One day we will look back on this moment and laugh. The author of new book Error Australis, Ben Pobjie, reflects on the most comical characters and cock-ups of Australia’s past.
History, let’s be blunt, is hilarious.
It’s hilarious for the same reason life itself is hilarious: it’s filled with weirdos and idiots screwing everything up in the worst ways possible.
But the beauty of history as a comedic resource is that it all happened ages ago, so you don’t have to pretend to feel sorry for the people it happened to.
Many people believe that Australian history is a boring and colourless saga and that our nation lacks historical periods or events with the rich humorous potential of, say, the English Civil War, or the Spanish Inquisition.
Yet a closer examination of the figures of our past will show that, to the contrary, Australia’s history is the funniest thing that ever happened to this country. To get a taste of what I mean, peruse these: the five funniest moments in Australian history.
1. The Emu War
Australia cannot lay claim to any great empires or epic conquests, but we do have one distinction that no other nation on Earth can boast: we are the only country in history to lose a war to birds.
In 1932, the farmers of Western Australia, fed up with the 20,000 emus that kept dropping in to their farms to eat all their crops, went to defence minister Sir George Pearce to demand he take action to safeguard the precious wheat of the Campion region.
Pearce, a man who knew the value of a show of strength, decided that what the emus needed was a hefty dose of good old-fashioned military might.
And so Major GPW Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery was sent, along with two soldiers, two Lewis guns, and 10,000 bullets, into the scrubland to show the emus just who was the more highly-evolved species.
Almost immediately the expedition ran into trouble. The soldiers attempted to herd the emus into a suitable place in which to mow them down en masse, but the birds, well-trained in guerrilla tactics, continually split into small groups and ran off in different directions, making it damnably difficult for the guns to draw a bead on them. Also, the guns jammed.
Also, when the guns worked, and when an emu stood still long enough to shoot at, they proved resistant to bullets to an unsettling degree. Meredith wrote:
“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world. They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”
The soldiers retreated, weary and sick of the sight of feathers. Meredith’s official report noted, optimistically, that his men had suffered no casualties. The emus’ report noted that humans were slow-moving and stupid.
The House of Representatives debated the matter and questions were asked of the minister regarding whether medals were to be awarded for survivors of the campaign.
The question of why, blessed as we are with a native animal that is essentially a cross between an armoured car and a velociraptor, our military has not taken advantage by training emus for combat duty in the ADF, remains unanswered to this day.
2. Hume and Hovell’s Frypan Fight
Hamilton Hume and William Hovell are two of Australia’s most accomplished and amusing explorers.
Their exploits included many highly comic moments, including the time Hume threatened to throw Hovell into the Murray River, and the time they went to Corio Bay, which Hovell told everyone was Western Port Bay because of his poor sense of direction — an excellent quality for an explorer to have.
But the incident which was not only revelatory of the pressures and challenges of the exploring lifestyle, but also seems to have been heavily inspired by an episode of I Love Lucy, was the famous frying pan fight.
This happened when relations between the intrepid pair reached an all-time low, with Hovell sick of Hume constantly making him cross rivers and Hume tired of Hovell stumbling around aimlessly bumping into trees and so forth.
An argument over the best way to proceed when they ran up against a mountain – Hume most likely thinking they should walk around it and Hovell probably wanting to bang his head against it ’til it fell over — became heated, and the explorers decided the only way to move forward was to split up.
Understandably, they divided up their provisions. Less understandably, the resolved to cut their tent in half. But the real brawl was over the expedition’s frying pan, which was apparently of great sentimental value to these two pioneering cretins.
They fought over it — and I don’t mean they argued, I mean they stood in the wide Australian outback, each having hold of one side of the pan, pulling furiously.
In the end, the pan fell into two pieces, and one man took the pan itself, the other taking the handle. What the one who got the handle thought he was going to do with a frying pan handle with no frying pan attached, historians can only speculate on, but I suppose it was a kind of moral trophy.
If they’d had time, they probably would have drawn a line down the middle of the Great Dividing Range and ordered each other to stay on their own side.
Later on, Hovell rejoined Hume when, in a rare interlude of self-awareness, he realised he’d stuffed up, but history had already been illuminated by the glorious petulance of two of Australia’s most irritatingly half-witted explorers.
3. Ned Kelly’s Pen Pal
Ned Kelly is one of our most iconic murderers, cutting a swathe through 19th-century colonial Australia with style, bravado and most importantly, a funny hat.
He is legendary for his bushranging exploits, but less well-known are his tangles with the law before he took to the bush.
These include the occasion on which young Ned, on being accosted by a police constable who had noticed him riding a stolen horse, beat up the copper and rode around on his back — quite a social faux pas in those days.
The pre-bushranging Ned Kelly committed numerous crimes of varying seriousness and strangeness, but one of the most strange — if not most serious — was his defence of a friend, Ben Gould, who had been accused of horse stealing by one Jeremiah McCormack (horse stealing was common in those days as there was no internet and youths were starved for entertainment).
Kelly and Gould resolved to teach McCormack a lesson and, to that end, sent McCormack’s wife a rude letter, accompanied by a box of calves’ testicles.
While it’s not exactly “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, you’ve got to admit that getting a couple of cow balls in the mail would shake a person up, and it showed that even then, at the tender age of 15, Ned displayed a keen instinct for psychological warfare and a taste for the nauseating that would serve him well in his future career.
These days, nobody even writes letters anymore, let alone takes the time to package up a bundle of bovine gonads to hammer home the message to an enemy, and in a way that’s a shame.
Say what you like about the days of colonial Australia, but back then men were men, women were women, and calves’ testicles were hand-delivered, and that’s a piece of traditional Aussie culture we’ve lost.
4. Menzies’s Kisch-Off
The Egon Kisch affair was one of the jolliest bits of tomfoolery in Australian political history, hilarious mainly for the fact that it involved government policy so mind-blowingly and transparently moronic that one has to admire the sheer audacity of the federal government in being so unafraid of looking like idiots in public that they actually implemented it.
Egon Kisch was a communist and anti-war activist who had gained notoriety in Europe for opposing Hitler, a stance that though soon to gain widespread popularity, was in 1934 a prime example of the dangerous extremism that the Lyons government wished to keep out of Australia.
Kisch planned to visit Australia to speak of his experiences under the Nazi regime, which gave the government the screaming irrits. They refused him entry, but Kisch circumvented the ban by the cunning tactic of leaping off his ship onto Station Pier and breaking his leg.
However, his belief that broken legs were grounds for entry was ill-founded, and he was returned to his ship. Kisch supporters took his case to the High Court, and attorney-general Robert Menzies, the future prime minister and eyebrow model, stated that we would determine who came to this country and the circumstances in which they come (a sentiment that would later inspire John Howard, and then every Liberal and Labor MP in the country).
The surrealist humour of the government denying entry to a foreign intellectual for being too vehemently anti-Hitler was droll enough, but it got even better when the government, prevented from banning Kisch by the High Court, tried to exclude him via the Immigration Restriction Act, one of the most amusingly lunatic laws any country has ever passed.
The act stated that anyone who failed a dictation test in any European language could be excluded. This meant that even if one of those disreputable foreigners were so underhanded as to learn English — i.e. the language Australians spoke — the government could prove their unsuitability to enter the country by proving their lack of fluency in, say, Portuguese or Romansch, or any of the other languages that were totally irrelevant.
Kisch was a particularly difficult case, though, because he happened to be able to speak many European languages, being a widely-travelled and well-educated Jewish German Czech.
He passed the test in tongue after tongue, and the government was at its wit’s end when the solution was found. Kisch was ordered to write the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic, a language noted for being spoken by almost nobody, including Scottish people such as the Scottish-raised immigration officer who tested him.
Kisch failed, and Menzies and Lyons high-fived.
The High Court rained on their parade by ruling Scottish Gaelic was not covered by the Act, and Kisch was allowed in: but history’s annals had gained another sparkling chapter.
To be clear, Australia’s government attempted to deny entry to an anti-Nazi activist by use of a law which blocked foreigners from visiting the country if they were unable to speak a language chosen by the government that was not the official, or even a commonly-spoken, language in Australia.
If that doesn’t give you a good belly laugh, I don’t know what will.
5. Ben Hall, Clown Prince of Bushrangers
A lot of people think Ned Kelly was the funniest bushranger, but any fool can put a bucket on his head and swan about writing letters. For bushranging comedy with some real originality and intelligence behind it, you need to look to the conceptual art of Bold Ben Hall, the tragic hero who turned to a life of crime after his wife left him and the police burnt down his house.
Unlike most bushrangers, Hall was not all that interested in shooting people. Even robbery under arms took a secondary place in his priorities to the all-important goal of publicly humiliating the police. To this end, he conducted a criminal career that was less a reign of terror than an extended live episode of Candid Camera.
Hall never killed anyone and gained a reputation as “the gentleman bushranger”. And unlike the fifty other “gentleman bushrangers”, he actually deserved it.
On two separate occasions, Hall’s gang bailed up the NSW town of Canowindra, locked the police in their own cells, and threw a huge party for the rest of the population in the town’s pub.
On leaving, they paid the landlord for all goods consumed and the townspeople for their time, just to really rub it in that they were not only smarter than the cops, but more generous.
However, Hall’s bushranging career hit a peak when he was being pursued by the local police, near Bathurst.
Disarming the troopers, the gang proceeded to strip them naked and tie them to trees, whereupon Hall delivered a stirring lecture on the pressing problem of police misbehaviour, before riding off into what I presume was a beautiful sunset, leaving the long arm of the law to await assistance in its highly embarrassed state.
It was the ultimate example of Ben Hall’s raison d’etre as a bushranger — on that day, one of Australia’s greatest bushrangers proved that you could make as powerful a statement by taking the piss out of the coppers as by shooting them.
If Hall’s educational address was not particularly well-received by its captive audience, it was certainly well-timed, and one might think a warmer embrace of the Hall method in the corridors of power might be beneficial when dealing with disciplinary matters.
In any case, it was a shining testament to the legacy of Ben Hall, a man who defied the law not for personal gain or the satisfaction of base desires, but for the innocent and noble purpose of having a bit of a laugh at others’ expense. Good on him.
Ben Pobjie is a writer, comedian and poet with no journalistic qualifications whatsoever. He has written for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, New Matilda, The Roar, and Crikey, among others. His latest book, Error Australis, is out now.