Mad Dogs and Thunderbolts is the fourth book in Ben Pobjie’s uproarious appraisal of Australian history. But what is it about the past that fascinates Australia’s most irreverent historian so much?
The moment you know you’re a real writer isn’t when you’ve written something, or even when you’ve had something published. It’s when someone asks you questions about your writing that you feel you can finally get those business cards printed. So I am always very chuffed when I am asked, ‘Why do you write about history?’
Chuffed, but not particularly confident in my ability to answer. People don’t want to hear, ‘Because it’s fun.’ They want something a little more erudite. So from time to time I ask myself the question, and see what kind of answer I’m able to give myself.
Firstly, on a very fundamental level, history excites me. I find the very fact that history exists fascinating. That sounds kind of odd … I’m not sure it even makes sense. I’ll try to make it slightly more understandable: the very fact that a hundred, two hundred, a thousand, five thousand years ago, there were people walking around on this earth, just like I do, going about their lives – that blows my mind. The fact that the world, in all its infinite variety, actually existed before I was born, is incredibly obvious, but once I start meditating on it, it’s baffling and exhilarating all at once.
Certainly the ‘big’ parts of history – the wars, the successions, the world-spanning voyages and political upheavals – are fascinating to study on the face of things. But it’s that very basic, down-to-earth aspect of history – the miniatures to be found in the corners of the big picture – that truly makes it come to life for me. And when you dig into history, what you find is that the ‘big’ parts are simply agglomerations of the miniatures. The grandest figures of history were just human beings like you and me, thrust onto history’s stage by the dovetailing of their lives and world events. When you get to know them on that smaller, human level, they actually become more interesting.
Of course, you have to break down the barriers of history to properly get at it. The biggest obstacle to understanding history – in fact, to enjoying history – is the ossification of historical figures. Looking at people from the past as gods and monsters, as monuments and symbols, is no way to get to know them, and it’s liable to render them pretty dull. There’s only so much you can get out of staring at a statue.
I’ve found that a really effective way to get out of the habit of looking at people in history as monuments frozen in time is to take the piss out of them.
Making jokes about history means pointing out that in the past, people were just as stupid, vain, greedy and incompetent as they are now. It means treating the leaders and celebrities of the dim past with the same complete disrespect that satirists treat their counterparts of today. And it’s that disrespect that is the key: once you recognise the human frailties of everyone throughout history, you’ve knocked down the statues; you can suddenly engage with historical folks as real people. They live and breathe for you, because they’re not distant anymore.
So … is that why I write about history? Because I love finding the simple, dumb humanity in the faded sepia pictures of the past, and showing people what everyone, in every time, has in common? I think so …
But also, I have to be honest: it’s fun.