Pair of ragged claws
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