ERN – Australia’s Greatest Hoax

Festival Theatre, Adelaide, 25 June 2021

First, the back story.  The Ern Malley affair is Australia’s most famous literary hoax. Max Harris was a precocious Adelaide poet who edited Angry Penguins, a literary review in the style of the Wyndham Lewis-inspired Blast from several decades before. A couple of traditional poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, on a slow day in 1943 at the Melbourne barracks where they were stationed, fabricated a brief folio of poems by an obscure artist, Ern Malley, who had died tragically at the age of 25. Imitating the modernist poetry they despised, the hoaxers wrote hilariously bad and hackneyed verse in the ‘new’ style. They also confected a letter from Ern’s sister, Ethel, to Harris, enclosing the collection and stating humbly “I am no judge of it myself...”

Unfortunately, this ‘discovery’ was to have no bittersweet ending such as the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces.  Harris was enchanted and thrilled with the collection, seeing in them authentic traces of Kafka, Owen, Rilke (yes and no doubt Eliot, Pound and Rimbaud besides).  Nearly all artistic work is derivative, of course, but Harris should have dug a bit deeper before going out and publishing an entire edition dedicated to the genius of Ern: all that came of it were opprobrium and ridicule, an early end to his poetical ambitions, the eventual folding of an heroic literary periodical and a 1944 conviction for publication of ‘indecent’ material (£5 fine; £21/11 costs).

Malley’s faux oeuvre did not vanish, however (unlike the original manuscript that, intriguingly, did). In fact, many artists, poets and critics regarded the surreal effusions and literary allusions as having real value, and they would in time provide inspiration for a new generation of poets as well as poetasters. Which brings us to last Friday evening.

ERN: Australia’s Greatest Hoax, was created by the singer/songwriter Max Savage in collaboration with composer Ross McHenry and realist oil painter Josh Baldwin. A mini concert of songs that alternated between the leisurely long works of Peter Gabriel and the white-hot concise rockers of punk and grunge, Savage and his entourage synthesized rather than transcribed the works of Malley, the painting created during the performance a sort of obbligato to the music. The Varnished Culture, revisiting Malley’s poems later, couldn’t detect them in the actual lyrics presented on the night but no matter – the homage was symbolic rather than literal.

Savage has a real presence, a raw but clear voice reminiscent of Tom Waits singing Tom Traubert’s Blues, and a stage presence hovering between Joe Cocker getting-into-the-song, and a swaggering-and-exhorting-of-band á la Mick Jagger. The band was very smooth and handled the cut-up style of the songs (jazz, rock and roll, country and soul thrown into the pot): they were: Julian Ferraretto (violin), Brenton Foster (piano), Ross McHenry (Bass, Moog), Steve Neville (drums), Adam Page (clarinet) and Django Rowe (lead guitar, banjo).  Unfortunately, we had to leave about 10 minutes early to attend another show, so we trust we have done the performance justice: A solid effort.

The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward - Penguin Books Australia

You can read all about the hoax in Michael Heywood’s 1993 book, the cover featuring Sydney Nolan’s “portrait” of Ern (aptly housed in the Art Gallery of SA)


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