I recently decided to be Australian. Or at least, to be partly Australian. To explain, the question of my national identity has long been shrouded in confusion. I grew up in Yorkshire with a Northern Irish family and then crossed the Pennines aged ten to live in Lancashire, where I stayed until I was eighteen, then spent five years at university in Scotland with a year out in France in the middle and since then have been living in the South of England. But before all that, before anything that I actually remember, I was once an Australian toddler going about my business in Canberra, speaking the few words that I actually knew (thank you, no, night night) with a presumably Australian accent. Reentering the nation of Australia for the first time in twenty-odd years back in March, I fell in love. But as someone who has been a devout history nerd since the age of seven, my ignorance of Australian history was unacceptable. If I was going to add Australian to the roster of my nationalities, I was going to need to do some further research and from all I could tell, Girt seemed a good place to begin.
Like most people, I was unfamiliar with the word ‘girt’ before I learnt the Australian national anthem – it has fallen out of common usage more than somewhat. However, as Hunt observes in his introduction, few words can be said to sum up the Australian ethos so well. Australia is the ultimate island continent, unencumbered by other countries at its borders and yet colossally huge in size. While the nation has changed and evolved – particularly over the past two hundred and odd years when the white settlers came along and messed everything up – but Hunt notes that Australia’s ‘girtuosity’ has remained constant. The sea which girts the land has brought all kinds of folk and so this book charts the most memorable characters.
Girt is definitely history-lite – I read some reviews which were critical of its comic tone, anachronistic references and the fact that the author had ‘failed to immerse himself’ in the mindset of the period. Myself, I think that those people had missed Hunt’s purpose. Girt is a joyful gallop across all that is glorious, gory or even grotesque about Australian history. Like a Horrible Histories for adults who have a decent attention span, Girt is an absolute treasure trove for nerds. At times it felt like I was sitting next to Hunt at a dinner party, nodding along enthusiastically as he regaled me with yet another incredible story of yet another incredibly stupid, cruel or insensitive act carried out by the white settlers. I can see how experts in the field might find Girt a little basic but for me, this was an ideal foot in the door.
Hunt is fabulously irreverent towards his country, rolling his eyes at attempts to paper over the various atrocities committed along the way to Australia’s birth as a nation. The legend of Australia was that it allowed people new beginnings, but as Hunt points out ‘Australia was the place to be. Unless you were black. Or a woman. Or gay. Or suspected of being Irish. Or even worse, all of the above.’ He reserves a special level of snide disgust for the way the Australian mythologising has tried to (literally) whitewash its treatment of the First Australians – I only recently discovered that it took until the 1960s for the Aboriginal peoples to cease being classified as faunae and I still can’t quite believe it. While Hunt does not delve into the darkest deeds, he dismisses those who practice the ‘white armband’ theory (that Australian history started with Captain Cook) as being identifiable by ‘their rose-coloured glasses or their white-coloured canes and golden-coloured retrievers’. A lot of Australian history makes for pretty grim reading.
One of the other aspects of the book which makes me think Hunt and I would get on in real life are the tangents. Oh so many tangents. I got the feeling that whenever Hunt stumbled upon something he found interesting, he decided to follow it. This is very much my own approach, as regular readers of the website may be aware. Thus, we get explanations of the Bloody Code, the American War of Independence and various other factors which led to Australia being chosen as the new dumping-ground for people who Great Britain no longer wished to keep around. It’s no wonder that Hunt ended up writing a sequel though – he is clearly not a guy to walk by an interesting fact and just leave it lying there.
Girt covers topics such as whatever happened to the megafaunae (theories are that the Aboriginals ate them all or else it was the last two ice ages), all the people who failed to quite discover Australia, the adventures of Banks the megastar and Cook his lackey, the importance of rum … the list goes on. I was delighted to recognise the names of some of the places we visited in Sydney, it felt like an additional context had been added to the holiday. Street names suddenly made sense as I spotted this or that governor or seaman with the same name. A family friend repeated a phrase that has often been used to describe Australia, that it is a nation trapped between its history and its geography and I find this very apt. Despite being set up as a colony, Australia has always been just so very far from its ‘motherland’ and the attempts of the various governors to enforce order whilst simultaneously promoting their cronies and siphoning off the best land for themselves and as much free convict labour as possible, all of it with no alternative power to call them to account since it took months for reports to get back to London and even then they often chose to ignore matters. It was like reading about a wayward adult’s chaotic childhood and thinking, ‘Oh – so that’s why they’re like that’. I mean, a poor upbringing doesn’t excuse that later bad behaviour, but the background does clarify things. The in-fighting between the politicians and the military, the crooks wanting to make good, the second-generation settlers who felt second-rate to the ‘true’ Englishmen – Hunt brings to life a teeming cast of characters each of whom have stories and he never lets things become dull even for a second.
The tag-line for the book is ‘Not to read it would be un-Australian’, a challenge which my newly uncovered inner Australian was unable to pass up. Indeed, I had high hopes of this book and it did not let me down. Having wanted to buy it from almost the first day of the holiday, I was persuaded to hold off due to baggage restrictions but I made sure that I had my copy waiting for me for when we finally did get home. I have a feeling that this will be a gateway read for me, as I did have a real sense of ‘getting my bearings’ on who was who and the major events. Still, even for those who are not exploring their cultural heritage, Girt is a light-hearted look at the history of a complex, chaotic and colourful country – a comprehensive and compelling read.
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Published by Black Inc. on 2013
Genres: History, Australia & New Zealand, Humor, General
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