…Western Australia needed a bit of coaxing to enter Federation
With Girt Nation, David Hunt’s Unauthorised History of Australia returns, following both Girt and True Girt. Why an ‘unofficial’ history? Probably to shake any potential readers of the misconception that these books are dry, academic tomes, but rather satirical and rather un-sanitized (but no less insightful) takes on Australian history.
And what, a non-Australian might ask, is a Girt? Or what is meant by Girt? While the word is not exactly part of common parlance, our national anthem contains the line ‘Our land is girt by sea*’— meaning that our country is surrounded by the ocean. It could be argued that the fact that we are a massive landmass, girt by sea, that always a little cut off from the rest of the world, was an undeniable constant shaping the nation during our somewhat turbulent founding history.
I‘ve always been rather fond of the satirical tone taken by the Girt series. Perhaps it’s due to the recent nature of our countries written (and colonial) history or our love of cutting down tall poppies, but the ‘great men of history’ style of narrative for Australia never rang true for me. You could be sitting in school hearing about our start as a penal colony (See: Girt) or hearing about the comedy of errors that was the Burke and Wills expedition** (See: True Girt) and never get the impression that these were grand or majestic things, but rather chaotic or sad. That’s not to say there weren’t any remarkable people or notable events that happened in our past. But I think there was also a significant amount of incompetent boobery that cannot easily be hidden by the mists of time— our mists are in rather too short a supply.
As for Hunt, he seems rather gleeful in his efforts to bring boobery to the foreground.
To give you a taste of the tone of the book, I’ll share an excerpt for the introduction, which referring to the nature of the late 19th Century Australians:
There were differences, but also shared values. They believed in democracy (for men), a fair go (for white men) and housework (for women of all colours). They were committed to a free press, trial by jury and, for the most part, freedom of religion. They trusted in commerce, progress and the queen. And most of all, they shared the bond of losing money betting on ridiculously dressed short-arses engaging in S&M with defenceless animals
The latter part refers to our love of horse racing. The nation was (is?) nearly as preoccupied with horses as they were with sheep.
Each volume singles out several historical figures for closer examination, and if there are two people in Girt Nation who receive more than their fair share of the limelight, it is Alfred Deakin and Henry Parks. Now Deakin I knew of as our second, chronically party hopping Prime Minister, who was also a massive driver for Federation. But I was surprised to find that we had a number of things in common: we were both schooled in Kyneton and can both count ourselves as alumni of the University of Melbourne. But I am happy to admit I don’t share his love of rampant racism (hello White Australia Policy). Or his penchant for necromancy. Turns out the spiritualism scene in Melbourne over this period was wild, and one of the main players behind the formation of Australia as a modern nation was not beyond asking the ghost of Queen Victoria’s dead husband for advice.
Okay, we’ve just learnt that Australia’s greatest liberal Prime Minister was a weak-stomached lackey of a notorious snake oil selling, mystic mumbo-jumbo wifebeater; that he possessed mind control powers straight out of the twilight zone, and that he ran happy-clappy necromancy and calisthenic sessions for innocent Aussie kids!
Still, the man was far more effectual than our first Prime Minister Edmund ‘Toby Tosspot’ Barton, so it’s fair that Deakin gets the lion’s share of the attention.
I knew even less about the personal life of Sir Henry Parks, another big player in Federation and five times Premier of the colony/state of New South Wales. What I didn’t know what that it sounded like he was trying to populate the entire colony all by his lonesome, fathering at least 17 kiddies. However, he was much displeased about rabbits trying the same tac on his land.
He too was racist. Of course.
There are a lot of other ‘tit-bits’ of information presented in this book that I would love to know more about. Henry Lawson might have been one of Australia’s best-known writers and bush poets, but I knew very little about his mother Louisa Lawson, who was a publisher and ardent feminist (Who also seemed more sensible than her sprog, whose life story was the stuff trashy soap operas are made of). I admired the mettle of Mary MacKillop and the Josephites. And I am NOT surprised to find that Norman Lindsay was a complete and utter sex pest, and I felt absolutely gleeful every time his name was prefaced as such
But some things also never seem to change. Victoria and NSW have always been at loggerheads, and it’s something we’ve been seeing playing out all over again during the pandemic. The rampant Sinophobia that helped drive Federation has not really shown much sign of actually abating, it’s just gotten a new presentation (Also Catherine Helen Spence? I was with your feminist love of free contraceptives and no-fault divorce, but I am so disappointed with you yellow-peril fear-mongering) And that’s got nothing on the racism aimed at our own First Nations peoples.
In reckoning, the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.
But to turn back to the amusing side, it turns out the Essendon Football Club has had a much longer history of abusing injectables than I was originally aware of
But even if it is a bit on the sardonic—and very much unabashedly political—side, True Girt is very engaging. If the aim is to get the reader to pay attention to our county’s history, I think it succeeds. But I do need to give a word of warning to some readers; The book is peppered with an almost Pratchett-esque number of footnotes***, which are actually integrated very well in the audio version. (Narrated by Hunt himself). But it’s in the footnotes where Hunt is most likely to voice his own opinion on matters or make reference to contemporary Australian politics and culture. If you don’t really pay attention to Australian current affairs, many of these little asides might be lost on you.
But I spent many cheerful hours listening to Girt Nation and would recommend the series to people who like to take their history with a little snark.
* Which every schoolkid cheerfully changes to ‘dirt by sea’ when the principal is not in earshot†.
** The Burke and Wills expedition tried to cross the continent from south to north. There was a there, but no back again.
***which I decided to indulge in myself here.
†We mangled ‘Waltzing Matilda’ worse. A song that is referred to as the “sheep–stealing hobo” one here. And if history had gone slightly differently, the sheep-thief song might’ve ended up our national anthem. And this series would’ve gone by a different title.