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Posted on 20 Jun 2023 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

DAVID HUNT Girt Nation: The unauthorised history of Australia volume 3. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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Like its predecessors Girt and True Girt, David Hunt’s third volume is a riotous romp through Australian history.

Covering the late 19th century in the lead up to Federation, Girt Nation brings the makers and shapers of our country to not-so-glorious life as it notes the enormous contradictions evident in people, policies and institutions.

If ever a book captured attention with vital first lines, this is it:


How could one word mean so much, yet so little? It might one day be a nation, but who would be its people?

Australians had to decide who they were and who they weren’t. Un-Australians – Chinese and coloured races (yellow, brown, black – even Aboriginal people) – were not required. Larrikins likewise, until they became part of the national myth.

The first chapter, titled ‘The PM, the Poet and the Push’, opens:

Alfred Deakin was a child of prophecy, his coming foretold by an ancient gypsy woman encountered by Alfred’s father, William, in the west of England. The wizened crone predicted that William would meet and fall in love with his future wife within weeks, that they would travel to the other side of the globe, and the new Mrs Deakin would bear him two children – standard ancient gypsy woman schtick.

It’s an obvious pisstake, yet also something more. Good satire demands a deep knowledge of its subject and it quickly becomes apparent that Hunt knows his history.

Forty years ago, Roger von Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head became a bible for lateral thinkers and Hunt’s series is certainly whack-on-the-side-of-the-head history. The big issues of 150 years ago are paraded – protection, free trade, national development, federation, universal suffrage, defence, women’s rights, economic depression, republicanism – but so are others such as empire loyalty, spiritualism, temperance, racism, xenophobia and utopianism, most of which have passed their used-by date.

A historian friend, who went on to a grand career in museums, once spoke to me of the value of entertainment in mounting exhibitions, and there is much entertainment on offer here. Part of the reason is that Hunt’s books place people first, so when we look at the key figures we note a mass of inconsistencies. Girt Nation can definitely be read with pleasure in its proper chapter order, but as an alternative might I suggest the dip-in approach: start with either the index or the notes.

Beginning with the index, take a few examples from the subheads. Under Deakin:  bitchy comments about other politicians, dodgy financial stuff, hallucinations and out of body experiences, weird shit (non-spiritualist). Henry Parkes:  mad rooting, shit with money. ‘Banjo’ Paterson: love of horses, love of killing things, love of manly men, love of stuffing small boys’ mouths with grass. Henry Lawson – drinking, hatred of the bush, miserable bastard.

You get the drift and want to dig deeper:

The difficulty in understanding Parkes lay in his contradictions. He was vain, yet wore an ill-fitting frockcoat that might have been fashionable decades earlier. He championed the working man, but saw printers at his newspaper gaoled over a pay strike. He condemned Australians who received imperial honours, then pocketed a knighthood. He recommended import duties to protect small manufacturers, only to become one of Australia’s most forceful free trade advocates.

If you check the notes, there’s plenty to choose from. Take this extract from a long one about Paterson’s famous song:

… A swag was known as a matilda and a travelling swagman would waltz matilda, believed to derive from the German auf die Waltze geben (to go a wandering). Matilda is also of German-Australian origin with the name Mathilde used from the eleventh century to denote a prostitute who followed soldiers or itinerant apprentices. Itinerant Australian workers, who didn’t have a girlfriend to provide warmth and comfort at night, turned instead to their blankets – literally humping bluey. That Australian workers replaced women with blankets, and that the chorus of Australia’s most popular traditional song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, is about a country hobo’s wank-rag, says a lot about Australia.

But there are other lures to the dip-in approach.

Take some of the chapter titles: ‘The PM, the Poet and the Push’ (on Deakin, Paterson and larrikinism), ‘I See Dead People’ (on spiritualism), ‘Take the “U” out of Labour and It’s …’ (on the Labor Party’s 30-year confusion over how to spell its name), ‘Let Us Be Up and Doing’ (a quote from Mary Lee on the fight for women’s suffrage) and ‘One Nation’ (without mention of Pauline Hanson).

Or the chapter subheadings: ‘We don’t need no education’ (on the introduction of compulsory, free and secular public elementary schooling), ‘The wordsmith’s tale’ (on Catherine Helen Spence, whose novel Clara Morison was the first by a woman about Australian life), ‘Dirty deeds done dirt cheap’ (on coloured labour being employed at low cost on Queensland sugar plantations), ‘Shearers, seamen and scabs’ (on the great maritime and shearers’ strikes of the 1890s) and ‘Make Australia white again’ (pretty obvious).

In his Acknowledgements at the end of his book Hunt writes:

The great British military historian Sir Michael Howard argued that historians should challenge, and even explode, national myths. The Girt books are a reaction against the nationalist history I was weaned on. They are anti-nationalist histories, if you will – but they are not anti-Australia. They are pro-Australia – an Australia that is reflective, inquiring and forward-looking. They are also intended to speak truth to power and make you laugh.

What a wonderful intention this is, and wonderful in its achievement. If I was teaching courses in Australian history, the Girt books would be top of my reading list. Girt Nation continues the excellent tradition established by the first two volumes. I can already see Billy Hughes gracing the cover of the next, so let us hope David Hunt and Black Inc. maintain their association to at least match Manning Clark’s six volumes of Australian history, if not more.

David Hunt Girt Nation: The unauthorised history of Australia volume 3, Black Inc. 2021 PB 384pp $34.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Oval 1865-1939: A History available from

You can buy Girt Nation from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you Bernard for this glimpse into the Girt Nation histories. I probably won’t get round to reading them but certainly on my grandchildren’s gift list when they are old and curious enough about their country to read these refreshing accounts of Australia girted. Suzanne