Was Phar Lap the greatest Australian to ever live? Possibly, according to Ben Pobjie.
And he doesn’t care that the horse they called “Lightning” was actually born in New Zealand.
The comedian and writer has delved into the history books to tell the (somewhat) true biographies of Australians who have made an undeniable impact on this country.
From John “the iron” Curtin, to Cathy Freeman and Steve “crocodile entrepreneur” Irwin, and even more recent political figures like Julia Gillard and “missing” Malcolm Turnbull.
Pobjie’s account of 26 true-blue Australians have been compiled in his new book, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie: Questionable Histories of Great Australians.
Read an edited extract of six entries into the book.
To sum up, the Great Depression was, no fooling, bloody depressing. Not just in hindsight — people remarked at the time on how big a downer it was.
What the people needed was something to cheer them up. I mean, what they really needed was money, but failing that, something to cheer them up would be nice too.
Australians were crying out for a spirit-lifter. “Please God,” they pleaded, “Send us a horse, that we might smile again!”
The fact that Phar Lap was born in New Zealand has caused some to question whether he was a true “Australian” hero. However, Australia has a proud history of producing talented New Zealanders: Russell Crowe, the Finn brothers, Derryn Hinch, Marcia Hines, Manu Feildel.
Phar Lap came along at a time when Australia needed a lift. Spirits sagging, morale plunging, we were craving a hero, and we got one.
In just five years he won the hearts of millions and turned the sport of racing into something more than just a vortex of despair for gambling addicts and a front for organised crime.
If the Great Depression placed the country in the grip of the black dog, it was the chestnut horse who proudly kicked that dog to death.
And he did it all without ever once having the slightest clue he was doing it, a much more selfless career than all the so-called “role models” whose success is tainted by self-awareness.
Truly, no hero has ever been purer, or nobler, or more quadrupedal, than the testicularly challenged champion they named “Lightning”.
At first glance, John Curtin doesn’t necessarily seem like an Australian hero.
Looking at a photo of the former prime minister, you’re most immediately struck by his resemblance to a particularly pedantic vice-principal, or the grandfather you always hated visiting and compared unfavourably to your other grandfather, the fun grandfather.
Few men in Australian history have looked less likely to be fun than John Curtin.
But John Curtin occupies a special place in the hearts of patriotic Australians.
In a world in which Australia was seen as a bit player subject to the whims of powerful overlords, he forced other nations to sit up and take notice of a country that would put its own people first and refuse to be pushed around.
He kept Australia strong and united throughout WWII, and managed to establish a welfare state and a social safety net for millions at the same time.
If he failed to epitomise the traditional Australian values of hedonism, apathy and good eyesight, he made up for it in the areas of grace under pressure, steadfast advocacy for his own people, and booze.
He was a true Australian hero, even when not judged by the incredibly low standards of the average prime minister.
Perhaps no Antipodean wealth creator has had such a thrilling and surprising rise to prominence as Steve Irwin, the first Australian to truly recognise the business potential of crocodiles.
Humans and crocodiles had, of course, had a long relationship way before Steve Irwin came along, but that relationship had been mainly of the culinary variety.
Steve Irwin was a true original — or at least if he wasn’t, he was unoriginal to a degree and volume that hadn’t been seen before.
He taught the world so much about animals, but did he not also teach us about ourselves? No, he did not. Not really. But about animals, we learnt heaps.
The man earnt a fortune from his love for wildlife, but he also gave back so much, and if there were animals who felt traumatised by their contact with him, they never said so, because they are animals, so we have no real need to think about that too much.
Good on him.
Julia Gillard was, without doubt, the greatest prime minister Australia has ever had.
Over her career, the only possible criticism that could be made of her was that she was, in fact, the worst prime minister Australia has ever had.
This dichotomy, the two sides of Julia Gillard, is a shining example of the way in which she divided opinion. But love her or hate her, you could never deny that Gillard was a high achiever.
Well, that’s not strictly true: you could deny it, and lots of people did, constantly. But most of them were never prime minister, so chalk that up to jealousy.
The end was sad for Gillard, but it is impossible to ignore her achievements.
As the first woman prime minister of Australia, she proved that a woman prime minister was a thing that could exist without even a little bit of blood raining from the sky.
Not only did she blaze a trail for women, but she ushered in a new era of Australian politics.
After Gillard knocked off Rudd, and Rudd knocked off Gillard, Abbott beat Rudd in an election, and then Turnbull knocked off Abbott. Who will knock off Turnbull? Who knows?
That’s what makes this time so exciting, and we have Julia Gillard and her farsighted treachery to thank for that. Julia made politics fun — how many prime ministers can say that?
In all the storied history of Australian sport, through all the majestic careers of athletic gods and goddesses, in all the titanic clashes and spine-tingling historic moments that the nation’s love affair with the physically gifted had brought us, surely there had never been a night like this.
The day: 25 September 2000. The setting: Olympic Stadium in Sydney.
Atfter winning the 400m gold medal, Cathy Astrid Salome Freeman, the humble country girl with too many middle names, stood in the middle of the mad commotion, and breathed deep the air of victory.
She sat down on the track, pulled back her space hood, removed her shoes, and for a moment, simply allowed the world to wash over her.
She had carried a nation’s hopes and dreams on her back, and never once let herself buckle under the weight. She had taken the dream of a little girl from conception to fruition.
She had, to put it simply and briefly, run bloody fast.
Freeman has not been idle since retirement, working assiduously for charity and in the community, particularly to assist Aboriginal children.
The good she’s done over many years resounds throughout the country, yet to most people, the name Cathy Freeman brings to mind just one moment in time, a brief moment that was over almost as soon as it had begun.
But that one moment shone more brightly than most people’s entire lives — when you have a moment like that, what else do you need?
Malcolm Turnbull’s life is a modern-day fairytale: proof that dreams really do come true.
The endless succession of dizzying highs that make up the Turnbull story illustrate a profound truth: that in our modern egalitarian society, being a white male with an expensive education is no barrier to inheriting significant wealth from your parents.
Malcolm Bligh Turnbull was born in Sydney on 24 October 1954, the same day that Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis scored his sixth international hat-trick against Czechoslovakia: a powerful omen, as young Malcolm would go on to kick many goals himself in his adult life.
It was also the day that a US Air Force transport plane strayed off course and crashed in the Alps, although it’s hard to think of any metaphorical way to relate that to Turnbull’s career.
There were many years of profitable non-wrongdoing ahead for Malcolm Turnbull, who became the golden child of 20th-century Australian business, but fate has a habit of intervening in strange and narratively effective ways.
In 2004, with the world at his feet and the future his oyster, Turnbull mysteriously disappeared from the corporate landscape.
If any readers have any information about the whereabouts of the corporate giant formerly known as Malcolm Turnbull, pass it on to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.