2014 / Saturday

Beautiful lies: True and Funny Adventures in our History

Genevieve Lim

New seagull alert: a stoic stand by Matthew Flinders Image by Jes, used under Creative Commons licence  David Hunt: Australian history curious and strange

New seagull alert: a stoic stand by Matthew Flinders
Image by Jes, used under Creative Commons licence
David Hunt: Australian history curious and strange

The Metcalfe Auditorium at the State Library of NSW was filled with laughter as humorist David Hunt talked about writing Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, which recently won the Indie Award for Non-Fiction and was listed as one of iBooks and the Herald Sun’s best books of 2013.

“The real reason I wrote this book is because girt is a ridiculous word that school kids hate. It sums up the absurdity of our history and it allowed me to publish a book which has got Arthur Phillip standing up … on the ocean fleet, being crapped on by a seagull,” Mr Hunt said.

He has always had a love for history, especially Australian history, but said the way that it is taught does not connect well with young people: “I think people remember stories about the past if some humour is injected into those stories.”

Even Mark Twain wrote that “Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange … It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies, and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”

Among the many surprises and curious points Mr Hunt made was that the Star Trek series was loosely based on Captain James Cook and the voyage of the Endeavour. Captain James Kirk was named after James Cook and the famous catchphrase “To boldly go where no men has gone before” was paraphrased from Captain Cook’s journal, where he wrote “ambition leads me farther than any other man has been before”.

In Girt, Mr Hunt fills out those well-known historical characters who are most often presented as one-dimensional, quoting from their letters and diaries. The nautical explorer and scientist Matthew Flinders is his favourite public figure because after circumnavigating the continent, in 1804 he proposed a name for the place. “We wouldn’t be calling ourselves Australians today without Matthew Flinders,” he said.

In fact, it was a (love) letter from Flinders to his close friend and fellow explorer George Bass that inspired Mr Hunt to write his first book. It’s a lengthy letter but he quotes an interesting part of it: “There was a time when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me any degree of pleasure; your footsteps upon the quarterdeck over my head took me from my book and brought me upon the deck to walk with you …”

Then George Bass’s wife read the letter. She wrote: “This George, is written by a man, that bares a bad character, no one has seen this letter and I could tell you many things that make me dislike him.”

More entertainment came from Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s diary entries, and his efforts at self-improvement drew much laughter from the audience. Governor Macquarie was determined to impress his future wife with his discipline. However, he defined “discipline” as getting dressed by half past two in the afternoon, drinking no more than 12 glasses of wine and one strong beer at night and only consuming mild liquor during daylight hours.

Mr Hunt had his own struggles with discipline writing Girt. His aim of completing 200 words a day was often overturned as he frequently decided that what he had written was not what he wanted and he would have to start again the next day. But despite the difficulties, he said he still enjoyed writing, knowing it would be worth the effort at the end.

“We have a unique history,” he said. “It’s a great history. It’s a history that we should be proud of, although ashamed or cautious [about] in parts. Looking at our history I think helps us understand who we are today and who are the people we might be tomorrow. So, we should embrace our history, we should be proud of it. We should talk about it and we should remember it, so that tomorrow we do know who we are.”