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The poet who never lived ... but who lives on
The world’s greatest literary hoax

How two 1940s conservative Australian poets tried to mock modernism by submitting the works of fake poet Ern Malley to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins literary magazine. When the truth emerged, Harris was pilloried - and the fake poet became a star.




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In 1940s Australia, Max Harris was a young genius poet and writer - an outspoken leader in a nascent modernist movement. He was handsome, witty, spectacularly erudite and fearless in debate.
In the conservative climate of Adelaide, his intellectual elan and progressive thinking attracted detractors and envy early in his life. As editor of a provocative literary and art magazine called Angry Penguins based at the University of Adelaide, he had attracted the interest of Melbourne lawyer, intellectual and arts patron John Reed who invited him to Melbourne to expand the publication. There, Angry Penguins embraced  and was embraced by the bourgeoning energies of Australia's new modernist visual arts, that which now is known as the Heide Movement - Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd... Reed's wife, Sunday, was earth mother to the artists, gathering and nurturing them at the Reed's farmhouse, Heide. It was a civilized rural retreat, filled with books and paintings - and also Siamese cats, which Sunday bred. Sunday's hospitality was strictly vegetarian - and all the guests were expected not only to contribute to the cerebral interchange but to pull their weight domestically. Sunday had been born into the wealthy Establishment Ballieu family of Melbourne but had become a crucial part of a world which was seen as very avant-garde and politically suspect.

Harris became core to the fomenting activities of this world - its social realist ideology, communist militantism, surrealism - while energetically publishing progressive Australian and overseas literature both in Angry Penguins and under the imprimateur of the Reed & Harris publishing company. Australia's traditionalists took aggressive exception to the unconventional ideas and imagery of these pioneering modernists as they materialised through Angry Penguins. That the evolution of their creative impulse was on a par with similar thoughts in Europe was beyond the understanding or knowledge of the Establishment and the mainstream traditionalists. There were many who sought to see this bohemian intelligentisa put into its place - most particularly its vivid catalyst, the precocious young editor, Max Harris.




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1940 - 1946
Price: two shillings and sixpence

Back covers of Angry Penguins magazines carried a little wartime recycling message suggesting to readers that, once they had finished reading, why not send their copies to the literature-starved servicemen in the war efforts overseas.

The first Angry Penguins appeared out of the University of Adelaide in 1940. Editor Max Harris was 19, a student of Economics and English - but more significantly, he already was a published and recognised poet and he had been a member of the Jindyworobak Club, an earlier movement devoted to emancipating an Australian identity in literature. His Angry Penguins co-editor was D.B. "Sam" Kerr, a fellow student and accomplished modernist poet who was killed in action in New Guinea in 1942.

Their quest was a boldly rebellious one, to liberate Australian literature and art, seeking, as Harris put it, "a mythic sense of a geographical and cultural identity". - no less than a change in the Australian national self-perception.

 The first issue of Angry Penguins, funded by Harris's mother, was a literary anthology devoted to modernist writings. Its name was the inspiration of the journal's patron, Charles Jury. It came from Harris's poem, "Mithridatum of Despair":

"We know no mithridatum of despair
as drunks, the angry penguins of the night,
straddling the cobbles of the square
tying a shoelace by fogged lamplight."

Jury thought the description of "angry penguins" suited the young poets on their revolutionary literary quest. Famously, he commented that there was "a sense of genius about the place''.
Also among the Angry Penguins founders were the scholar Paul G. Pfeiffer and the poet Geoffrey Dutton. Like Kerr, Pfeiffer did not return from the war. 

 Harris's passions, however, did not stop at the written word. He was a clarion advocate of surrealism and he was pivotally involved in the establishment of the South Australian Contemporary Arts Society.

 After the first issue of the Angry Penguins,  the Melbourne lawyer John Reed visited Adelaide to seek out the vital young intellectual who was making such waves. Reed was soon to abandon law in favor of running Victoria's Contemporary Art Society. It was through Reed, of course, that Harris made his connection with the artist Sidney Nolan. The link stimulated Harris to marry the two modernist movements, art and literature,  and the second issue of Angry Penguins featured reproductions of a surrealist painting by James Gleeson and a Klee-like work by Sidney Nolan along with writings poetic, philosophical and ideological. Artist and critic Ivor Francis and jazzman/artist/poet Dave Dallwitz were among the contributors.
Thus did Angry Penguins forge onwards to express the aesthetic and literary impetus of the period - and, to a certain controversial extent, to elicit the change it sought.

The Conservatives of that period were less subtle than the ones which were to follow. They were Harris's fellow students at the University of Adelaide. In 1941 with the early part of WWII raging in North Africa, the students were fired with patriotism and were enraged by the anarchistic sentiments they encountered in the first issue of Angry Penguins. A campus meeting was called in which Harris and Angry Penguins were condemned and the students called for punishment - by throwing Harris and three other anarchist students into the nearby River Torrens. Harris leapt onto a table and volunteered to throw himself into the River if the students would take up a collection for the war effort and the red Cross. The students chose the dunking. The deed was done by engineering and medical students - but not before the media had been summoned to sensationalise the event.
Despite the publicity and opprobrium, Harris surged forth with confident commitment to his cause.

In 1943, with his degree completed, Harris accepted Reed's invitation to move to Melbourne and Angry Penguins was edited  conjointly with John Reed - with added injections of energy from Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker.

With sublime prescience, Angry Penguins published the modernist writers from overseas - Dylan Thomas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Dickey... American poet Harry  Roskolenko wrote for Angry Penguins and was guest editor for one issue. More conventional literature was represented by the likes of Alan Marshall, Peter Cowan, Dal Stevens and women such as Elizabeth Galloway and Elizabeth Lambert. Artist and art critic Ivor Francis was a contributor while artists Nolan, Gleeson, Vassilieff, Perceval and Boyd were reproduced. The conservative literary world lived in simmering resentment of the political and aesthetic passions emerging in Angry Penguins, not to mention the exuberant intellectual instigations of young Max Harris, the "enfant terrible".

A.D. Hope had the first word in his vitriolic review of Harris's Vegetative Eye - and it is strongly suspected that he had a second word when it came to the Ern Malley Affair. "Get Maxy" was his reported catchcry, and these words are believed to have been uttered to the hoaxers, McAuley and Stewart in late 1943.
These two mediocre traditionalist poets, both in the army  and stuck in the Victoria Barracks with lots of time on their hands, decided they would be the ones to teach Harris a lesson.

Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart thought it would be hilarious if they   could invent a modernist poet, concoct some poetry and debunk the whole business of modernist poetry. So, in a series of mischievous creative fugues, they gleaned lines from here and there, even from the American Armed Forces guide to mosquito infestation, and put it together in what they perceived to be a brilliant imitation of the new poetic genre. They dubbed the poet Ern Malley and to avoid the publishers seeking contact with him, they said that, like Keats, he had died young. They then invented his sister, Ethel, who “discovered” the poetry and decided to send it to Harris to judge it for literary merit.

Harris loved it. So did John Reed, Sidney Nolan et al. With immense pride and pleasure, Harris published Ern Malley in the 1944 autumn issue of Angry Penguins.
Reed & Harris subsequently published the poems in book form under the title of The Darkening Ecliptic. They were enthusiastically received.
After the prank was revealed, the hoaxers said their work had no literary merit - and that was the point. Harris, however, stuck to his guns. Whether they liked it or not, he asserted, McAuley and Stewart had written their best poetry, their only poetry of real genius. The assumed persona of Ern Malley had liberated them.

The subsequent issue of Angry Penguins largely was devoted to analyses of the poems - with contributions from Sir Herbert Read,  Geoffrey Dutton, Reg Ellery, A.R. Chisholm, Brian Elliot, Adrian Lawlor, Albert Tucker and many more.

Angry Penguins was a large, complex magazine and it appeared irregularly. (In total there were only nine issues.)  Because of this, Harris decided to produce an smaller interim publication called Angry Penguins Broadsheet. This filled in gaps with news and reviews on art and literature, and, as Harris put it "to engage in cultural controversy or polemics; to cartoon, pillory, debunk, burlesque".
 Angry Penguins continued for two more years after the Ern Malley Affair. During this time Harris returned to Adelaide. Thereafter, Ern Malley's Journal was born and ran for several issues. Harris, by then running a book business with his old university friend and Angry Penguins business manager, Mary Martin,  began producing a provocative book-oriented topical newsletter called Mary's Own Paper - and thereafter, he gave birth to the Australian Book Review and the literary magazine Australian Letters.

Angry Penguins Manifesto:
1942 - Max Harris

The aim of Angry Penguins is not licence but liberty for writers, so that, far from being the medium for anarchic experimentalism, the works tend towards metrical disciplining. Just as in society, fulfilment arises from a compromise between liberty and authority, so that art which integrates organically the tradition and milieu of its nature with the subjective experience and reactions of the poet, will be that which is valid for its age. The modernism of this publication is, in brief, compatible with unified form and inspiration.

There is no political plank nor artistic creed. It fulfils a role in Australia of New Directions in America and John Lehmann's New Writing in England. Its sole standard is genuineness now. In the words of T.S. Eliot, "Living, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, for the maintenance of its strength, its subtlety, for the preservation of quality of feeling, which must be kept up in every generation; dead, he provides standards for those who take up the struggle after him." I only hope that these efforts, from every sphere of our national effort to preserve and maintain democratic culture, help to keep alive these things for which the Allied Nations are so justly fighting.




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Max Harris was what they commonly call "a self-made man". He reflected almost nothing of his family background. It was not an issue of rejecting class, but of modelling himself on every value which was antithetical to those of his father. Vic Harris, an outgoing travelling salesman in groceries who rose to become managing director of a major produce company, privately was an intolerant and bombastic man. Max was repulsed by his father's strident bullying and lack of curiosity about his fellow man. Max's mother, the gloriously named Claris Harris, was an intelligent woman and a voracious reader who excelled at bridge and croquet in lieu of any other possibilities in life.

 Max was her only child - and a genius prodigy who learned to read as a toddler. Accompanying his mother to the local library in Mount Gambier in the South East of South Australia, he consumed all the children's books and then, still a small lad, he systematically read every book in the library from A-Z. And for the rest of his life, he retained the contents of those books - from anthropology and geology to plumbing and Sophocles. He was writing poetry from tender years and having works published in the Sunday Mail newspaper's Possum Pages. It was only a talent for football which gave the young Harris any modicum of acceptance among the country schoolboys. Mainly he recalled bullying. His escape from country town life was to sit for a scholarship to a city college. He did this behind his father's back - and when he won the scholarship, there was no encouragement from his father. No word at all. Instead, Vic turned and left the house - ironically, going off brag about his clever son over a few beers with  his mates.

Under the Vansittart scholarship, Max moved to Adelaide as a boarder at St Peter's College where, again, his prowess on the football field saved him from complete punishment as an egghead. His English teachers, most particularly one J.S. Padman, relished his brilliance and gave profound encouragement, ever remembered by Harris. Harris devoured his education with ease, won 21 prizes at St Peters along with the Tennyson Medal as the State's top English scholar. He became House Captain and continued to write while working his way through larger libraries. In his final year, however, he abandoned school in the dead of night and joined the afternoon newspaper, The News, as a copyboy. There he was soon writing articles and going out on stories - even, famously, interviewing H.G. Wells when he visited Adelaide. Harris was a highly political teenager and one of the marks he left at the newspaper was an iniative to create a trade union for copyboys.

Beyond the paper, his poems were being published by The Jindyworobaks and attracting positive reviews. Enrolling for Arts and Economics at Adelaide University, he chummed up with a bookish girl called Mary Martin, pictured left, and they swiftly became figures of interest, Max forever walking around reading, being guided by his book-carrying friend, Mary. This platonic relationship was to last their lives. Max, however, had fallen in love with a young ballet dancer called Yvonne Hutton when they were both still at school, she at St Peters Girls College. Her rather elegant and proper parents did not approve of this relationship.

Harris was possessed of stupendous energy and a wellspring of enthusiasm. He was handsome, raven-haired with velvet brown eyes and a good voice. He also was charismatic, erudite and extremely witty - a combination which was to attract envy throughout his life. His literary output was prolific. His The Gift of Blood collection of poems was published by The Jindyworobaks in 1940. His early and later verse was lyric. But surrealism became the style which was to generate all the controversy of the day. His The Pelvic Rose, published in the first Angry Penguins, stirred the pot already bubbling from an article he had written called I am an Anarchist - So What? There was no funding for publishing so Harris's mother became the secret sponsor for his ventures - helping to finance the first three issues of Angry Penguins and a bound edition of his early writings.

The War was on and Harris went into service as a Corporal. He was not a very successful conformist at Military Camp and found himself digging a lot of latrines which he always remembered rather fondly - for it was within these excavations, out of sight of authority, that he sat and read the works of  Proust. After three months he was released to be put on special research work - and doing occasional stints on watch for enemy aircraft from the top of a city department store. Harris was producing Angry Penguins. He was core to the founding of the Contemporary Art Society. He was provocative and political and prominent. And the lawyer John Reed came to Adelaide to seek him out - and the link with John and Sunday Reed, Heide and the artists was formed. Harris was invited to Melbourne and he accepted, taking Angry Penguins and producing it from Melbourne with John Reed. They formed the publishing company Reed & Harris from which Harris was paid the princely sum of six pounds a week for his work as an editor, writer and publisher.

Max became an inner-sanctum  member of the Heide group with Sun, John and Sidney Nolan. Nolan had returned from service AWOL under the pseudonym of Robin. Max spent a lot of time at Heide, sleeping in the sleepout except on Von's visits when they were given a room to share.
Von, who was furthering her ballet training at the Borovansky School, swiftly fell under Sunday's stylish spell, sharing many of the health cuisine interests and skills while Sun was captivated by young Von's beauty and energy. An enduring friendship was established. Max shared intellectual ties with John and Sid and a great affection for Sunday whose nurturing took the form of allocating a special "Max Table" for writing - a she guarded vigilantly, allowing no one but Max to use it.

Heide was not a commune, as seems to have become the myth. It was a gathering place wherein artists, particularly, were nurtured and encouraged. There was Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd as well as Nolan. The Reeds helped artists financially as well as spiritually. Much painting was done at Heide and there was an almost ferocious vitality in the exchanges of thoughts and ideas. Art and philosophy were argued. Books were devoured and discussed even more avidly than the exquisite vegetarian meals.  Harris was in his element and was ever the catalyst and often the inspiration. It was he, for instance, who sparked Sid Nolan with the idea for the Ned Kelly series. Nolan had produced an image of a Kelly-like masked figure which Harris analysed as the self-portrait of the artist in hiding from the army. The comparison with Kelly was drawn and, inspired and excited, the two friends set off on an expedition through the Kelly country. Nolan's place in Heide was more deeply entrenched than that of the others. He had been married and had a baby daughter called Amelda. But he moved in to be with Sunday and an extended relationship took place, stoically tolerated by John Reed - the famous "maison a trois".  But, ironically, it was Reed's sister, Cynthia, with whom Nolan finally ran away. By then the Reeds were raising Sweeney, son of Joy Hester and Bert Tucker. But that's another story.

The intellectual hothouse atmosphere spread to the Reed & Harris offices - and wherever Max went. It was in this orbit in 1944 that the Ern Malley hoax took place. As if the hoax was not bad enough, the police leapt into the controversy and Max was charged with published obscene poetry. The deadly hand of the Establishment getting its own back on the left-wing modernists. Harris returned to Adelaide to face the charges. It was sensational court case. Max was savaged by the media. People spat at him in the street.  Von's family's disapproval of Max reached new depths. Her father long since had rejected Max's request for her hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the couple, pictured left, had married and produced a daughter, naming her Samela after an Elizabethan poem by Robert Greene. Max decided to remain in Adelaide with his little family and joined his old friend Mary Martin in a bookshop business. Mary Martin's Bookshop began as a small arty bookshop in Alma Chambers, Exchange Place, Adelaide. It became a gathering place for the cognoscenti. But Max showed a flair for business and soon the little shop needed to expand. It moved into Rundle Street in the centre of the city and, over the ensuing years, into yet larger premises in Da Costa Building, importing all manner of new exotica which Max and Von would discover on annual travels.

When Mary Martin moved to India, a country which long had drawn her, Max retained her name and bought her share of the business. The shop expanded to the other states, to New Zealand and even Hong Kong before it was taken over by Macmillans. Max's touch had been its magic - and when he retired from the business, it never shone again. Max's very genuine interest in people and his uncanny ability to steer them to the reading which suited, enlightened and delighted them was key to the success of the shop. Also his encyclopaedic knowledge of books. He knew all the books in print and out of print.

Many were the battles he undertook - fighting Australian censorship laws relentlessly until victory and defying the British stranglehold on books to make them cheaper for Australians. He initiated an Australian publishing house producing Sun Books and he became publishing advisor to British publishers, ensuring that their publication runs would produce remainders enough to supply the Australian market with high quality discount books. By this time, the lean angry young man had become the elegant old Angry Penguin - slightly portly, always well-attired and carrying what had become a trademark silvertopped cane. The Ern Malley Affair, however, had damaged his own literary output and he wrote fewer poems. Instead, he had taken to journalism and was a founder columnist in the Murdoch national daily, The Australian. His Browsing column ran for decades, making him one of the longest running columnists in the country. For some years he also wrote for the Adelaide Sunday paper, The Sunday Mail, a populist column which earned an enthusiastic following and gave him a new interaction with the proletariat, for whom he had an abiding affection. He also avowed himself a feminist and made a lengthy study of the biographies of women.

An interesting link with his youth in the lovely South East of South Australia was his devotion to the work of Mother Mary MacKillop, a feminist educationalist nun who founded the Order of the Josephites. Harris was not a religious man, although he was a spiritual man. However, the struggle of this brave pioneer teacher who set up her first school in Penola, stirred him to many writings, recommending her as “a Saint for all Australians”. He became acknowledged by the Catholic Church as the lay person who had done the most to promote the works of the woman for it they craved beatification. Max Harris published several smaller books of lyric verse over the years - The Coorong and Other Poems, A Window at Night, Poetic Gems... He also wrote The Australian Way with Words, The Land That Waited, Ockers, Unknown Great Australians and The Best of Max Harris. He continued always to encourage new writers and artists, never losing his connection with the art world. And although he travelled extensively, he kept Adelaide as a base. When he died of prostate cancer in 1995, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest lyric poets Australia had produced. He was also honored by the University's Alumni as “the father of modernism in the Australian arts”.




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Max Harris's response, written for the 1944 Angry Penguins as an introduction to Ern Malley's poems, The Darkening Ecliptic:
Ern Malley prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet, and that he would be known as such. He prepared his manuscript to that end “there was no ostentation nor the exhibitionism of the dying in the act. It was an act of calm controlled confidence. He treated death greatly, and as poetry, while undergoing the most fearful and debilitating nervous strain that a human being could possibly endure. He was dying at the age of 25 with Grave’s Disease.

Nobody had any idea that Ern Malley wrote poetry. For several years he was thought of simply as the young man who worked as a motor mechanic at Palmer’s Garage on Taverner’s Hill in Sydney, after leaving the Summer Hill Intermediate High School at the age of 14. When he turned 17 he went off alone to Melbourne, where little or nothing was known of his activities. He was said to have been living alone in a room in South Melbourne and earning his living peddling insurance policies for the National Mutual Life Assurance Company. He returned to Sydney where, after refusing to be operated upon, he died of Grave’s Disease. Even his sister, next of kin, did not know that he wrote. In Sydney he was known to possess only one book – Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Classes. That is all.Yet I am firmly convinced that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most outstanding poets that we have produced here.

Yet this is not based on any romantic reaction to the circumstances by which his poetry has come into possession, nor by the great artistic self-possession with which he treated his forthcoming death. It is the perfection and integration of his poetry. This brief study will, then, treat almost entirely of the quality and nature of his poetry. But first I feel there is justification for completing the story of Ern Malley. Recently I was sent two poems from a Miss Ethel Malley, who wrote saying that they were found among her brother’s possessions after his death on July the 23rd, 1943. Someone suggested to her they might be of value and that she send them to me for an opinion. At this stage I knew nothing about the author at all, but I was immediately impressed that here was a poet of tremendous power, working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience. A poet, moreover, with cool, strong, sinuous feeling for language. I sent these poems to my co-editor, Mr. John Reed, and they were then shown to a number of people, most of whom, without any information about the author, bore out my opinion. Then, at my request, Miss Malley sent the complete MSS, along with the facts about her brother as she knew them. I quote verbatim from her letter:

“You asked me for some details about Ern’s illness. I didn’t mention in my last letter that his death was due to Grave’s disease. If he had only taken better care of himself it need not have been fatal. But while he was away from home he neglected his health. When he was called up for his medical exam the doctors evidently told him what was wrong with him, because he was rejected.

“But I don’t believe he saw a doctor again until he came home last March, though I found out later he had been dosing himself with iodine and the doctor said that must have kept him going. He was terribly irritable and hard to do anything for. I was anxious for him to go to hospital where he could be properly looked after, but the doctor said it would be better for a person in his condition to stop at home. The doctor spoke of operating at first, but when he refused to have it done the doctor said it would be better not to, which I thought was strange.

”You asked me to tell you something about Ern’s life. Well, my brother’s full name was Ernest Lalor Malley and he was born in England at Liverpool on March 14, 1918.

“Our father died as a result of war wounds in 1920, and the family came out to Australia, where mother had relations. We lived for many years in Petersham, where Ern went to the Petersham public school and the Summer Hill Intermediate High.

“He did not do very well at school, although he was good at other things. Mother died in August, 1933, and I could not stop Ern from leaving school after that, as he was set on going to work. I have always thought that he was very foolish not to have got his intermediate [a high school graduation certificate - J.T.], but he was determined to go his own way.

“He got a job as a mechanic in Palmer’s Garage on Taverner’s Hill for a couple of years. He was always clever with mechanical things and I thought he was settled and had got over his wildness. But when he turned 17 he came home one day from work and said he was giving up his job at the garage and was going to Melbourne. I did my best to persuade him, but he went. After that I did not see much of him or hear from him as he did not write, but someone I knew met him in Melbourne and told me that he was working for National Mutual selling insurance policies. They said he was living in a room by himself in South Melbourne. I remember I was worried at the time whether he was looking after himself properly, because he was never very strong. I wrote to him, but he did not reply for a long time.

“Later, in 1940, I think it was, I did get a letter from him saying that his health was better and that he was making a fair amount of money repairing watches and doing other work on the side. I did not hear from him again until the beginning of this year I found he was back in Sydney. I got him to come home, and it was only then I realised that he was ill, but even then I had no idea how bad he really was. He was amazingly active for his condition. Finally he told me that he knew what was wrong, and I managed to get a doctor to him. The weeks before he died were terrible. Sometimes he would be all right and he would talk to me. From things he said I gathered he had been fond of a girl in Melbourne, but had some sort of difference with her. I didn’t want to ask him too much because he was nervy and irritable. The crisis came suddenly, and he passed away on Friday the 23rd of July. As he wished, he was cremated at Rookwood.”

The manuscript consists of sixteen poems. It bears the title, The Darkening Ecliptic, and at the bottom of the title page these words:

”Do not speak of secret matters in a field full of little hills” - Old Proverb. This I take to be an explanation of his complete silence on the subject of poetry during his lifetime. Two handwritten pages exist under the heading of Preface and Statement. I wish to start this review of his work with the seven aphoristic paragraphs which constitute this preface and statement, and which give such a remarkable and moving insight into the poetic motives of Ern Malley.

These poems are complete. There are no scoriae of unfulfilled intentions. Every note and revision has been destroyed. There is no biographical data. I have been placed in somewhat the same quandary as was Max Brod in disposing of Kafka’s writings. But with this difference. Ern Malley left no instructions, no indications of what he wanted done with his MSS. It was obviously prepared for publication. But he did not even mention its existence to his sister. Yet this statement assumes that posterity will be interested in his work, that the search for scoriae and biographical detail will take place. It is more of a challenge than an expression of his desires. For my part, I find such respect for the amazing relation of his art and his dying that I feel I have no right to conceal facts which bespeak greatness.

These poems are complete in themselves. They have a domestic economy of their own and if they face outwards to the reader that is because they first faced inwards to themselves. Every poem should be an autarchy. To this statement I can add little or nothing. It is a beautiful and succinct expression of my own feelings to a poem.

The writing was done over five years. Certain changes of mental allegiance and superficial method took place. That is all that needs to be said on the subject of schools and influences. That is all that can be said. What he read or when he read is a matter simply for conjecture. But from his poems there is evidence of tremendous assimilation and integration. The use of remote and esotreic [sic] language can at times be dangerous affectation and love of verbiage for its own colourful nature. In his few poems Malley’s vocabulary spans innumerable worlds, but his use of language is never logomachical. His wide, difficult vocabulary emerges spontaneously and necessarily from his poetic motives. Appropriateness is the final test, and Malley reveals an acid preciseness in all his handlings with language. In his poem Young Prince of Tyre, Malley writes:

Yet there is one that stands I’ the gaps to teach us
The stages of our story. He the dark hero
Moistens his finger in iguana’s blood to beseech us
(Siegfried-like) to renew the language. Nero
and the botched tribe of imperial poets burn
Like the rafters. The new men are cool as spreading fern.

This is the task Malley set himself as he deliberately invoked death upon himself to provide the deepening and consummating forces of poetic experience.
For the sake of the unity of death and poetry, Malley sacrificed his relationships with the woman he loved, left her, and returned to Sydney. This I think is clearly the meaning of his mighty 16th poem when he says:

In the same year
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
Not having learnt in our green age to forget
The sins that flow between the hands and feet
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
So I forced a parting
Scrubbing my few dingy words to brightness

The Arabian Tree is his poetic fulfillment, and its tears are, without doubt, real. Yet in the epic suffering of his going away like the elephant to die, he does feel himself to triumph, for later in the same poem he says:

I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered,
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all-existence
Traces the inevitable graph

Malley approached poetry with a tremendous sense of the imoprt [sic]of what he was doing. In one of his best poems, then, we find such relatively unfamiliar words as apodictic, valency, crenellated, enteric, and bourdon. Yet the poem logically demands these words because of its strict autarchical domestic economy. Language is not master; it is creator!

One or two of the critics (granted they had only seen two of his poems) said that his work was derivative and echoed various contemporary techniques. I am strongly of the opinion that these critics are completely wrong. His images are always pure and integrated within the poem in a remarkable cohesion. There is no hint of the Auden generation who tend towards the impersonal and philosophic as a product of the dynamics of their imagery. Malley stands in a curious, cool and penetrating way before the personal. The Auden school had not the confidence in the body of personal experience to make poetry of such humble personal material. Unlike the moderns from Dylan Thomas onwards, Malley is never carried along violently within the personal. With him image can be obscure, but never experience. Here, perhaps, he transcends Angry Penguin writers and contemporary English writers.

“The new men are cool as spreading fern.” - His sane personal verse is the embodiment in our time of this principle. I can link him up in my mind strongly with one poet only . . . the late Donald Bevis Kerr, yet it is strongly improbable that he ever saw Kerr’s work. These two, with their diverse spiritual outlooks, are the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry. In both there is the same restraint and sense of responsibility towards language. But there the resemblance ends. To discover the hidden fealty of certain arrangements of sound in a line and certain concatenations of the analytic emotions is the “secret” of style.

In this statement and the next two, Malley concerns himself with the technics of poetry. The full force of what he has condensed into such a brief statement can only be gathered from seeing what he has actually embodied of “style” into his poetry. A certain difficulty is encountered in trying to understand what he means by the “analytic emotions”. But I think the whole concept resolves itself into a simple unambiguous reflection. The emotional experiences which motivate art are not those which are generally considered as “life” or “immediate” experiences. The level and kind of feeling from which poetry emerges and operates do not bear any direct relation to the individual in an immediate and suffering relation to the universe. Art is not Life, nor is it an imitation of life. It is experiencing at a different level from life; it is life, but differs in kind from it. Art emerges from experience at the “analytic” level of the emotions. Art reflects life at second hand, as it were, when experience and detachment integrate in a dialectical union of “poetic” or “analytic” experience. The secret of style then is reduced to faithful reflection, for felicity of language is integral to the “analytic” experience itself. This, if anything, explains Malley’s detachment from the nerve-racking and terrifying experiences of his immediate life. The tragedy of the man is never reflected in the poetry, and this provides in part a measure of his greatness as a poet.

When thought at a certain level, and with a certain intention discovers itself to be poetry it discovers also that duty after all does exist: the duty of a public act. That duty is wholly performed by setting the pen to paper. To read what has thus been done is another thing again, and implies another order of loyalty. The poet’s duty, Malley believes, is the communication of poetry. The act of creation is the poet’s social act and identifies poetry with communication. Beyond that, duty may exist for the man, but not for the poet. The poetry owes nothing but its own existence to society. Simplicity in our time is arrived at by an ambages. There is, at this moment, no such thing as a simple poem, if what is meant by that is a point-to-point straight line relation of images. If I said that this was so because on the level where the world is mental occurrence a point-to-point relation is no longer genuine, I should be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.

With this statement of Malley I do not claim to be in full agreement. Possibly because it is impossible to say what he meant exactly by a point-to-point straight line of images. For me, image can sustain itself, and produce coherent experience, by operating autonomously. Image, develops and acts as it were as an allegory of the experience of which it is a reflection. Image can only provide a complete level of expression when its autonomy is dynamic; that is, the image develops within itself through some series of valid relations. I can conceive, for instance, the vast homeric metaphor existing as poetry without direct reference back to the subject from which it emanates. Kafka produces novels from single metaphores [sic] and their direct relations.

Those who say: What might not X have done if he had lived? demonstrate their different way of living from the poet’s way. It is a kind of truth, which I have tried to express, to say in return: All one can do in one’s span of time is to uncover a set of objective allegiances. The rest is not one’s concern.
 Malley moved within self-imposed limitations. He did not aim at revelation of all Truth, of inferring a valid Weltanschauung from his own range. He aimed to reveal his Truth. Yet if I were to say that within this range he reveals infinitely spheres which he would consider “not his concern,” I too would be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.




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Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495

I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Night Piece

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks.

Among the water-lilies
A splash - white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

Petit Testament

In the twenty-fifth year of my age
I find myself to be a dromedary
That has run short of water between
One oasis and the next mirage
And having despaired of ever
Making my obsessions intelligible
I am content at last to be
The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.
Begin here:

In the year 1943
I resigned to the living all collateral images
Reserving to myself a man’s
Inalienable right to be sad
At his own funeral.
(Here the peacock blinks the eyes
of his multipennate tail.)
In the same year
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
Not having learnt in our green age to forget
The sins that flow between the hands and feet
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
So I forced a parting
Scrubbing my few dingy words to brightness.

Where I have lived
The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the comer.
I have heard them shout in the streets
The chiliasms of the Socialist Reich
And in the magazines I have read
The Popular Front-to-Back.
But where I have lived
Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray
Guernica is the ticking of the clock
The nightmare has become real, not as belief
But in the scrub-typhus of Mubo.

It is something to be at last speaking
Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
Only to No-Man’s-Land.
Set this down too:
I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered,
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all existence
Traces the inevitable graph
And in conclusion:
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade. I
Who have lived in the shadow that each act
Casts on the next act now emerge
As loyal as the thistle that in session
Puffs its full seed upon the indicative air.
I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.



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The Hoaxers were excited about their jolly jape. To be effective, it had to be a secret. But James McAuley and Harold Stewart were bursting to talk about it. And so it came to pass that with McAuley away in New Guinea on service, Stewart told his friend Tess van Sommers about it. She was a would-be journalist  waiting for a cadetship on Sydney's Sunday Sun. At the same time that he swore her to secrecy, he gave her some pencil-written drafts of the Ern Malley poems and promised that she could have the scoop of this "wonderful jape" which was "going to absolutely slay Max Harris".
It was a bad move. Sommers jumped the gun the moment she saw the Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins on the streets. Of course she was no journalist and the paper would hardly let her have her "scoop" - so senior journalists took over, hunting down the hoaxers before they were ready to account for their actions. They were not pleased. They were revelling in the success of their hoax. They wanted to make the most of it - and to keep their secret for as long as possible.

However, the hoax suspicions were erupting in a very different way in Adelaide.
Max Harris was being accused of writing the poems. He had given the Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins to one of his former university lecturers, Brian Elliott. The academic was impressed by the poems, but immediately charged Harris with having written them as self-satire. Harris's emphatic denials were not enough for Elliott. He wrote in the university paper, On Dit, that he and other academics, while recognising the poetry as "very good" believed that Ern Malley was fictional - most likely Harris himself. The article was headed "Local lecturer cries 'hoax' - is Malley, Malley or Malley, Harris - or who?"
And the Ern Malley Scandal was born - seven months after the poems were written.

Harris found himself on the defensive. The poetry was acclaimed - but suspected. He knew he was not a hoaxer.  He hired a Sydney private detective called Bannister to stake out Ethel Malley's address at Dalmar Street, Croydon. At first Bannister investigated the wrong address, 14 instead of 40. But he did check the electoral roll and establish that there was no E. Malley listed in the area. Number 40, he discovered, was occupied by people called Stewart and when, finally, he found a woman at home in the house, he was to be told that the person who may be able to talk about Ern Malley was in hospital. (As it happened, Harold Stewart was in hospital, recovering from surgery on an abscess.)

Harris's alarm bells were ringing. He cabled John Reed that there was a "strong chance" Ern Malley was a fraud. By now the Sydney journalists were descending on McAuley and Stewart who, naively, insisted that van Sommers be the reporter of their story. Senior journalist Colin Simpson, had firm hold on the reins. It was he who chased up Harris, waking him from "Nembutal-stupefied sleep" at 2 am to  catch him off guard and quiz him about the poems. Not knowing about van Sommers' little arrangement with the hoaxers, Harris assumed that it was the English lecturer, Elliott, who had tipped off the media.
He pondered in a letter to John Reed that he was guilty of some over lack of restraint in his launching of Malley on the world, although he believed profoundly in the quality of the literature.
He volunteered to take responsibility for whatever may ensue.

The private detective was still at work, chasing up English professor and detective fiction writer J.I.M. Stewart, to whom Harris had early shown the poems for opinion. Stewart had said he was not impressed with the poems, but he was now among a growing list of suspects. He denied nothing, saying only that had heard of Ern Malley and Max Harris. Bannister also interviewed the Sydney journalists who were keeping their scoop to themselves. They published it in Fact - asserting that they had a poor opinion of the poetry and that there had never been a National Mutual Life Assurance salesman called Ernest Malley or an Ethel Malley in Croydon. They quoted Harris as saying that while there had been suggestions that the poetry was a hoax "it  is not our job to inquire into credentials but to valuate work as poetry".

Other detective work was going on between the university newspaper editors. On Dit editor Roy Leaney sent Ethel Malley's address off to his counterpart, Murray Sayle at Honi Soit in Sydney - and hit paydirt. Sayle immediately recognised the Malley address of  40 Dalmar Street, Croydon, as that of former student and would-be poet Harold Stewart. But confusions and suspicions reigned for quite some time - fingers were pointing in all directions. Harris was still suspected of hoaxing himself. He, in turn, suspected various other writers of his acquaintance - Michael Keon and Adrian Lawler among them. There was much talk of  "the soldier poets". Some people suspected it was a larger group of pranksters. Then On Dit  hit the streets, exposing Harold Stewart and Professor J.I.M. Stewart issued adamant denials. The story then broke in the mainstream press - and the guessing game was over.

McAuley and Stewart wrote fairly smug admissions which were printed in Sydney's Fact - claiming they had knocked up the verse in one afternoon "with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to be on our desks". They described their poems as "nonsensical sentences" and "bad verse", "utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry". They claimed that it was all in the way of a literary "experiment". A.D. Hope was in seventh heaven. The worse things were for Max, the happier was Hope. He had been in on the hoax since its inception now it was time for "a great big horse laugh" at seeing 'Maxie played for a sucker".  He called it "the greatest literary hoax since Bacon wrote Shakespeare". And his pleasure at thinking of poor Max "roll those great big bedroom eyes" was far from over. His venomous review of Max's surrealist novel was about to be printed - giving Hope the further satisfaction of kicking Harris while he was down.

The hoax was big news - and Ern Malley's name was becoming famous. The hoax was reported around the world. Harris, responding to the McAuley/Stewart explanations, said he hoped that their names may one day "grow larger than their highly commendable myth". They didn't. Ern Malley was their greatest creation - and, many  say, their best work. Harris's view was endorsed by none other than the distinguished literary authority Sir Herbert Read and, to a modest degree, T.S. Eliot - who read the poems in England. Read cabled Harris offering his support saying that he, too, would have been deceived by Malley's "elements of genuine poetry".

The bigger the scandal became, the more people wanted a slice of the action. Melbourne's Establishment had never been happy with the Heide crowd and Angry Penguins' leftist views. The persecution of Harris and Angry Penguins turned political. Even the Catholic Church was hitting out at Harris. He was mocked, attacked, vilified - and then the police turned up. Detective Vogelsang arrived at the Adelaide office of Reed & Harris to inform Harris that he was under instructions to make inquiries about Angry Penguins under the Police Act "with respect to immoral or indecent publications".
In September, 1944, Max Harris went to court to defend Ern Malley against charges of obscenity.




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Harold Stewart and James McAuley

There is a long-standing myth that these two conservative poets sat down spontaneously and churned out the Ern Malley poems in one grand burst on a wet afternoon in their barracks. This was the initial claim of the hoaxers after the hoax was exposed - another way of demeaning the modernist genre. But it is dubious. Max Harris had reason to believe that the prank was planned and that more substantial work was involved. Perhaps he later learned this in communications with McAuley, for while Stewart sustained a lifelong hostility towards Harris, McAuley quite early expressed his remorse. Indeed, he sent Harris a clue written on the back of an art postcard at the time of the hoax. Harris pinned the card to the wall without noticing the clue - until much, much later. However, he and McAuley buried the hatchet later in life - and it was McAuley who acknowledged Harris as copyright holder of the Ern Malley works, writing that  he did not believe in "claiming rights which we never asserted in our own persons" and that "Ethel Malley made a present of all rights to the editors" .

James McAuley

As a student of Sydney University, James McAuley shone among the young intellectuals. He was a vital individual, a poet, a jazz pianist and an enthusiastic drinker and smoker. Whatever the promise, however, he became a schoolteacher until the War when he, along with Harold Stewart, was enlisted in a mysterious military intelligence unit as a Lieutenant. As a poet, McAuley tended towards romantic symbolist style, a bit on the gloomy side. He loathed the modernist movement of the period with a vengeance. He also loathed communism with a passion. But he was a restless, discontented spirit, the biographers say. A trip to New Guinea both changed and inspired him - it led to his conversion to Catholicism as a spiritual palliative and to his subsequent work in Australian School of Pacific Studies. He was possessed of steely views, known to be a "Cold War Warrior", and to an adamant advocate of "the sanctity of Christian marriage". He was also known to suffer appalling nightmares. He played an important role in Australia's literary history, however, as founding editor of Quadrant, an anti-communist literary publication, and he became a professor of English at the University of Tasmania. He continued to produce poetry and critical essays.

Harold Stewart

A middle-class Sydney boy who started writing poetry at school, went on to study music and who dropped out of university after a year to study poetry. He was fascinated by Asian culture and art and was devoted to the writings of Jung. He was a Corporal in the Army Intelligence with McAuley and, although he early had shown interest in the modernists, he became fiercely opposed to their works. His poetry followed A.D. Hope in neo-classical style.
 The only conventional job Stewart held was as a part-time bookseller in the Norman Robb Bookshop in Melbourne.  From 1966 he lived in Japan where he taught English and studied Shin Buddhism.   He became expert in Japanese culture. Grants from the Literature Board of Australian and the Australia-Japan Foundation supported him. In latter years he lived reclusively within an expatriate community, a bitter man with no love for his homeland.

Stewart and McAuley thought modernist poetry was pretentious nonsense. They likened it to "a free association test". They agreed with A.D. Hope that it would be a good idea to "get Maxy" and to debunk what they called the "Angry Pungwungs".

They set themselves some facetious rules:

  1. There must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader.

  2.  No care was taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.

  3.  In style, the poems were to imitate, not Mr. Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as we knew it from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and others.

They started with an unfinished McAuley poem Durer: Innsbruck 1495 and went on to create an oeuvre of parodies, using snippets of text books, quotes of this and that, free associations...

Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the alleged poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works," they later explained.

In typing the poems, Stewart made deliberate errors and corrections. Then they aged their creation by exposure to sun and dust. The prank was completed by the invention of Ethel Malley, the straight-laced suburban sister who discovers her dead brother's works and pleads for literary appraisal.
And it all turned out to be the two poets' most remembered works.




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Max Harris had been prepared to take the hoax "in good part". He believed passionately in the literary merit of the poems and was always ready to defend them against conservative criticism. Suddenly he was called upon to defend them in a court of law - accused of publishing obscene material.

The press went to town on the story and suddenly Harris was a figure of high notoriety and ridicule. People jeered in the streets as he attended the courtroom. Some spat at him and even at his young wife-to-be, Yvonne.

The court was packed solid as the young avant-garde poet was interrogated about every nuance and metaphorical reference in the surrealist poetry. Part farce and part intense literary debate, there has never been a trial like it.
Detective Vogelesang, for the prosecution, insisted that Night Piece was obscene because:
 "Apparently someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting through the park gates. To my mind they were going there for some disapproved motive ... I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes".

He also found the word "incestuous" indecent in Perspective Lovesong, admitting "I don't know what 'incestuous' means."
Harris was subjected to extensive cross-examination by the Crown, called upon to explain the poetry, line by agonising line, sometimes one word at a time. Harris was asked to explain Ern Malley's references to Shakespeare and the contexts whence they were derived. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, reigned high in the Adelaide Police Court.
But, however hard the young Harris argued the case for literature and for Malley, the Magistrate would have none of it. Harris was told that he had "far too great a fondness for sexual references" and he was fined 5 pounds in lieu of six weeks in prison.
The hoaxers were silent.




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Reed & Harris was the Melbourne publishing company of John Reed and Max Harris. Their quest, of course, was to give opportunity and exposure to Australian writers. 
Not that Reed & Harris stopped at Australians. There were grand international plans and strong links with America and England.
Harris was possessed of a prodigious creative generosity, a quickness to appreciate talent in others and to encourage it. He sought to nourish creative impulses and intellectual sensibilities - thus advancing his concept for a better world. Reed was similarly enthusiastic and supportive, albeit with more practical restraint. He was the financier, after all. Their small, progressive company at 360 Collins Street, Melbourne, published a wealth of poetry, novels, short stories, political and scientific papers and even a book on ballet and one of Aboriginal legends. Artist Sidney Nolan was very much a part of the Reed & Harris team, producing cover illustrations for many of the books.

One of Reed & Harris's bold ventures was the commissioning of an autobiography by Roy Rene, the popular comedian most famously known as Mo, pictured above. Harris did substantial ghosting for this work, but refused to give himself a credit when the book came to publication. Mo's Memoirs, now a very rare book, remains the definitive record of one of Australia's great comic talents. Among the Reed & Harris publications were:

Excellent Stranger by Alister Kershaw ; with preface by A.R. Chisholm.
The second book of verse by Kershaw , a poet with a cosmopolitan style.

The darkening ecliptic by Ern Malley. Illustration by Sidney Nolan. Introduction by Max Harris.
Ern Malley poems.

Night flight and sunrise by Geoffrey Dutton; introductory statements by Max Harris. Cover by Sidney Nolan.
This was Dutton's first book of poetry, much encouraged by Harris.

1891- Murder the murderer; an excursus on war from "The
air-conditioned nightmare."
Henry Miller. 1944

Valentin Zeglovsky's Ballet Crusade. Reprint, 1945. Hardcover . Illustrated.
A popular ballet book of the period.

The Vegetative Eye by Max Harris, cover Sidney Nolan.
First novel of an Australian poet giving a personal apocalypse against an allegorical background of the Australian scene.

The Bunyip and Other Mythical Monsters and Legends by Charles R. Campbell, naturalist-author. Illustrated.
A study of Australian mythical beasts from Aboriginal folklore and legend.
Described by the prescient publishers as "a most valuable social document relating to the Australian aboriginee (sic), whose life is so interwoven with the compulsions of these legends".

Lucky Alphonse, Cynthia Reed. Semi-novel form account of the life of an Australian girl who trains as a nurse in overseas hospitals.

Immigration by Caldwell, Arthur
 ALP Pamphlet , 1945

A second summary, Harry Roskolenko. Introduction Henry Treece.
The well-known American poet's third book of verse.

The Effluence of Leontine, Brian Elliot
A first novelette by leading Adelaide academic.

Eyes Left! Dr Reg S. Ellery
Book-pamphlet on the Soviet Union and the Post-War World.

The Socialist Order and Freedom, Bruce Williams

Schizophrenia, The Cinderella of Psychiatry. Dr Reg. S. Ellery.
Re-publication of a successful discussion of a major illness.

Reed & Harris had a Sydney representative in the form of one Elizabeth Lambert and a New York office at 1788 10th St. Brooklyn, manned by the American poet Harry Roskolenko.
Reed & Harris acted as an agency for New Directions books, Geo. Wittenborn & Coy. specialist art publishers, and The Wind and the Rain, an English quarterly, Interim, an American quarterly.




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Prolific in his youth, Max Harris's poetic output was dramatically reduced by the savaging of the Ern Malley Affair. He produced only a few slim volumes in the ensuing years - although his verse was included in all major anthologies of Australian poetry and was studied in schools. After his death, when the National Library of Australia published The Angry Penguin - Selected Poems of Max Harris, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest lyric poets the country has produced.

Sad Ones

The gentleness of Jesus
And the meekness of the child
Are false ideas. Christ was fierce
And we breed our children wild.

The spring girl who is dreaming
In the branches of a tree
Knows something of the charnel-house
And modern psychiatry.

The poor old ancient dribbler,
Cigar ash on his vest,
Thinks his seventh stage of life
Not much worse than the rest.

There is an ache of discontent
In milktooth and aged gum,
So let's give praise for coming days,
For Kingdom-Bloody-Come.

Dead Friends

Padman, Pfeiffer, and Kerr,
These are dead ones,
Poets I used to know,
Dead eight years or so.

I have left until now
To mention the fact,
They were best left alone
Until a love was grown

That would place them
Within the flow of time.
Dead eight years or so.
Without reason, without rhyme.

Mithridatum of Despair

We know no mithridatum of despair
as drunks, the angry penguins of the night,
straddling the cobbles of the square,
tying a shoelace by fogged lamplight.
We know no astringent pain,
no flecking of thought's dull eternal sea
in garret image, of Spain
and love's parody.

See - chaos spark, struck from flint
and the plunging distemper, flare in the dawn's dull seep
of milkcart horse, morning horse
chaos horse, walking at three to the doors of sleep
with the creamy poison.
convulsions endure
from nine to five,
all life immure.
and still alive.

we know no mithridatum, nor the remembered dregs of fear,
the glass stands dry and silted; no end is near.

Your Eyes Content Me

Your eyes, turning in sorrow, content me,
For there is in them a new and silent sorrow
As if your eyes, seeing that content,
Turn to, dying, that sorrow
Spent people live in as, dying,
They rest in some prior deathbed,
Accepting, loving, in that hour
The sorrowing eyes that are yet content
In the love that comes in the loss of love -
Love occasioned, sorrowed, and relinquished.

Because, in loving, in man's sorrow,
The heart's settling and dying content us,
All is relinquished, determined
By time and sorrow paid
And laid within its bed of loving,
Except love. Your eyes content me.


Seven the things that tempt us,
Nine the time of day,
Two the distance between us
And there is one way.

Green the thought love rests in,
White the thought that parts,
Black the shadow tests us
With our destroying arts.

A sign is enough to live by,
A shape we make in air;
A long line of time we follow.
Does it lead us anywhere?

Bud in Perspex

The bud in perspex by my bed
Every time I move my head
Turns a deeper shade of red.

The Mogadon that brings me rest
Put me to a nightly test,
Dreams that sort out bad and best,

A nightly mugging of the mind
Extortions of a brutal kind,
Forces unevenly aligned.

A chemical brings to the light
Facts that come alive at night.
Proving I do wrong to right.

The rose in perspex by my bed
Watches each move of my head.
It will bloom when I am dead.

The Tantanoola Tiger

There in the bracken was the ominous spoor mark,
Huge, splayed, deadly, and quiet as breath,
And all around lay bloodied and dying,
Staring dumbly into their several eternities,
The rams that Mr Morphett loved as sons.

Not only Tantanoola, but at Mount Schanck
The claw welts patterned the saplings
With mysteries terrible as Egypt's demons,
More evil than the blueness of the Lakes,
And less than a mile from the homestead, too.

Sheep died more rapidly than the years
Which the tiger ruled in tooth and talk,
And it padded from Beachport to the Border,
While blood streamed down the minds of the folk
Of Mount Gambier, Tantanoola, of Casterton.

Oh this tiger was seen all right, grinning,
Yellow and gleaming with satin stripes:
Its body arched and undulated through the tea-tree;
In this land of dead volcanoes it was a flame,
It was a brightness, it was the glory of death,

It was fine, this tiger, a sweet shudder
In the heath and everlastings of the Border,
A roc bird up the ghostly ring-barked gums
Of Mingbool Swamp, a roaring fate
Descending on the mindless backs of grazing things.

Childhoods burned with its burning eyes,
Tantanoola was a magic playground word,
It rushed through young dreams like a river
And it had lovers in Mr Morphett and Mr Marks
For the ten long hunting unbelieving years.

Troopers and blacks made safari, Africa-fashion,
Pastoral Quixotes swayed on their ambling mounts,
Lost in invisible trails. The red-faced
Young Lindsay Gordons of the Mount
Tormented their heartbeats in the rustling nights

While the tiger grew bigger and clear as an axe.
'A circus once abandoned a tiger cub.'
This was the creed of the hunters and poets.
'A dingo that's got itself too far south'
The grey old cynics thundered in their beers,

And blows were swapped and friendships broken,
Beauty burst on a loveless and dreary people,
And their moneyed minds broke into singing
A myth; these soured and tasteless settlers
Were Greeks and Trojans, billabong troubadours,

Plucking their themes at the picnic races
Around the kegs in the flapping canvas booths.
On the waist-coats shark's teeth swung in time,
And old eyes, sharply seamed and squinting,
Opened mysteriously in misty musical surprise,

Until the day Jack Heffernan made camp
By a mob of sheep on the far slope of Mount Schanck
And woke to find the tiger on its haunches,
Bigger than a mountain, love, or imagination,
Grinning lazily down on a dying ewe,

And he drew a bead and shot it through the head.
Look down, oh mourners of history, poets,
Look down on the black and breeding volcanic soil,
Lean on your fork in this potato country,
Regard the yellowed fangs and quivering claws

Of a mangy and dying Siberian wolf.
It came as a fable or a natural image
To pace the bars of these sunless minds,
A small and unimpressive common wolf
In desperately poor and cold condition.

It howled to the wattle when it swam ashore
From the wreck of the foundered Helena,
Smelt death and black snakes and tight lips
On every fence-post and slip-rail.
It was three foot six from head to tail.

Centuries will die like swatted blowflies
Before word or wolf will work a tremor
Of tenderness in the crusty knuckles
Around the glasses in the Tantanoola pub
Where its red bead eyes now stare towards the sun.

The Rosarian

Five people are enough. I see them,
A conflagration of roses, at any time of year.
They are at play amidst a secrecy of green age
Whether they are sternly budding or whether
They are defying the sun to burn them in the heart.
They are sweet and feminine, or dancing a gavotte
To the rhythm of the invisible weather.

Thereby it comes to be that I am ageless.
And will be watching their laughter and care.

I have named them, as befits a good rosarian.
There is Von and Sa, Ryder and Sam, and
Peter, Paul and Mary. Let the weather do its worst.
I shall not let it harm them.
They shall prosper within my gnarled shade.

At least, that is what I choose to think.
If this is not so, the years will have been
A Waste. Like Elizabeth Browning I shall count the days
and the ways.
There will have been enough. I shall look
To all the watering they will read.



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The protagonists of the Ern Malley saga are dead - but Ern Malley lives. In literary circles, his light is undimmed. He has been read, studied and discussed in schools and universities throughout the years. The fascination is sustained - because it is believed that the poetry stands alone.  The young Max's judgement has been vindicated again and again. Other literary hoaxes have occurred in ensuing years - but Ern Malley remains at the top of the tree - and his works continue to be published, purchased and analysed.

He has inspired writers, composers and performers. Dave Dallwitz, who was an Angry Penguins contributor, later wrote and recorded The Ern Malley Jazz Suite in his honor. Myriad academic papers have been written and even PhD theses. Michael Heyward wrote a major text. Theatre works have been contrived and presented. Readings of the poems and the court transcript take place in libraries and theatres.

In 2003, Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey revived the Ern Malley story with his fictionalised account, "My Life as a Fake", a very elegant publication from Random House.
Carey relates the story as told to an English literary editor by one of the hoaxers, found living in squalor and ignominy in Malaysia. Implicit in the telling is the writer's sympathy for the damage inflicted upon Harris and his disdain for the hoaxers.
Reviews of "My Life as a Fake"

The Sydney Morning Herald
The Age
The Guardian
Now, after 59 quiet years, amid this refreshed interest in the Ern Malley affair, there has been a sudden challenge to the ownership of copyright for the Ern Malley poems from the Estates of the hoaxers. 
Copyright to the Ern Malley poems was presented as a gift to the publishers by Ern's sister Ethel in the initial submission of the poems to Angry Penguins. In ensuing years, the hoaxers made no effort to reclaim this gift. In the 1960s, when Landsowne was re-publishing the Malley poems, hoaxer Harold Stewart wrote to his co-hoaxer, James McAuley, impishly suggesting that maybe they should have another go at Max Harris by calling for copyright. McAuley was not amused. He tersely responded that it would be an absurd can of legal worms and he wanted no part in it. He reminded his co-hoaxer that they had relinquished copyright when they refused to put their names on the work and made a gift of it to the publisher. It should stay there. Harold Stewart did not contest this and the case was closed. Copyright remained with the victim of the hoax for, after all, had it not been for Max Harris, Ern Malley would not exist. Ern Malley's poetry was concocted specifically to target and humiliate Harris. The hoaxers always insisted that it was "utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry" - just a grab-bag of plagiarised lines and snippets of "bad verse". Had Harris not fallen for the hoax, the Malley poems never would have seen the light of day.
Nor would Harris have been prosecuted, carried the notoriety of Ern Malley, championed the poems and kept his flame alight.
In 2003, the hoaxer Estates issued their challenge, asserting that they held a "position" by which they had always intended to claim the copyright when Max Harris died.  He died in 1995.




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As the years roll on, Ern Malley continues to rise in the cultural  landscape eclipsing his creators and sometimes even his raison d'etre. Surfing the web, one can find emulators and music groups, students of all sorts expressing fascination not always borne of knowledge.

It is mainly good. Max Harris held a profound belief that the brain needed constant tickling and provocation. The legacy of Ern Malley would seem to be just that. The arguments and analyses roll on - still as fresh as hot buttered toast.

From time to time, Ern is responsible for absolutely wonderful things in the way he stirs the cultural juices. There has been considerable meditation over the role he played in the creative life of Sidney Nolan, the artist who was there when Ern arrived. Malley haunted Nolan for the rest of his life and spurred some of Nolan's best art.  This is the old history.

Newsworthy today is the role Ern Malley has played in the creative life of Garry Shead. Shead is  distinctive contemporary Australian artist, an Archibald Award winner with a portrait of Tom Thompson, the very man who is guardian to and publisher of the Ern Malley poems.

As the synchronicities of life would have it, Garry Shead also has become a definitive painter of Ern Malley. He has produced  an extensive and astutely-observed series of works which thread their way through and around the figure of Ern and the imagery evoked by the poems. As Sasha Grishin puts it, Shead's  Ern is "a crucified saviour poet" .Shead depicts him with sad eyes and a crowned by a laurel wreath. Or are they olive leaves? Perhaps either and both, since Malley was created because Maxie had too many laurels. Malley was the hoaxer's bonfire for Max's perceived vanities, or charisma or IQ. Shead has imbued Malley with much of the look of Max - olive-skinned and velvet-eyed. And  yet he includes a separate Max in the major works - a Max most often carrying a book.

Shead has worked since 2003 evoking an inner life from the poems and creating a dreamily plausible visualisation of both the poems and the poet. The works have strong hints of Arthur Boyd, the artist who illustrated Max Harris's poetry in the famous Australian Letters series of aritsts and poets. There is sometimes a sense of Chagall, sometimes a little Bruegel..

There are works in oil and ink. There are etchings and ceramics. Sometimes they are together -  line drawings inside a ceramic Ern Malley book. An extraordinary work of secret art hidden within art. Shead's meditations on the theme are so glorious and so expansive that they now are embellished by a definitive art book, a study of Shead's Malley works by art critic and academic, Professor Sasha Grishin.

The Apotheosis of Ern Malley by Sasha Grishin.!ProfessorSashaGrishin!_3120.aspx


The book continues to attract comment. Below are some of the reviews for Sasha Grishin’s The Apotheosis of Ern Malley.

by Larry Buttrose

Our national yen for literary hoaxes would appear as powerful as ever. The longest-lived - and it would seem, best loved - of our literary frauds however remains that of Ern Malley. The hoax was perpetrated upon the doyen of literary modernism of the 1940s, the dandy Max Harris, by a couple of enlisted poets who reckoned poetry without your traditional rhyme and meter to be fit for little but the settees of poseurs and show ponies.
James McAuley and Harold Stewart concocted the poems as “a serious literary experiment” to see if the modernist push could discern “the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense”. But really it was a joke Joyce, intended to humiliate men in cravats.
Purporting to be the sister of the now-deceased Malley, they sent Harris a group of poems under the title The Darkening Ecliptic. He took the bait down the gullet, splashing news of the new poet Ern Malley across the Nolan-painted cover of his avant-garde journal Angry Penguins.
The gleeful exposure of the hoax detonated a depth-charge in the literary arts of the 1940s so powerful that ripples from it are still being felt today. Peter Carey revisited it in his novel My Life as a Hoax, and last year Griffith Review published six poems by John Stephenson written as new and previously undiscovered Malleys, as a humorous homage.
Artist Garry Shead has long meditated upon the hoax and the poems themselves - and as did Sidney Nolan with the Ned Kelly legend, and later Malley too - and produced a series of paintings from 2000-2006 just published in a book titled The Apotheosis of Ern Malley. (The book was first issued last year, but Shead was disappointed with the standard of reproduction, and it has now been re-released in a new edition.)
Shead - perhaps best known to the literary world for his 1993 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of publisher Tom Thompson as a quizzical Richard III - interleaves the original poems with paintings reflecting on their themes, and upon the act of concocting them by the uniformed servicemen McAuley and Stewart.
His works meld a poignantly passionate lyricism with wry wit and accomplished painterly panache. They are works too of a high romanticism, in which poetic endeavour triumphs over the meanness of the mundane world.
Shead depicts Ern Malley as a poet who, in Poem, 2006, sits enraptured in a poetic trance before his typewriter while a magpie flutters in with his laurel wreath in its beak, and a naked young woman lingers on his bed - an image of Keatsean romanticism down to the screwed up pages tossed onto the floor.
Meanwhile, in The Darkening Ecliptic, 2006, we have seen the uniformed soldier schemers McAuley and Stewart concocting their Malley verses while a woman (the Muse?) stands turned away at the window.
Depicted as a Christ-like figure, Ern Malley with his laurel wreath for a crown of thorns rises from death (and failure) in The Resurrection of Ern Malley, 2004, while the soldiers scarper from the room, and his verses are reassembled on the floor under the gaze of the seeming Muse.
As such, Shead has wrought from the Malley legend a figure of a poet who is mocked by the world, but who in the end triumphs from beyond death (and life) through his works. Bizarrely enough, McAuley and Stewart even presaged this in their own lines, “Now I find that once more I have shrunk/ To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,/ I had read in books that art is not easy/ But no-one warned that the mind repeats/ In its ignorance the vision of others.

To some people, the abiding appeal of the Ern Malley affair is something of a mystery itself, but at its core is a debate which for decades was hotly pursued in Australian artistic circles and has echoes today in various arguments about postmodernism: the entire modernist enterprise. McAuley and Stewart were poets who resented the rush and gush of modernism coming our way from Britain, Europe and US, in all its too-clever allusiveness, and, in the case of some works, its seemingly purposeful obscurantism.
The irony though is that in sending it up and humiliating modernism’s champions here, McAuley and Stewart created poems that transcended their own petty designs. Put bluntly, to many readers the Ern Malley poems are more resonant than any of the “serious” works of McAuley and Stewart. After all, Ern is still being read and discussed: they are not.
Indeed, the poems unwittingly question of the origin of creativity, and it would seem a fair hypothesis that in allowing themselves the liberty to “play”, and bypassing their own stylistic and conventional bonds, McAuley and Stewart penned works of lasting note despite themselves.
As Barry Pearce puts it in his Preface to The Apotheosis of Ern Malley, after quoting one of the poems, “Who cannot be startled by the electric edge of such lines? These pithy, cobbled together phrases plucked randomly from dictionaries, science journals and even throwaway lines by Shakespeare, are as intriguing as fragments of the unconscious aesthetic of nature laid out on a laboratory table and arranged with a fresh, free-associating eye. Something new was made.”
In his Introduction, Sasha Grishin, the Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History at ANU, reflects on the issue of authorship raised through the Ern Malley episode, remarking “What does it mean to be an author? Does it matter that there may be uncertainty as to the exact identity of the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon? Does it matter that none of Shakespeare's original dramatic manuscripts has survived in an autograph copy?” And here of course we come full circle back to postmodernism, to Barthes and his “death of the author” and his “tissue of quotations”.
Thus we have the irony of two “bored Sydney poets” who wrote all sixteen of the Malley poems “on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October 1943”. How could they have known that in spite of their actual intentions they were creating poems which Professor Grishin remarks “are some of the most famous and controversial poems to have ever been published in Australia, and have received widespread recognition internationally.”
The irony is that the larrikins who created Ern Malley were conservatives, not radicals; that they were trying to resist change, instead of creating it. The irony is too that without them exposing their hoax, the poems would have subsided into the pages of an obscure literary journal of 1940s Australia, and, like nearly all poetry ever published, lie forgotten amid its brittled pages.
In engineering the hoax, and then in exposing it, they created Ern Malley, and they made us look at “his” poems. Yet he does not exist - he never did. Who was he then but them, McAuley and Stewart, aspects of themselves they were afraid of, or discounted, even despised; their creative selves who despite themselves conjured the ghost of a “deceased” nonentity, and through his voice uttered their most enduring verses.
What better figure, then, for an artist to invoke in paint, a literary phantom whose works came to dwarf their puny creation? No wonder Shead draws upon religious iconography in some of the works of this book - and little wonder too in its title. No wonder either that some of the most arresting works depicted are Shead's beautifully decorated ceramic urns.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 13-14 June 2009.
Larry Buttrose is  one of the founders of a new online literary publication. THE GROUP is devoted to new writing, fiction and nonfiction, essays and journalism, poetry and beyond. Curated by a roster of some of Australia's best and boldest writers, each edition delivers quality new work from Australia and abroad. Foundation members include John Birmingham, James Bradley, Larry Buttrose, Billy Marshall Stoneking and Mark Mordue. Membership is free and open to all. The magazine appears bi-monthly

Review of Sasha Grishin's book by John McDonald in Quadrant, June 2009:
A Princeton professor of philosophy, David Lewis found an intriguing link between Ernst Mally and Ern Malley. Mally, he writes, was an Austrian philosopher who worked on Alexius Meinong's theory of non-existence objects and therefore was a non-existent object. Lewis believes the hoaxers, or at least McAuley, may have been familiar with this fairly obscure reference. A theorist of non-existent objects as namesake for a non-existent object.  Mally, who is quite well-documented these days, was of German socialist leanings and was a powerful anti-semite. Lewis does not extrapolate on these facets in his short article, published in Quadrant  in 1995. Quadrant, the Australian literary quarterly, was in fact, once edited by McAuley. Interestingly, the hoaxers more likely could have gained reference to Meinong and non-existence from the precocious young Max Harris  who had, indeed, read the philosophers all. Occasionally throughout his life he opined on the philosophy of non-existence albeit he identified himself among the existentialists - Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Buber and Kafka. They, of course, were part of the path to modernism.


Cordite - the Australian publication of Poetry and Poetics - experienced an historic eruption of Ernery It generated a new legacy in the form of of Ern Malley's fictitious  children. For a sickly man who died young, he was highly fecund, it  seems. The Cordite children are many. And, of course, he also left a cat.

Cordite's explosion of Ern Malleys is the fruit of many sporting poets. They created a litany of fakery which Cordite then systematically exposed. All the literary fun of the fair - and some quite nice poetry.


In 2009, the Heide Art Museum in Melbourne chose to make a celebration of Ern Malley.
A special exhibition has been mounted, arraying Malley-belia from all over the country.

Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond curated by Kendrah Morgan and David Rainey ran from July 22 to November 15, 2009.

Heide was the home of John and Sunday Reed, the place where Max Harris spent so much of that feisty Angry Penguins time along with Sidney Nolan. They were the inner sanctum of that period, the Malley core, so to speak. All were deeply affected by the hoax albeit that the Malley poems were not originally sent to Heide but to the Angry Penguins office. This office happened to be in Adelaide where, when Harris was in Victoria with the Reeds and Reed & Harris, it was manned by business manager Mary Martin. Hence, the famous Ern Malley court case was held in Adelaide.

Heide, however, was one of the crucial elements which led to the birth of Ern Malley. That intellectual and arts enclave, that precocious modernist Harris with his friend, partner and mentor John Reed, that hothouse of ideas at that arty farm... These were part of the burning resentments and jealousies of A.D. Hope and the two hoaxers he encouraged.
Hence, Malley keeps a literary foot in that Heide door - and now has his day, more than 60 years later.


Into the new millennium, Ern Malley has come to rest in the front of the national mind whenever the word "hoax" is used. In 2012, when a fairly silly commercial radio prank turned into an international headline  tragedy, the ensuing analyses were swift to bring up the greatest  precedent. This is a very well-written synopsis of the Ern Malley affair in New Matilda by Robbie Swan.




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COLLECTED POEMS, Ern Malley, Imprint 1993 from ETT Imprint:

THE ANGRY PENGUIN - Selected poems of Max Harris
National Library of Australia, 1996:


Ern Malley Books

Ern Malley's Poems, Lansdowne, 1961

The poems of Ern Malley, Allen & Unwin, 1971

Ern Malley's Poems, 1974 Adelaide Festival Special Edition

The Darkening Ecliptic. Poems by Ern Malley. Paintings by Sidney Nolan ...
London, McAlpine, 1974

The Ern Malley Affair - 'The literary hoax of the twentieth century'
Michel Heyward, Queensland, University of Queensland Press 1993

Lost Angry Penguins: D.B. Kerr & P.G. Pfeiffer
John Miles, 2000. Crawford House Publishing

By Max Harris

The Gift of Blood
Adelaide, Jindyworobak Club, 1940

The Vegetative Eye
Reed & Harris, 1943

Dramas From The Sky
The Adelaide University Arts Association,  1942

The Coorong and Other Poems
Mary Martin Bookshop Adelaide 1955

Kenneth Slessor
Melbourne. Lansdowne Press. 1963

 A Window At Night.. Selected Poems
 With An Introduction by Robert Clark. ABR Publications. South Aust. 1967.

 Australian Poetry 1967
 edited by Max Harris Angus & Robertson Sydney 1967.

The Circus and Other Poems
 Illustrated by Arthur Boyd, Adelaide, 1960s

 The Land That Waited
 Max Harris & Alison Forbes Lansdowne Press. Melb.1971.

The Angry Eye
Introduction by Rupert Murdoch.
Sydney, 1973

OCKERS - Essays on the Bad Old New Australia
Essays on the bad old new Australia
Adelaide. Maximus Books. 1974.

Poetic Gems
1979, Adelaide, Mary Martin Bookshop

The Unknown Great Australian - and other psychobiographical portraits
Sun Books, 1983

The Best of Max Harris
21 Years of Browsing
Sydney. Allen & Unwin. 1986

The Australian way with Words
Melbourne. Heinemann. 1989.

The Vital Decade - Ten Years of Australian Art and Letters
Selected by Max Harris & Geoffrey Dutton, Sun Books Pty. Ltd., Melbourne, 1968.

Australia's Censorship Crisis
by Max Harris & Geoffrey Dutton
Sun Books Melbourne, 1970

Sir Henry, Bjelke Don Baby and Friends
Max Harris & Geoffrey Dutton
Sun Books Melbourne 1971

Out of Print book specialists:




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Jacket Magazine - Australia's premiere online literary journal, edited by poet John Tranter

Within Jacket Magazine's archives is the Hoax Issue (Issue 17) which gives further insights into the famous Ern Malley saga:

Tom Thompson - Max Harris's literary agent

Sidney Nolan

John Perceval

Arthur Boyd

Albert Tucker

The Heide Museum of Modern Art

The Sisters of St Joseph - the order founded by The Blessed Mary MacKillop - “a Saint for All Australians”

Mary MacKillop College, Adelaide -

Mary Martin Bookshop:




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The work of Max Harris and Ern Malley is copyright the Estate of Max Harris, 1944, 1995, 2003

Site text is copyright Samela Harris 2003

Portrait of Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan reproduced with permission of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Cartoon of A.D. Hope reproduced with permission of The Advertiser newspaper, Adelaide.

Photographs of Max Harris and the Reeds from the Max Harris Estate.

Image of "Murderer" Reed&Harris publication courtesy of ETT Imprint

CREDITS is produced by Samela Harris and Sheryl-Lee Kerr.

With thanks to Yvonne Harris, Ryder Grindle, Tom Thompson, Nanou Morgan, Peter Goers, Samantha Ward and the State Library of South Australia.