‘I’ve never made damper in my life, mate’

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Sir Henry apparently rejected the suggestion that Aboriginal people might like to join the party, retorting: “And remind them we have robbed them?”

For those who did get an invitation, there were free hampers of bread, cheese, meat, vegetables and tobacco. Meanwhile, he writes, that worthies from across the colonies retired to Government House for a seven-course banquet with three French champagnes, two French clarets, sherries, ports and liqueurs.

Our hamper is closer to the first option and comes from Centennial Homestead within the park. We are eating aged San Daniele prosciutto, finocchiata De Palma salami and mortadella. We have wraps of rare roast beef and chicken. There’s a triple cream brie, sharp cheddar and pickles, crackers and grissini all served with a fresh witlof salad.

Cheese, grapes and tonic water at lunch with historical author David Hunt author of Girt Nation in Centennial Park.

Cheese, grapes and tonic water at lunch with historical author David Hunt author of Girt Nation in Centennial Park. Credit:Brook Mitchell

To follow, we have Belgian chocolate mousse and a generous fruit salad. We drink Once & Well Margaret River chardonnay by Freya Hohnen ($21.99) and a refreshing Fever-Tree aromatic tonic water with angostura bark.

Is David a foodie? Can he make damper without a recipe? “I’ve never made damper in my life, mate.” Pavlova? “My mother used to make pavlova and it tasted of scrambled egg. She thought it was Australian by sticking a bit of kiwifruit on top which was part of the whole New Zealand-Australia argument about who created it. I felt she was letting the Australian side down.”

Just a few days out from “freedom day”, he has a few restaurants booked up. “I think I am currently weighing in at 124 kilos, and you don’t get to that without enjoying your food … and a glass of wine — this is my first in 11 days.

“I enjoy cooking Asian food and Middle Eastern foods; I’ve got a tagine at home that I like to dig out occasionally. My wife is responsible for the barbecue — she’s much better at it than I am.”

At lunch with David Hunt, author of Girt Nation.

At lunch with David Hunt, author of Girt Nation.Credit:Brook Mitchell

Girt Nation makes a trifecta of Girt books following Girt and True Girt. In the latest manifestation, he sets out to trample tall poppies in what is described as “an epic tale of charlatans and costermongers, of bush bards [Banjo] and of workers and women who weren’t going to take it any more.”

He says the writing process is probably 85 per cent research and 15 per cent writing. To write, he likes the discipline of leaving home in Pymble on the north shore to compose at the Sydney Writers’ Room in Haymarket.

“If I write at home, I find it difficult to get out of my underpants,” he explains. “I move between the couch and the fridge and the bed and not a lot gets done.

”I hated Australian history at school. I started studying it in the ’70s, and it was convicts, gold, sheep, rum, sheep and explorers leaving little dotted lines on maps, and sheep.

“I think many students today regard Australian history as second-rate history. There’s a belief that to have proper history, you have to have great battles and statues of inbred monarchs in castles.”

Writing wasn’t his first career. First he was a banking lawyer, then a public servant. He then started writing comedy sketches with a historical bent. He was commissioned to write for a TV show when the finances were pulled at the 11th hour.

“I came to appreciate I shouldn’t be doing a history sketch comedy because the real history was so unique and interesting that it would be better to let the history speak for itself,” he says. “When I started writing I was a comic writing about history I now regard myself as a historian (with qualifications) who writes with humour.”

Receipt for lunch - picnic for three.

Receipt for lunch – picnic for three.Credit:Fairfax

Is he in awe of where we are? “That’s one of the great things about Australians — we are disconnected from our history and we are not terribly interested.

“We sought to diminish and conceal our convict past because it was considered socially embarrassing. I have got two ancestors who came out on the Second Fleet. One was James Stiles who had stolen pewter and became a policeman in Parramatta.

So where does Hunt stand on some of the historical issues that have surfaced recently?

The pavilion as it was on the day in Centennial Park it was used to swear the oath of office on Federation day, January 1, 1901, and now in Cabarita Park.

The pavilion as it was on the day in Centennial Park it was used to swear the oath of office on Federation day, January 1, 1901, and now in Cabarita Park.Credit:Fairfax Media

Statues? “I’m not into tearing down statues. It’s an attempt to erase the past rather than confront the past. The plaque on the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park reads ‘Discovered this land 1770’, it’s factually incorrect. That should be corrected.”

Change the flag? “I think it is a bit of a second order issue. I don’t think it has got the mystic and religious significance most people attach to it.”

Change the date? “I do think we should change the date of Australia Day because it is a date that is divisive. There are numerous solutions — people have suggested the Eureka Rebellion but why celebrate a bunch of tax-evading miners?

Hunt favours a republic so will he predict when it might eventuate? “No.”

How about Ben Boyd (blackbirder) and thoughts of renaming the Ben Boyd National Park? “I grew up opposite Ben Boyd Road in Neutral Bay. Boyd was one of the houses [recently renamed] at my school. He did bring out Pacific Islanders, who he treated like shit to do shit jobs. One of the points that I make in the book is of the Pacific Islander Seasonal Worker Program that we have today. When we have a shit job, we go to Vanuatu, one of the islands from where we took people for blackbirding purposes. It’s fair to say none of them will be pocketing the minimum wage so let’s not be hypocritical … It’s easier to pick a target in the past than to pick something that we confront today.”

Running through the narrative of the book is the life and works of two eminent political characters, namely Alfred Deakin, second prime minister of Australia and a leader of the movement for Federation and Sir Alfred Parkes, five-time premier of NSW and “the Father of Federation”. Both, for Hunt, are tall poppies.

“Deakin believed that the spirit of John Bunyan possessed his hand on 49 occasions to write a sequel to the Pilgrim’s Progress, which he unimaginatively named A New Pilgrim’s Progress,” Hunt said.

“He believed he spoke to Prince Albert, Victoria’s dead husband, who would offer advice on Irish-Anglo affairs. Deakin took advice on buying shares from a Ballarat accountant who had been five years in his coffin. For many people, particularly down in Melbourne, spiritualism effectively became a new religion. It’s safe today to call him an incredibly inspirational, influential political figure who had some beliefs that verged on the completely f…… nutty.”

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Of Parkes, who was considered something of a womaniser: “A gold medal rooter,” is Hunt’s immediate clarification. “Seventeen kids, still on the job to his late 70s, a string of mistresses and affairs all of which was reasonably common knowledge. He married his second wife’s nurse. His second wife, who had been his mistress whilst he was married to his first wife, was being nursed by a very attractive young woman from Ireland who very rapidly became Henry’s third wife.”

He credits Parkes with building a world-class education system in NSW.

Lastly Dame Mary Gilmore: “Scott Morrison recognises Mary Gilmore as his great, great aunt. She was the first woman admitted into the leadership of the Australian Workers Union; she was effectively a communist or a socialist. I think it is fair to say that Mary would be disappointed with some of her future relatives.”

As we clear the picnic, I draw his attention to the inscription around the flying saucer which reads “Mammon or Millennial Eden”, which translates “A century of corrupt ill-gotten wealth or will we create paradise?”

His prognosis? “I think Australia is a great country with a lot of going for it, but it has its problems. It’s about acknowledging the good and the bad.”

Girt Nation is available now.

Bill please: Centennial Homestead, 1 Grand Dr, Centennial Park. Open daily 8am-4pm. (02) 9380 9350

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.

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