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David Hunt on ‘Girt Nation’, Diving Deep into History and Finding the Present in the Past

David Hunt is an unusually tall and handsome man who likes writing his own biographical notes. He is the author of the bestselling Girt and True Girt, as well as two books for children. David is also a television presenter and podcaster, and has a birthmark that looks like Tasmania, only smaller and not as far south.

Writers Victoria’s intern, Ethan Lewis, spoke to David about exploring Australia’s surprising and entangled histories in the recently released Girt Nation; writing the distressing, the strange and the just plain weird, and what a deep dive into the past might teach you about what not to do when… ahem.

 

 

One of Girt Nation’s main characters is Alfred Deakin, featured on the cover with the symbol of the Collingwood football club. What motivated you to explore Deakin’s life and ‘participation’ in Australian society? Can you explain how you explore Victoria’s spiritualist history through him?

When I started writing Girt Nation, I knew I wanted it to focus on the transition to Australian nationhood and the development of distinct Australian identities that influenced, or were influenced by, the nationalist push.  As I did my initial research, Deakin’s name kept popping up.  He was not only one of the central figures in the push for Federation and, in my view, Australia’s most influential prime minister, he was also involved in progressing a wide range of the liberal reforms that feature in the book.  He was a man of both principle and vision, and his reliance on the advice of the spirits of the dead to make Australia a better place for the living, combined with his other quirks and eccentricities, makes him a fun character from which to hang the narrative of Girt Nation.

Victoria was a world epicentre of the Spiritualist movement, with various members of Melbourne’s elite (including Deakin, Age proprietor David Syme, Edward Cole of Cole’s Book Arcade, and a host of Melbourne doctors) all communing with the restless and talkative shades of the formerly living.  Spiritualists believed they personally saw, heard and were possessed by the unliving, with this new ‘material’ faith emerging as biblical literalism was being questioned and Victoria was embracing secularism more enthusiastically than any other part of the British Empire.  Given Deakin was the president of the Victorian Spiritualist movement and ran its first ‘Sunday School’ and maintained an interest in alternative faiths throughout his life, he’s a great character for exploring Australian Spiritualism and religion more generally.

And Collingwood? Quite a few stories in the book take place there, but really I just like magpies.

 

Women have and continue to play a large part in the history of the public sphere in Australia. How did you go about researching and exploring the role women have played in Australia’s history in Girt Nation?

Australian history, post-1788, is even lockier than most histories – which isn’t surprising, as the first female settlers were outnumbered seven-to-one and it took almost a century to address gender imbalances within the Australian colonies. Two of Girt Nation’s twelve chapters focus on women’s roles and rights in Australian society and chart the lives of some of the women who made Australia a world leader in women entering the public sphere, and women’s rights more broadly.  I devoured issues of the Dawn, Australia’s first feminist paper, edited by Louisa Lawson, who, like her son Henry, is one of Girt Nation’s central characters.  Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom, Audrey Oldfield’s Women Suffrage in Australia, and biographies of Louisa Lawson and Catherine Helen Spence were invaluable resources.

 

The book has a focus on the rivalry between Victoria and New South Wales. Can you expand more on that and its significance in the work?

Both New South Wales and Victoria wanted to shape Australia in their own image, with their opposing views on protection for domestic industries a stumbling block on the road to Federation.  Each saw itself as the premier colony and neither wanted to cede power to its rival.  They couldn’t agree on a common width of railway track, which colony should host the capital (Canberra being the bastard offspring of this dispute) or the Governor-General (he maintained two residences to avoid the appearance of favouritism), or on which brand of football to play.  They squabbled, they bickered, they put each other down, and tried to show each other up.  Conflict between the colonies, and later the states, is one of the key themes of the book – a theme made more relevant and interesting with the emergence of Covd-19 and the rise of state nativism.

 

What was the most difficult section of history for you to research or write about and why?

Telling the stories of the dispossession of, and discrimination against, First Nations people has been the hardest bit of each of the three Girt books. In researching this book, I discovered that when I was born it was still New South Wales (my home state) government policy that Indigenous children could be removed from schools if the parents of white students objected, and that the Aboriginal protection system in Queensland was only dismantled so that African nations attending the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games didn’t publicly call out Australia as racist. I tell these stories, and those of the incremental erosion of the rights and freedoms of First Nations people throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

In the book you talk about the rise of the Labor party, and even on the issues over the ‘u’ in ‘labour’! Can you expand on that story and why the spelling was so relevant?

Labor spent a productive quarter of a century of infighting over the spelling of its name, with the Laborites finally prevailing over the Labourites in 1918 (although a few ‘u’-loving diehards held out until the 1950s).

The Great Labor Spelling Split can be traced back to Noah Webster, the American language reformer who attempted to standardise American speech and spelling. Webster believed the British aristocracy had corrupted the English language by adding unnecessary letters and encouraging fruity pronunciation, and that overly complex English spelling rules should be replaced by simpler ones that Americans might understand. His 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language (now the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) adopted more phonetic spelling, favouring ‘o’ over ‘ou’ in many words. Webster saw his dictionary as providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism, the break from British spelling reinforcing the United States’ break from Britain.

The split was a symptom of a broader debate on how Australians should speak and write. New South Wales Labor leader and future Liberal prime minister Joseph Cook, who dropped the ‘e’ from the end of his surname as an ostentation, was typical of those who wanted a simpler English, broadly modelled on American lines. Labor, spelling reformers believed, reflected the party’s modernity and was a rejection of aristocracy that spoke to a classless Australian future, rather than the class-riven British past. It also saved on ink.

 

What is a part of your studies in Australian history that made you laugh the most?

It tends to be individual stories that grab me. Discovering 1890s Essendon Football Club trainer Carl von Lebedur was a high point.  He doubled as a ‘doctor’, injecting those who came to him to cure them of their masturbatory urges with crushed dog, goat and guinea pig testicles, and dedicated his long life to committing criminal and immoral acts. Stumbling across the Crutchy Push, a feared turn of the century larrikin gang that limited its membership to amputees, was another highlight.

 

You have said in a previous interview that these stories are cautionary tales. What is the main lesson you want readers to walk away with when they finish Girt Nation?

Girt Nation covers the White Australia Policy and earlier anti-Chinese restrictions; the dispossession and dehumanising treatment of First Nations people; and the institutional oppression of women. These issues all have echoes in 2021 Australia. I hope my writing makes people think about these issues and promotes human rights and equality.

I also want masturbating readers (please avoid while enjoying Girt Nation) to steer clear of dodgy Swiss gentlemen who offer them a shot of guinea pig gonads.

 


 

Courtesy of Black Inc., we have two complete sets of David Hunt’s stunning non-fiction trilogy The Unauthorised History of Australia, including Girt, True Girt and Girt Nation, to giveaway to our lucky members! To enter the draw, email your postal address to members@writersvictoria.org.au by Thursday 23 December with ‘Girt Nation’ as the subject.

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