Editors of an Australian mid-century literary and artistic avant-garde magazine ‘Angry Penguins’ were devoted to the cause of Modernism which was based on the movements of Surrealism and Expressionism. From its humble beginnings in Adelaide, South Australia, through to its editorship under Max Harris; and its latter patronage of John and Sunday Reed in Melbourne; the Angry Penguins received great literary success and notoriety.
The Angry Penguins also suffered a huge public saga shortly after its Autumn edition in 1944, which included the cover art by Sidney Nolan (see left).
That issue featured the works of Ernest Lalor Malley, who although a young unknown and unpublished garage mechanic, was considered by the editors; as a highly talented writer. Fortuitously, they had been offered 16 of Malley’s Surrealistic poetry and experimental verse entitled The Darkening Ecliptic; via his loving sister Ethel. She had sent them these works following her brother’s untimely death to Graves Disease, at the tender age of 25. Ethel also provided them with some detailed biographical information about her brother which added to his authenticity.
Shortly after Malley’s work was published, his notoriety unraveled fast to become the hoax, that it always was. His ‘poetry’ was simply a parody on surrealism, set up by two conservative poets who were skeptical of modernist poetry. The ‘hoaxers’ were James McAuley and Harold Stewart who admitted to writing Malley’s collection in one single afternoon while on duty at the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, at the Defence Department’s Victoria Barracks, in Melbourne in October 1943.
- As part of their ‘experimental hoax’, they consulted the books on the shelves within their shared office room.
- From this, the ‘Malley’ prose began, consisting of a variety of quotations taken from Shakespeare; along with words taken at random from various dictionaries; and extracts from a USA government technical report on the breeding grounds of mosquitoes.
The following is one of ‘Malley’s’ works:
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.
It did not take long for the ‘hoax’ to be exposed, for on 25 June, 1944, the newspaper magazine supplement for the Sydney Sun exposed the ‘Ern Malley’ works as a hoax.
- As a consequence, the story was reported around the world ridiculing the literacy pretensions of the ‘Melbourne modernists’.
- By September, 1944, three months after its publication, the South Australian police impounded the ‘Ern Malley’ issue of ‘Angry Penguins’ on the grounds that seven of his poems were considered obscene.
- The letters from ‘Ethel Malley’ are contained in the John and Sunday Reed Papers purchased by the State Library of Victoria from Barrett Reid, a librarian, poet, writer editor and friend of the Reeds.
“Is It Art?”