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In part five of our Aussie Pride series, we look at those who gave the finger to another segment of the establishment: the literary “ruling class”.
The first literary hoaxer was George Barrington, who had been sent to the Colony of NSW in 1791. Before he was put on the Third Fleet, he had been celebrated in London’s popular press as “the prince of pickpockets”, and that should have been a warning when, from 1795, books started appearing that were apparently written by Barrington. They were accounts of his journey to Australia, his life in the colony and the criminal career that had got him there. In one of the books, Barrington presented himself as a hero, single-handedly quelling a mutiny, so earning the governor’s gratitude and an appointment as superintendent of convicts at Parramatta. Nothing of the kind happened, but in England, where the books were published, the punters lapped it up. They were exciting stories, usually with George in the lead role: saving the life of an Indigenous boy who had been shot with an arrow, for example, or opening the first theatre in Sydney with a risqué monologue. It was never quite clear if Barrington wrote his fake accounts himself, or whether they were penned by creative publishers in England. But the scam worked: the books sold like hotcakes and were translated into several languages. The celebrity criminal himself eventually became the chief constable of Parramatta and a large landowner, despite, or maybe because of the success of the swindle. Australia has always rather liked people who are bold as brass and a bit out there.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Aussie pride – Part four: Hardy, Menzies and the Communists
- Aussie pride – Part three: Our love of not fitting in
A later example of a literary hoax that rocked the literary establishment was that of Ern Malley. It was the last year of WW2 and writers’ circles in Australia were very much under the influence of what was called modernism. Poetry especially was being written in a surrealist style, with strange images and weird, almost unintelligible sentences. At the forefront of this movement was a group called the Angry Penguins. They were closely connected to the famous Heide-group of John and Sunday Reed and painter Sidney Nolan. They also published a magazine, which was edited by Max Harris, himself a poet and incredibly ambitious. At the end of 1944, he was looking for somebody who would be able to blow up the establishment with new and exciting writing, so he could publish him and put his journal on the map. Not long afterwards, he received a letter from a woman calling herself Ethel Malley. She wrote that her young brother Ern had just died and left her with a cache of poetry. Would Harris have a look at them and tell her if they were any good? Harris loved the poems and decided to dedicate a whole issue of the journal to them, with a cover by Sidney Nolan. Unfortunately, Ern Malley did not exist. He was the brainchild of two conservative poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, who hated modernist poetry and wanted to set up Harris. They had spent an afternoon making stuff up, opening books at random, jotting down the first things that came into their heads. The case became a major controversy. Harris was a laughing stock and ultimately had to give up his magazine. Stewart and McAuley were proud of their exposé of the emperor’s new clothes, but in the end, Australia did something remarkable with “Ern Malley”. Instead of seeing the scandal as a shameful episode, it started to turn it into something cool and quintessentially Australian. Plays were written about it, and novels, and poems, and short stories. And Sidney Nolan used the outrage as inspiration for a whole series of paintings. Taking the piss out of the establishment was the thing to do here, he thought, so to be an Australian painter you had to paint exactly that.
The result was a heated debate about multicultural literature, positive discrimination and the smarts, or lack thereof, of the critics – most of them major players in the literary establishment.
Twelve years after the Ern Malley scandal, it was on again, this time with a book called They’re a Weird Mob. When it was published in 1957, it was an instant hit. In the first year alone, 130,000 copies were sold. The year after, a 10th edition had to be printed to supply the bookstores, but there was not enough paper in Australia to fulfil the order. The success of the book was a bit of an enigma, though. They’re a Weird Mob pretended to be authored by Nino Culotta, an Italian journalist sent to Australia to investigate the country and its inhabitants and write pieces aimed at informing Italians thinking of migrating to the other side of the world. It was, in fact, as an academic once called it, “wog drag”, because the book was really written by second generation Irish-Australian John O’Grady. O’Grady, who was the chief pharmacist in Samoa around this time, had written They’re a Weird Mob after a bet with his brother that he could never write anything, let alone something successful. A few weeks later, John took some time off to help a friend in Sydney’s Punchbowl build a house. Reminded of the way working class Australians used their language, John came up with the idea to write a book about a migrant confronted with the local vernacular. Because he had been learning a bit of Italian from his barber, he chose an Italian migrant, sat down for six weeks, and out came They’re a Weird Mob. When the book hit the stores, everybody wanted to talk to Nino Culotta. Australians were still very much believers in the White Australia Policy and thought this story by what was then called a “new Australian” was very interesting. O’Grady had found exactly the right tone for the times. Nino was funny, a little dumb, naïve but loveable, never really critical of his adoptive society and eager to assimilate. When O’Grady’s cover was blown, everybody still loved him and urged him to write more of the same. He did. Fifteen books in fact, some sequels to They’re a Weird Mob, others also comedies, but about different people. In 1961, for instance, he wrote No kava for Johnny, a kind of “Nino in Samoa”. Most of his books sold well, although none made it to Weird Mob status. After a while, O’Grady got a little jealous of Culotta. Legend has it that he tried to bury him ceremoniously in a pub in Sydney, but to no avail. Australia had embraced his Italian outsider and accepted him as their own. There was nothing even its inventor could do about that.
Also on The Big Smoke
The 1990s saw two spectacular literary hoaxes. In 1993, The Hand that Signed the Paper was published by one of Australia’s most prestigious publishers. The writer was a young woman called Helen Demidenko and the book told the story of a Ukrainian-Australian woman and her Nazi uncle Vitaly. Critics called it a brave, if terrible novel and in the next two years, it won every prize in the country, including the Miles Franklin Award. The young author was feted everywhere and was careful to do most of her interviews on television dressed in Ukrainian national costume. In the end, it was her fame that brought her undone, because one day the Courier Mail got a phone call from “Demidenko”’s high school principal, who told the reporter that she was actually called Helen Darville, the daughter of English migrants Harry and Grace. The result was a heated debate about multicultural literature, positive discrimination and the smarts, or lack thereof, of the critics – most of them major players in the literary establishment. A year later, it was on again, when a book came out by a woman called Wanda Koolmatrie. My Own Sweet Time was purportedly a biography by an Aboriginal woman from the Pitjantjatjara clan, who had been forcibly removed from her mother’s care in the 1950s and was, therefore, a member of the Stolen Generation. The book was published to great acclaim and won the Dobbie Literary Award in 1996. Unfortunately, a few months later the writer was outed as white Sydney taxi-driver Leon Carmen, who said he felt he needed this fake Aboriginal identity to be noticed. The scandal drew international attention, with CNN mentioning Wanda as one of a list of “successful people who never existed”. In the case of both books, though, Australians themselves responded to the hoaxes by running to the bookstores and buying them, and laughing their heads off in letters to the editor in all manner of newspapers, enjoying the fact that somebody had got away with pulling the wool over the eyes of the powers-that-be, in this case, the literary establishment. Again: fitting in as an Australian trait? Not very likely.