Ben Pobjie: Error Australis is a book of jokes. Its raison d’etre is comedy. Its mission statement is making people laugh.

by |January 10, 2017

All I’ve ever wanted is for something I’ve written to be taught in schools. Well, OK, not all I’ve ever wanted. I mean I have wanted a lot of things in my life: money, sex, Phantom t-shirts, a pilot’s licence, a genie…but right up there in the top twenty-five percent of the list is having my work taught in schools.

The chance to mould young minds. The opportunity to influence a new generation. The sweet promise of innocent youth to corrupt. Who wouldn’t want that? Obviously when you write a book you want everyone to read it – or at least, you want everyone to buy it: reading it is pretty optional to be honest. But having it made a part of the curriculum is an especial thrill: nothing could be more satisfying as an author.

Given that, I felt a responsibility, when writing my latest book, Error Australis, to not only try to get it into schools, but to craft a work that deserves to get into schools. A man of lesser talent might have quailed in the face of such a challenge. Luckily I’m me – I made sure Error Australis is worthy of a place in our educational system, and I’m here to tell you why this book needs to be in schools, post-haste.

The chance to mould young minds. The opportunity to influence a new generation. The sweet promise of innocent youth to corrupt. Who wouldn’t want that?

Ask any school student what they think of Australian history, and they’ll give you the answer: it’s boring. If you can find a kid who doesn’t find Australian history boring, you’ve found either a liar or one of those irritating little nerds who are always sucking up to the teacher. But you can’t design a history course only for the irritating nerds. The message of history deserves to be heard by all.

We know why Australian history seems so boring. Viewed superficially, it lacks the epic sweep of other nations. Given it wasn’t until 1788 that white settlement shattered the serenity of the continent’s original inhabitants, Australia missed out on the entertainingly bloodthirsty shenanigans that made medieval Europe such fun, and lacked the latter’s shifting borders, constant invasions, and syphilitic royalty. Additionally, Australia the nation was born via a quiet, orderly process of federation, rather than in violent revolution: in fact, revolutions passed us by entirely, as did civil wars; so we missed out on the large-scale acts of rebellion and internal self-hatred that make the histories of countries like America, Russia, France and Britain so compelling. And of course, beyond anything else, Australia just isn’t a big player on the world stage: not much that happens here has any major effect on geopolitics around the globe.

So, what we have, in this sleepy little corner of the world, is a fairly uneventful, fairly peaceful backwater that nobody else pays much attention to. Is it any wonder we find the history of such a place boring? Is it any wonder that whenever the teacher turns to the subject of Australian history, we yawn and start counting the seconds until we get to Napoleon or Billy the Kid?

This is a crying shame, because like every nation on earth, Australia is actually possessed of a fascinating, surprising, and often amusing history, as long as you take the time to learn about it. Or should I say, as long as someone takes the time to teach you about it properly.

The problem with the way we view history is that we view it in terms of those epic sweeps. When we look at the past, we do so as observer-gods, floating high above the landscape: we watch the movement of vast armies on battlefields, we see borders move and twist, we see cities built and wars waged and we notice only the giants, the colossuses who bestride history. Everything is in widescreen. If we choose to investigate further, we pick the places and times to look more closely based on what we see from that lofty vantage point. That’s why we know so much more of the minutiae of American history than our own: because when we were floating among the clouds, America looked so much more interesting.

Australia is actually possessed of a fascinating, surprising, and often amusing history, as long as you take the time to learn about it. Or should I say, as long as someone takes the time to teach you about it properly.

But you never find the most interesting bits by staying up high. To discover the real beauty of history, you need to get down at ground level. You need to see what went on at close quarters, look at the people up close and see all the weird details of their lives. You need to dive down into the mud and blood of history and splash around up to your armpits until history has thoroughly coated you. But if we want kids to do that, we have to convince them that the mud and blood is there. The superficial version of history taught to children has very little of the real down and dirty stuff of history – it’s a succession of landmarks and dates and solemn pronouncements on the affairs of the mighty. You can’t get to grips with the people who lived in this version of history, because they’re not really people: they’re statues.

Now I’m not claiming that Error Australis is not superficial: as it covers the entire period from the formation of the earth up to Malcolm Turnbull, it necessarily had to skim over some bits. But what it lacks in exhaustiveness, my book more than makes up for in complete and utter disrespect for every figure of the past.

That’s right: my book is the essential guide to Australian history because it takes a look at the major figures of Australian history, the great and the good and the powerful and the iconic, and declares every one of them as stupid and greedy and naïve and incompetent as anyone we’re familiar with today. If we can mercilessly mock the famous of today, there’s no reason we can’t do the same to the famous of yesterday. Because they were just people, and before they become statues, they were prey to every human frailty that every human has been prey to since the dawn of time.

To discover the real beauty of history, you need to get down at ground level. You need to see what went on at close quarters, look at the people up close and see all the weird details of their lives. You need to dive down into the mud and blood of history and splash around up to your armpits until history has thoroughly coated you

Yeah, the book is a book of jokes. Its raison d’etre is comedy. Its mission statement is making people laugh. It’s not that I ever deviated from that purpose, it’s just that making people laugh has myriad benefits quite apart from the obvious ones of lowering blood pressure and distracting them while you steal their wallets. In the case of history, it’s laughter that can open up the field, clear away those clouds, give the watcher a way to drop down to ground level and get muddy. When we laugh at something – or someone – we abandon all reverence for the subject, we break free of the shackles of respect and let the pedestals on which we place history’s high achievers crumble. Suddenly, because we’re laughing at the icons of history, they cease to be icons and are simply people.

Ben Ponjie with Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling

And this is how, when you read Error Australis, you do not simply laugh at it – although you obviously DO laugh at it, because it’s hilarious and I am incredibly talented. But you also find a whole new vista opening up to you. You learn. You learn fascinating facts like the Emu War of the 1930s, when Australia’s army was stymied by the peerless fighting force of Australia’s flightless birds. You learn about Hume and Hovell, how they fought over a frying pan, cut their tent in half, and then ended up in completely the wrong place. You learn about Ben Hall, the bushranger with a more romantic story than Ned Kelly’s and a whimsical passion for making police look like idiots. You learn about the Kiwi stretcher bearer who worked with a donkey for much longer, and saved many more lives, than John Simpson Kirkpatrick, but was denied his place in history by nothing more than random chance.

When you read Error Australis, you do not simply laugh at it – although you obviously DO laugh at it, because it’s hilarious and I am incredibly talented. But you also find a whole new vista opening up to you. You learn.

There are jokes about the First Fleet, the Eureka Stockade, the Anzacs, the Boer War, the gold rush – Australia’s own Wild West and are as much fun as mass movements of greed, desperation and frontier violence always are. I assure you, those jokes will do more to spark an interest in our country’s history than any stultifying textbook ever will. It’s not so much that Error Australis will teach you much – apart from the magic of laughter – but reading it will make you want to learn more, to delve deeper, to discover what else is hiding in the suddenly-fascinating corners of the previously-dusty museum of Australia’s past. If you want your kids to become excited about Australian history, this is the book you want them reading in school.

Or maybe you just want them to have a good time – it works for that too.

Error Australisby Ben Pobjie

Error Australis

by Ben Pobjie

We’re engrossed with reality TV these days, yet we so often neglect the greatest reality of all: the reality of our nation and how it came to be.

In Error Australis, TV columnist, comedian and history buff Ben Pobjie recaps the history of Australia from its humble beginnings as a small patch of rapidly cooling rock to its modern-day status as one of the major powers of the sub-Asian super-Antarctic next-to-Africa region. As thrilling as it is to see Delta Goodrem’s chair turn around, there’s an argument that World War Two was even more exciting and, like any good recapper, Pobjie provides an immediate, visceral sense of what it was like to be there in the moment at our nation’s defining events...

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