.

If Girt has a sum­maris­ing state­ment, it might be this: “Aus­tralia owes its ex­is­tence to tea, tax eva­sion, crim­i­nals and cannabis. With these four sturdy pil­lars as its foun­da­tion, what could pos­si­bly go wrong?’’ Lots, and hi­lar­i­ously so. Of course, a lot also has gone right, and Hunt doesn’t ig­nore that. Those who worry about women be­ing omit­ted from Aus­tralian his­tory, for ex­am­ple, should have no quib­ble with this au­thor — though some may find his de­scrip­tion of busi­ness­woman Mary Reibey, the woman on our $20 note, a bit un­gentle­manly: “... Aus­tralia’s first cross-dress­ing, horsethiev­ing, seal-club­bing con­vict en­tre­pre­neur and stan­dover woman’’. Still, Hunt is an equal op­por­tu­nity hu­morist: his por­traits of the sort of people I found dull at school are wicked and whip sharp, with Sa­muel Mars­den a stand­out.

Hunt is at work on a se­quel, True Girt, which will take the story up to “Fed­er­a­tion or Gal­lipoli, depend­ing on how he goes’’, says his pub­lisher Black Inc. I look for­ward to look­ing back with it as a jovial guide. DAVID Hunt will be at the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val in May, the pro­gram for which is out now. In­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors in­clude Break­ing Bad cre­ator Vince Gil­li­gan, Alice Walker, AM Homes, Amy Tan, Emma Donoghue, Gary Shteyn­gart, Adam John­son, Eleanor Cat­ton, Irvine Welsh and Ian Bu­ruma. De­tails at www.swf.org.au.

April 5-6, 2014

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