Australian history through the eyes of a dirt digger

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Girt The Unauthorised History of Australia, by David Hunt. Black Inc. Publication date: August 2013.

Cover of Girt The Unauthorised History of Australia

BARRY:

Some people care deeply for lived and recorded history, hoping that lessons learned will not be lost. Others view the canvass of history as a battleground, strewn with weapons with which to bludgeon their ideological or class enemies.

David Hunt is a satirist and history buff. As a newcomer, he presents as ‘an unusually tall and handsome man who likes writing his own biographical notes for all the books he has written [one]’. For him, history is an abundance of mistakes, piss takes and riffs on life’s absurdity and human fallibility.

Historiography as practised by Mr Hunt is an exceedingly clever way to skewer the rapier of truth through the carcass of officious mendacity. He unerringly hones straight into the bowels of reactionary handwringing over liberal re-examination.

I tend to rate humorists on their capacity to provoke ‘laugh out loud’ responses, seducing the reader through eliciting solidarity, bewilderment and epiphany. By any and all of those responses, Hunt quickly had his wicked way with me.

I appreciate, also, the weary and well-honed observational skills (and effective bull dust detector) concealed by his award-winning badinage.

Hunt largely focuses, tongue-and cheek in groove, on Oz post-European invasion, and sees Australia’s often inept, sometime kind and inevitably surprising tale as ‘fascinating…the greatest Australian sketch comedy that has never been made [and] bloody funny’.

If you cock a snook at his varied areas of interest you’ll be encouraged to delight in the bizarre application of terra nullius to the nation’s ‘unoriginal non-inhabitants’, the comparative paucity of exploration (and attribution) of European and sundry other silly persons, who may or may not have wandered around the place while adhering bits of crockery to scenery and killing locals and their crews.   

Hunt really goes to town on the ludicrous decision making and governance processes that led to colonisation (read invasion), settlement and relocation of poor Britishers (read ‘the Irish’, etc.), the liberal use of rum as a unit of currency and Macarthur’s grandiloquent sport of toppling governors.

Character evisceration (assassination is too mild a term) of historically repugnant chaps such as the mutineers’ Captain/Governor William Bligh and hypocrite/gun-runner/flogger /killjoy/racist/misogynist the Rev. Samuel Marsden are joyfully interspersed with contemporary references and observations on diverse aspects of our heritage – sexploitation, corruption, cultural elitism, homophobia, eurocentrism and the pursuit of ignorance over observable truths.

It’s somewhat a case of art vilifying grubby excuses for life.

There are gems that roll off the page and will stay with you, such as his observation that the Sydney mania over real estate is founded in the colonists’ early struggles and Macarthur’s anti-Bligh diatribes: ‘Sydney people love real estate – It’s all they talk about at parties – and were aghast at the thought that the government might seize their 1BDR/0BTH hovel with double lock-up convict.’

I fear Hunt pulls stumps way too early (post Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s return to ignominious penury, wherein ‘he deeply resented not having any money to not spend’), which leaves me eagerly awaiting Hunt’s ‘part two’ offering. What about you, Jen?

JEN:

Well I’m wondering if there has ever been a word that better encapsulates what it means to be Australian? Girt. David Hunt certainly doesn’t think so. As he reminds us in Girt, 'Australia is entirely and defiantly girt by sea'. 

But with Girt there’s also plenty of dirt:  'Australia was the place to be,' writes Hunt with tongue firmly in cheek. 'Unless you were black. Or a woman. Or gay. Or suspected of being Irish. Or even worse, all of the above.'

The author (who recently declined Joe Hockey's overture to employ him as his speech writer) doesn’t rewrite our past as much as give it a good shake up; allowing little time for the dust to settle. On behalf of anyone who suffered through the dry retelling of the Eureka Stockade and the glossing over the Aboriginal experience during my history lessons, I, for one, applaud the audacity.

A point of fact we Aussies have sadly missed is that our beginnings were every bit as volatile, questionable and fascinating as America’s. In that baptism of 'geography, economy and necessity', the lowly were elevated to greatness, while the mighty fell. 'Rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, Catholic and Protestant and Jew were left to simmer in the cultural melting pot.'

And who would have thought that the retelling could be so 'bloody funny' (certainly not my form four teacher) or warrant so many footnotes? And so it is we learn that it was botanist Sir Joseph Banks and not Captain James Cook who was once known as 'the father of Australia' (although, Hunt drily notes, Banks spent as much time studying women as plants); that John Macarthur was instrumental in privatising NSW, and, perhaps most crucially, that it was rum rather than the pound that drove our economy.

I was pleased to see that women, too, get their 15 minutes of fame. I loved that Elizabeth Macarthur and Jane Macquarie come across every bit as dogged and ambitious as their husbands. And I’ll not look at a $20 dollar bill the same way again, since learning that the woman on the note, Mary Reiby, was our first 'crossing-dressing, horse-thieving, sea-clubbing entrepreneur and standover woman'.

Hunt certainly fleshes out more than just the dry bones of these historical figures, and his hilarious observances often had me in stitches, but there were times when I felt that fact gave way for wit. It’s but a minor criticism, because through Girt’s delightfully distorted prism the question of where we came from—and, perhaps, where we go from here—seems somehow clearer. 


Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fairfax Media, The Herald Sun and The Australian. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Article amended to reflect the fact that David Hunt declined Joe Hockey's invitation.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, book review, David Hunt, Joe Hockey, Australian history

 

 

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A conversation from Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey" (published 1818): 'I am fond of history.' 'I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.' It's nice to see history is still being interpreted though!
Pam | 23 October 2014


Cheers for the review. But, alas, I didn't take up the Hockey job.
David Hunt | 23 October 2014


Hi David. My apologies regarding the Hockey reference. ES editors have been notified. Best regards, Jen.
jen | 24 October 2014


Wow! David Hunt reads Eureka Street. What a pity David didn't take up that Hockey job! It gives the lie to ES's headline to Gittins and Vuk's revie of Girt. Still it goes to show you can't trust everything you read in the media these days - even with fact check at your elbow. History teachers I have known did not have history as part of their teaching degree/diploma. At best they read from a stodgy text and were only one chapter in knowledge ahead of the class. By the time I read Girt earlier this year I was fairly familiar with the story of Australia beginning with Dampier (that wetter than wet Englishman) recoiling from Australia's overall aridity and 'the miserablest people in the world' up to 'the land down under' that made history by winning The America's Cup'. Australia may be girt by sea but Hunt still manages to loosen her girdle and expose some sad and bad and funny things that happened as she made her way in the world. Shame! I'd cry out in disbelief one minute, only to laugh out loud the next at the antics of The Currency Lads. Girt's a fun read.
Uncle Pat | 24 October 2014


'He unerringly hones straight into the bowels of reactionary handwringing over liberal re-examination.' You can't met a mixaphor more thoroughly than that. And Mr Hunt - you didn't take the Hockey job? Allow me to buy you a beer.
David B | 24 October 2014


I have changed the title. David Hunt is now a generic dirt digger, not particular to Joe Hockey.
Michael Mullins | 24 October 2014


What would someone like Hockey do with Hunt as his speech writer. The intellectual gap would turn into chasm; the former not understanding the subtlety of everything including monetary matters and the latter whose wit is permanently enshrined in irony.
Alex Njoo | 24 October 2014


No worries, Jen. And being a proud Loreto dad, I have been known to read Eureka Street.
David hunt | 25 October 2014


Here I was thinking David Hunt was a civilized human being who appreciated the finer side of our beginnings as a white occupation in the terra nullius. Now I find he works for the monstrous purveyor of attacks upon the poor and disadvantaged. I am in deep shock.
Bilal | 26 October 2014


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