DAVID HUNT True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 2. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
In True Girt Hunt successfully blends his tongue-in-cheekiness and sometimes dark humour with detailed research.
Following on from the death of Governor Macquarie, the cliffhanger ending of his 2013 bestseller Girt, Hunt’s new volume opens with the colonisation of Tasmania in the ‘Age of the Beard’. It traces the fate of Australia through the birth of Melbourne, Perth, South Australia and Queensland, ending with the execution of Ned Kelly in 1880.
Bushranger tales bookend True Girt, starting with the escaped convicts who took to the wilderness. The romanticising of the bushranger myth began early: ‘These were good men turned just bad enough to be sexy.’ Australia had a surprising diversity of bushrangers, including nudists, Aboriginals, Jews, the cross-dresser Johnny Gilbert, and Charles Patient, notable for stealing books, particularly any Byron or Scott that victims might have on their shelves. Of Kelly, Hunt notes:
Only a person of proud Irish stock could design armour that limits movement, vision and the ability to use a weapon, while leaving its wearer’s lower body completely exposed.
Unflinching in its efforts to acknowledge the brutalities suffered by Aboriginal communities and the prejudices faced by practically everyone who wasn’t a European man, True Girt simultaneously highlights the ludicrous circumstances surrounding much of Australian history. Hunt successfully blends his tongue-in-cheekiness and sometimes dark humour with detailed research.
He also adds to his inventive lexicon. Volume 1 introduced girtuosity and girtage (which are somehow yet to enter everyday usage). Volume 2 introduces such useful terms as sheepflation, ewetilitarian and Asiastan. Hunt also coins Explorermania, the period that included Edmund Kennedy, ‘winner of the Most Explorers Killed in an Australian Expedition Award’, and Ludwig Leichhardt, whose 1848 expedition ‘boasted a 100-per-cent kill rate’.
Nestled into the larger and better-known narratives, including the gold rush, the Eureka Stockade, and Burke and Wills’s ill-fated expedition north (part of Explorermania) are histories cast as flash fiction. Consider one privately owned town founded in 1841:
Australind, a portmanteau of Australia and India, would make Western Australia’s fortune by selling horses to the British Indian Army. However, Australind’s 440 settlers soon discovered there was not enough water for the horses in summer, the horses got rained on in winter, and the poisonous plants made the horses walk in straight lines before their rectums fell out and they dropped dead. The settlers drifted away, abandoning Australind to the sands.
Or the fate of Tasmania’s wildlife, the slaughter of which included:
… tens of thousands of kangaroos, wallabies, emus and swans. Aspiring chefs created fantastic new dishes, with nouveau-Tasmania food critics commending roast echidna, stuffed with sage and onion, for its similarity to goose.
Or ‘Australia’s first and greatest mass mooning’, directed at Tasmania’s Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin. As an eyewitness to the event described it:
The three hundred women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes showing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise.
A cornucopia of footnotes likewise offers glimpses into Hunt’s cabinet of historical curiosities, such as the invention of the Machine infernale, ‘a wooden frame holding twenty-five simultaneously firing guns’. This is also where he chooses to reveal his anti-camel bias, branding them all ‘complete bastards’.
Within this history are many parallels with current events, including Melbourne’s hipster heritage, and the origins of Australian multiculturalism, which developed hand-in-hand with Australian xenophobia. Hunt also manages to include not one but two references to Spinal Tap.
After Ned Kelly is inevitably shot in the knees, put on trial, and finally poised to hang, Hunt takes stock:
The petty thieves and wigged and powdered men who’d yearned to return to Britain had made way for hardy farmers, intrepid explorers, adventurous pioneers, men of coin and ambition, women of passion and vision: nation-builders all.
And there readers are left to await the next volume.
David Hunt True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 2. Black Inc 2016 PB 288pp $32.99
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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