Posted by on May 5, 2017 in Malley | 0 comments

Whilst preparing a Malley-related item for my Mallacoota Musings on this website, I discovered that a Malley event is scheduled for this week’s South Australian History Festival. Inspired by yet more Malley activity, I decided to include my latest Mallacoota Musing as a separate Malley posting.  Here it is.


Mallacoota’s link to verse is well known courtesy of E. J. (Ted) Brady with his many books of poetry and his writer’s camp up on Captain Stephenson’s Point. Here he hosted versifiers better known than he – notably Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore.

One poet seldom connected to Mallacoota is Ern Malley. Born in England in 1918, he came to Australia with his mother and sister two years later. He did poorly at school in Sydney and when in 1933 his mother died, he pursued work as a mechanic.  He then worked in Melbourne selling insurance policies, repairing watches and doing other work on the side. He returned to Sydney in 1943 and soon passed away from Graves Disease. Malley’s sole book of verse The Darkening Ecliptic was published posthumously the following year.

However his poems, and indeed his life story, were an elaborate hoax concocted by two somewhat traditional poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley. Their intent was to discredit what they saw as pretentious avant-garde poetry, best exemplified in the pages of Angry Penguins, the little magazine edited by Max Harris of Adelaide, John Reed of Heide in Melbourne and Sidney Nolan, who at that time was still serving in the armed forces from which he would soon go AWL. It was to them McAuley and Stewart sent a letter purportedly penned by Ern’s sister Ethel enclosing some of the dead poet’s verses. They had in fact written the poems themselves, drawing on borrowings from past literary giants including Shakespeare, Mallarmé, Purcell, Blake, T.S. Eliot and  Keats.

Angry Penguins published all Malley poems, and what is still known as the Ern Malley Hoax burst forth across the Australian litscape. More details of the hoax can be read on this website: Ern Malley: an introduction and Ern Malley: the Hoax and Beyond. The poems remained a potent presence for Sidney Nolan throughout his life.

Sidney Nolan, Portrait of Ern Malley, 1969

Sidney Nolan, Portrait of Ern Malley, 1969

Sidney Nolan, Ern Malley 1973, Art Gallery of South Australia

Sidney Nolan, Ern Malley 1973, Art Gallery of South Australia

The whole affair is still discussed today – including whether the Malley poems were in fact the hoaxers’ best writing. Tonight indeed Adelaide hosts another reprise for the faithful: Ern Malley the poet who never lived … where history and truth collide.

Thus it would seem a main reason why Ern Malley is little known in Mallacoota is because in reality he never existed. Or did he …. just perhaps?

A book Beyond is Anything by one ‘David Malley’ purports to tell the story of a ‘real’ Ern Malley – although Malley was not his real surname – who had a ‘real’ sister Ethel, and who with his ‘real’ wife Lois had a son David who perhaps wrote the book.  The story goes that Ern grew up with Jim McAuley and that the poems published in Angry Penguins were actually written by Ern, who left them with Lois during the war asking her to give them to McAuley to get published.   The poems were originally called Total Eclipse and the hoaxers changed this to Darkening Ecliptic as well as making a few other changes.

On his way from Sydney to Melbourne, Malley allegedly stayed at Mallacoota with Brady and they formed a friendship. Indeed Brady is said to have inscribed a copy of his book Land of the Sun for Malley on a return visit to Mallacoota to view the total solar eclipse occurring across Victoria in December 1936.

“The Land of the Sun” by E. J. Brady, 1924 and his alleged inscription to Ern Malley: “ERN Not a good title today EJB 14 Dec 1936”

Soon after co-curating the exhibition Ern Malley : the Hoax and Beyond at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne in 2009, I received a copy of Beyond is Anything in the mail with a letter from David Malley explaining that this was not his real name and that this art of his was perhaps a lie.  Be that as it may, a copy is in the National Library of Australia where it is available in the Petherick Reading Room and it can be read on this website: Beyond is Anything.

Perhaps the best known Malley poem is the first,  Dürer : Innsbruck, 1495 which Beyond is Anything says was originally called Innsbruck : Mallacoota, 1936 and includes lines such as ” … The colourful spires / And painted roofs, the coast range glimpsed at the back / All reverse in the Mallacoota waters.” Using what has become a well known and quite famous phrase, both versions conclude with reference to a “black swan of trespass on alien waters.”

One of the Malley progenitors was William Blake whose verse  And did those feet in ancient time is best known today as the anthem Jerusalem with its familiar musical setting by Hubert Parry.  However all the flag waving, chest thumping and football fevering Jerusalem generates today, loses sight of Blake’s revolutionary intent when writing it 200 years ago. The ‘dark satanic mills’ were real for Blake, as was his vow to not cease from mental fight, nor let sword sleep in his hand: Till he had built Jerusalem, in England’s green & pleasant land. These ‘dark satanic mills’ were also real for Ted Brady whose socialism was evident in his poem The Little Lamp of Lenin  and in his work with the Mallacoota Worker’s Cooperative at the time of the Great Depression.

Let this sentiment and a play on Blake’s introductory words be the theme of this musing’s concluding haiku.

And did Ern’s feet …. walk

Upon ‘Coota’s mountains green?

Black swan of Trespass.

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