In 2012, author David Hunt was working on a new historical sketch comedy for television. The show was pulled but, by then, Hunt knew what was next.
“I’d become fascinated by Australian history,” Hunt says. “I wrote a magazine piece on the Burke and Wills expedition, one of these great high farces of our history. They passed it on to their book publishing arm who said, ‘Do you want to write a book?’ and I said, ‘Sure’.
“I thought why use sketch comedy when the real stories are so absurd, sad and funny?”
The result was Hunt’s 2013 book Girt, described as “a hilarious history revealing the truth of Australia’s past, from megafauna to Macquarie – the cock-ups and curiosities, the forgotten eccentrics and Eureka moments that made us who we are.”
A ten-part podcast series followed in 2015 called Rum, Rebels & Ratbags, exploring the stories left out of your high-school history class. In the podcasts – as in his books – Hunt looks unflinchingly at the past but through a comedic lens. He identifies not with dry textbooks but with writers like Barry Humphries, CJ Dennis (The Sentimental Bloke), the bush poets and even the be-masked 90s pop group, TISM, who wrote caustic songs about mainstream Australian culture.
“Australian history has traditionally been communicated in a fairly dull way to children,” Hunt says. “I wanted to take a more larrikin approach.”
The sequel True Girt was published last year. “It’s darker than Girt because it spends a fair amount of time looking at the clash of Aboriginal and European cultures and the terrible impact that had on Aboriginal people.”
Hunt spends a lot of time researching in the “deepest bowels” of Sydney’s Mitchell Library. It is a “wonderful, quiet, dusty place”, he says, but some of the material he delves into is not easy – especially that concerning what was once called Van Diemen’s Land.
“The Black Line was essentially 3,000 blokes lining up across half of Tasmania and marching in a line to push Aboriginal people into the Tasman peninsula and build a big wall to keep them there. Reading about … attempts to deal with Tasmanian Aboriginal people were the parts that affected me most deeply.”
While Hunt assumed his work would appeal mainly to inner-city lefties, he was wrong. “I’ve got a surprisingly large number of farmers in rural Australia listening to my podcasts and audiobooks on their tractors out in the fields,” he says.
Perhaps that is because his stories are often stranger, and funnier, than fiction. Such as a happening at Cascades Female Factory, in Hobart, where the most recalcitrant convict women were locked up.
“When The Lieutenant Governor Franklin and his wife came to talk to the assembled convict women, there’s a description of 300 women turning around and simultaneously showing their naked posteriors, slapping them rhythmically and making a most unmusical noise. The thought of Australia’s first mass brown-eye, and a sign of political protest, greatly appealed.”
Hunt’s mission is not to change people by “preaching”, he says. “It’s to make them aware of some fundamental truths that have been lost so they can change themselves.”