BEN POBJIE Error Australis: The reality recap of Australian history. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Ben Pobjie’s Error Australis gives new insights into the reality show of Australian history.
Professional recapper Ben Pobjie has summarised the entirety of the long-running series Australia, which remains on-air and popular around the world. This recap is perfect for people who fell asleep through the early episodes, or for foreigners like me, who have only just tuned in and don’t have time to properly catch up on all 228 years of screen time, plus the roughly 50 000 years of prequel series.
The book starts with the prequel’s forerunner, which featured Australia as part of the supercontinent Pangaea, and later, of Gondwana. The stars of these early episodes included the Qantassaurus, the ‘lizard with insufficient leg-room’. Pobjie then devotes three entire pages to the Aboriginal Australians before delving into the series premiere that launched Australia so memorably, the First Fleet.
His strengths lie with getting to the emotional conflicts of the series’s main characters. He gives the facts and figures, sure, but in presenting those details, he convinces us why we should care about episodes that aired a really long time ago. For example, he writes:
The Second Fleet was a fiasco. Like many sequels, they made the fatal mistake of trying to cram in too many new characters: the ships carried over a thousand convicts, which made it difficult to undertake any serious character development. … Some might say the operation went awry at the point when the Crown agreed to pay the fee whether the convicts survived or not. Naturally, [the contracted firm] obeyed the old business maxim ‘Don’t blow your profit margin on keeping people alive’ and, in what experts have called the most predictable outcome of anything to have ever happened, 26 per cent of the convicts on board the fleet died on the way to Australia.
Other classic episodes Pobjie delves into include William Bligh and John Macarthur in ‘The War of the Two Jerks’, William Hovell as the ‘Accidental Idiot Father of Geelong’, and the Golden Age of Pamphletry. He also devotes time to the founder of Melbourne, John Batman, who named the new town ‘Batmania’. Unfortunately Mr Batman managed to ruin what is possibly the best city name in history by also being prominently involved in Aboriginal massacres, so it’s probably best that Melbourne keeps it current name, but also disappointing, as Pobjie points out.
Error Australis also gets to the heart of Ned Kelly’s story, including the time he was ‘imprisoned for six months for assault and sending calves’ testicles through the mail’, which, according to Pobjie, is an actual historical fact. Throughout the book Pobjie indicates where he stays true to Australia’s script and where he employs his creative licence as a recapper.
He depicts the founding of the Australian nation through a transcript of the 1891 constitutional convention proceedings, in which Samuel Griffiths declared:
‘We agree that the six colonies of the Australian continent will unite to form a single federation. We also agree that New South Wales and Victoria will always be the most important states, in return for which the other states will be permitted to develop aggressive inferiority complexes.’
The more obscure but equally classic episodes feature as well, such as the Great Emu War, when 20 000 emus invaded Western Australia during the Great Depression. The Australian government responded to this threat by sending in the army – and the army lost. Why there is no day of national commemoration for this military defeat is a question Error Australis doesn’t pose, and this seems like a missed opportunity for both Pobjie and the country as a whole.
The book ends, somewhat predictably, by exploring the modern era, with a particular focus on the bizarre circus of Australian politics. Pobjie is not afraid to skip over the tedious bits, such as the time that winsome scamp Gough Whitlam ran into financial trouble:
By blocking supply, the Opposition ensured that on 30 November, the government would literally run out of money. No problem, you might think: they’re the government, they can print some more. Well, you’d think so, but there are a lot of very boring reasons why they can’t do that. For one thing, you have to pay the printers to turn the printing presses on, and you can’t do that if you have no money. This is where the phrase ‘You have to spend money to make money’ comes from.
This is more than just a recap of Australia’s most notable episodes, however: Pobjie explores the deeper meaning we can draw from them, daring to ask what they mean for us, the viewers. In considering the Anzac legacy, for instance, he writes that the Great War:
… helped sculpt a new identity for Australia, one that survives to this day and makes no more sense now than it did then. What, then, is this identity? Is Australia a nation of soldiers? A nation of heroes? A nation of British lapdogs? A nation of invaders of sovereign nations? A nation of clean-limbed young men stupid enough to volunteer for the army? Australia is all these things and, for all I know, more. And we have World War One to thank for that.
To encourage the kind of serious reflection this complex material requires, each chapter ends with essay questions such as ‘Explain, using diagrams, how you would have built a much better Eureka Stockade’.
In all, Pobjie has crafted the ultimate recap of a long-beloved series that jumped the shark decades ago, yet shows no signs of flagging despite decreasing popularity among its core fan base. He even manages to mention five or six women by name, which is not bad seeing as women have long been cast in only minor roles in Australia’s scripts. Even if you’re a long-time fan of the show, Error Australis will give you new insight into the Aussie characters you’ve loved and hated for two centuries and more.
Ben Pobjie Error Australis: The reality recap of Australian history Affirm Press 2016 PB 310pp $29.99
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith Review, McSweeney’s and Right Now. She teaches writing and public speaking, performs stand-up and has written two memoirs. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
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