True Girt by David Hunt
Like a good many others, I found the version of Australian history taught to me at school fairly dry and boring – nowhere near as colourful or scandalous as ancient Greece or Egypt (or my personal favourite, Anglo-Saxon England). David Hunt’s mission is to change that, and his popular 2013 book Girt has already brought an Australian sense of humour to Australian history.
Succinctly recapping the first volume with a darkly funny eight-panel comic strip, Hunt continues the absurdist comedy that is Australian history in True Girt. Broadly spanning the time period from the colonisation of Tasmania to the Gold Rush and the death of Ned Kelly, Hunt recasts the establishment of Hobart Town, the expeditions of Burke and Wills, and the founding of Melbourne as comedies of error, beset by drunkards, gamblers and perverts.
True Girt contrasts the differing approaches of land ‘acquisition’ between colonial Australia and New Zealand, and reveals the overwhelming preoccupation with sexuality that ended up affecting immigration, mining leases and bushranger culture. The book, Hunt says, is ‘shamelessly political’, rejecting Keith Windschuttle and other historians who downplay the role or status of Indigenous Australians in our country’s history – but Hunt’s first responsibility is to a good yarn. Littered with hilarious footnotes and asides, the parallels Hunt draws to remarkably recent politics suggest that, in Australia at least, history is bound to repeat itself.
For those not familiar with Girt, Hunt’s prose could verge on too flippant – the frontier wars between colonists and Indigenous populations, for instance, are at times recounted in a tongue-in-cheek manner that can seem jarring, given the subject matter – and there’s occasionally a sense that the author is trying to test the reader’s gullibility. But while Hunt skewers all players, his humour never punches down – the truth, overwhelmingly, is stranger than fiction, and the earnest moments are that much more meaningful when they come.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.