Girt Nation is the third volume of David Hunt’s Unauthorised History of Australia, following on from 2013’s Girt and 2016’s True Girt. The series is ostensibly a wry retelling of the history of Australia, with volume three covering the decades between the 1850s gold rush and Federation in 1901.
Girt Nation covers a lot of ground, careening from event to event and character to character. It is framed by the lives of Alfred Deakin, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, with regular appearances from Henry Parkes, Louisa Lawson, John Archibald and Catherine Helen Spence. The text is illustrated by a series of Terry Gilliam-esque photo collages and densely packed with footnotes offering a mix of anecdotes, political gags and slang etymologies.
Having set such a broad topic, it’s unsurprising that Hunt’s treatment of many issues and events feels superficial. It would be difficult to give due consideration to the Australian suffrage movement, the formation of the Australian Labor Party, the rise of the larrikin, the New Australia colony, the Shearers’ Strike, the White Australia Policy, the Spiritualist movement and Australia’s Federation in the mere 350 pages that Girt Nation spans.
Hunt’s conversational tone makes for easy reading, but his jokes often fall flat. His snarky tone, though conceivably well meant, is often at odds with the tragedies he discusses – and at times completely out of place. A gag about keeping your head in the game presented immediately after the discussion of the beheading of Indigenous resistance fighter Jandamarra is one example.
While the overall contention of Girt Nation – that Australian history is thick with iniquity and self-interest – is difficult to argue with, it is also hardly a surprise to anyone who has read any Australian history. Though it’s refreshing to see these iniquities pointed out, Hunt never interrogates the broader causes and consequences of racism and sexism.
As a sarcastic whirlwind tour of the moral failings of 19th-century Australia, Girt Nation works well enough. What value it adds to the broader conversation is unclear. Those familiar with Australian history will find its light touch unsatisfactory, while those unfamiliar can easily find other books on these events that treat them with greater depth.
It does work as a history primer of sorts – Hunt’s notes on his sources provides a handy bibliography for the keen amateur historian. Ultimately though, the premise is amusing but there’s not much more to it beyond that.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Girt Nation, David Hunt".
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