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Laugh? And I learnt something as well

29 October 2016 157 views No Comment

True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 2
BLACK INC., $32.99

David Hunt is an Australian historian, comedy writer, and children’s book author. His ‘Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia’ was shortlisted for the 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and for the Australian Book Industry Awards. He is in the fine tradition of writing gleefully and outrageously about our past, present and future.

In ‘True Girt, the second volume of his unauthorised history (which makes me think of Manning Clark), Hunt states that he will have succeeded with this book “if I’ve made people laugh and squirm at the same time, or laugh and then feel bad about laughing”.

When Penguin published Donald Horne’s ‘The Lucky Country’ in 1964, the book caused many of us to squirm at what was depicted as Australia’s philistinism. As Hunt points out, Horne lambasted our leaders for what he saw as a lack of intellectual curiosity manifested in their unthinking approach to the past, present and future of Australian culture and society.

Reading Horne’s expose we were left in little doubt about what was history and what was satire. But even though ‘True Girt’ boasts copious footnotes and a 13-page index I’m still not sure if it’s primarily an example of intellectual hocus pocus or of revealing historical analysis.

Like Hunt, I found those sections of the book dealing with Indigenous peoples to be difficult and distressing. This especially applies to chapter four, “Genocide is painless”, which is extremely harrowing. Yet, even here, I was sometimes left unsure about what actually happened.

However, I must admit that engaging with ‘True Girt’ and entering into its multi-layered structure was made much more seductive by one of the best front book covers I have seen in years. This takes the form of an arresting photo-portrait of “Captain Moonlite” (i.e. Andrew George Scott) from the Victorian Police Historical Collection. Perching on the head of this sexually ambiguous outlaw is a striking image of a yellow-crested white cockatoo, mouth open, seemingly about to feed or scream, or both.

‘True Girt’ begins with what Hunt calls “the Wild South” , by which he means the furthest frontier of Empire, an unforgiving land for Britain’s unforgiven. He puts it thus: “The pickpockets, prostitutes and handkerchief thieves who unwillingly called Australian home, and those who guarded them, had no interest in the vast alien landscape that pressed upon their tiny settlements.”

So far, so good. But then Hunt writes, “Australia was a sentence and its reluctant inhabitants were waiting for the full stop. And so they desperately clung to the coast, hoping for a ship to take them … anywhere.”

‘True Girt’ ends with the reputed last words of Ned Kelly, supposedly spoken on November 11, 1880 just before he was hanged in Melbourne Gaol , “Such is life.”

Given my confusion about the veracity of at least some sections of ‘True Girt’, this is fitting, as it now seems likely that these words were utter fiction.

And between Hunt’s opening lines and the last? Well, Chapter 10 introduces us to John Ainsworth Horrocks, who holds the dubious distinction of being the only Australian explorer to have been shot dead by his camel. This was a vicious dromedary named Harry who Hunt also claims was the first camel used in Australian exploration. What are we to make of this?

In Hunt’s often playful yet sometimes intellectually troubling book this camel tale is well worth investigating. Digging a little deeper, we find that not only did Harry accidentally kill Horrocks while the explorer was attempting to unload his shotgun, but that he also savaged the expedition’s goats and inflicted two large wounds above the temples of Horrocks’ cook.

The impact of the cover of ‘True Girt’ not only has sustained “wow” power, but it coveys a deep sense of truth. If only more of Hunt’s ambitious and uneven, yet often fascinating book, regularly did so too.

Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books.

‘The Age’ and ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, October 29-30, 2016, Spectrum, Books pp 24-25.

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