Dark Emu and Other Great Australian Literary Hoaxes

I once almost was a neighbour of the great Australian poet John Shaw Neilson. For the first seven years of my life, I lived in Gordon Street Footscray, number 156 to be precise, in a neighbourhood which was gobbled up in 1976 by the Footscray Hospital when the brutalist concrete psychiatric facility was constructed behind our homes.

The brutalist concrete building still stands there, ominously empty for many years, and the main entrance to the Footscray Hospital now runs through what was my childhood home.

To the south side of that entrance, there is a historical marker erected in the early 1990s, indicating that from 1927 to 1941, Footscray poet John Shaw Neilson lived at number 152 Gordon Street.

So I am separated by two doors and 28 years from being a neighbour with John Shaw Neilson.

I remember the family that lived there. Robert, the son, was a year older than me and we would play together in the muddy dunny can lane behind our homes. My parents would call the father of that family ‘professore’ because Italians call any teacher with a degree ‘professore’ (he actually was a phys. ed. teacher), just like Italians call anyone with a degree ‘dottore’ (with a small ‘d’).

Footscray has very few famous writers of its own aside from John Shaw Neilson. The playwright Ray Lawler, who wrote ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’, was originally from Footscray, although he has long since left and hopefully is still alive, having turned 100 last month. We still claim the memoirist A.B. Facey as one of our own, and have named a laneway in Footscray West or Maidstone after him, despite his having moved to Western Australia as a child.

And then there is Ern Malley, who mentioned Footscray in two of his poems, and whom we might claim as one of our own except that he was (a) originally from Sydney, (b) living in a room in South Melbourne, and, most importantly (c) non-existent.

Ern Malley was the big literary hoax of the Australian literati of the mid 1940s, the fictional creation of two bored Sydney Uni graduates serving in Melbourne in the Army, which discredited the avant gard Angry Penguins with a hailstorm of derision.

But some, like me, would argue that Ern Malley’s talent as a poet still existed, even if he never did.

Take the following snippets from the purported Malley poem Documentary Film:

London:

Samson that great city, his anatomy on fire

Grasping with gnarled hands at the mad wasps

Yet while his bearded rage survives contriving

An entelechy of clouds and trumpets.

There have been interpolations, false syndromes

Like a river through the hand

Such deliberate suppressions of crisis as

Footscray:

The slant sun now descending

Upon the montage of the desecrate womb

Opened like a drain

The young men aspire

Like departing souls from leaking roofs

And fractured imploring windows to

(All must be synchronized, the jagged

Quartz of vision with the asphalt of human speech)

And what about the poignant words in Petit Testament, where Ern laments:

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 corner.

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.

Ern Malley’s two ghost writers did what no other writers have done – they anchored the obscure industrial town of Footscray, then on the edges of the Melbourne metropolis, to the rest of the world, to great cities like London, and to major contemporary tragedies like Guernica.

‘Twere he was real.

Ern Malley was the first great hoax of Australian literature. We had to wait some 50 years for the next one, the literary prize winning sensation that was The Hand That Signed The Paper, a novel about an elderly Ukrainian living in Brisbane who had been identified as a Nazi war criminal.

The author was a 23 year old Queenslander of Ukrainian origin, Helen Demidenko, which lent great authenticity to this dark and confronting story.

Except that her real name was Helen Darville. She was about as Ukrainian as Ern Malley was.

Perhaps the Latin quoted on the dedication page was a sly hint: Vox et praeterea nihil – ‘voice and nothing more’, which we would probably translate less literally as ‘sound without substance’.

I am not sure that it stands the test of time as a great literary work, 27 years after publication and 26 years after the exposure of the hoax. But for a 23 year old to write something like that took both great talent as a writer and great imagination, and perhaps her accomplishment was all the greater because she was not of Ukrainian background and could not draw on any cultural capital from such origins.

Perhaps. But despite that, the lack of authenticity has been held against both the book and the author and it cannot be found in bookstores anymore, either under the name Demidenko or Darville. It has been cancelled, like its author.

I will detour for a moment away from overt or apparent hoaxes to mention Nino Culotta, the sometime pen name for John O’Grady, who was writing from the perspective of a Northern Italian migrant making his way in Australia in the 1950s and 60s. As Nino says in the opening to Cop This Lot, the first sequel to the beloved classic They’re a Weird Mob:

“Who the hell’s Nino Culotta? You will say this is an easy question to answer. Nino Culotta is John Patrick O’Grady. So I will ask another question. Who the hell is John Patrick O’Grady? And how can he be Nino Culotta when not even I, Nino Culotta, am Nino Culotta?

“It is true that my name is Nino, which comes from Giovannino, which comes from Giovanni. But it is not true that my name is Culotta. When I wrote the story of my troubles in Australia, I used the name Culotta so that Australians and Meridionali would not throw stones through my windows. I hope they are not throwing stones through this O’Grady’s windows.”

He does go on to say:

“I think that perhaps this John Patrick O’Grady is one of the Meridionali who is only pretending to be an Irishman so he can say he is me.”

He concludes:

“I would like to meet John Patrick O’Grady and bump him on the head.”

Which brings me to Dark Emu and its author, the purportedly indigenous Bruce Pascoe. This book is not fiction and it is not poetry. It is meant to be a history book re-examining the nature of indigenous civilisation in Australia pre 1788. It claims that there was more sophisticated agriculture and building construction prior to 1788 than commonly believed.

The conservative magazine Quadrant has, for some time, expressed considerable doubt about the authenticity of the claims in Dark Emu, and of the ancestry of its author, to the point where the Quadrant website prominently promotes a book published in 2019 rebutting Dark Emu, Bitter Harvest by Peter O’Brian.

[News commentator Andrew Bolt has also weighed into this discussion for quite some time, but as I find him dogmatic and unconvincing on most things, I do not pay attention to what he says.]

Now two academics, Peter Sutton (an anthropologist) and Keryn Walshe (an archaeologist) have weighed into the discussion with the publication of their book – Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. They have raised concerns with the nature of the research, the lack of sources for some of the material, and claim that it distorts and exaggerates many points, ignoring information which does not support the author’s opinions.

Some 7 years after it’s initial publication, it appears that Dark Emu may be exposed as somewhat of a hoax, given that the newly published academic rebuttal is gaining attention and discussion in the way that Bitter Harvest has not.

The question arises as to whether this matters? Is Dark Emu any different from our various literary hoaxes of the past century?

In the case of Ern Malley, much as I wish he were a real person writing about Footscray, the main significance was to discredit a Sydney literary movement which was essentially a one-man band.

The Helen Demidenko business, aside from causing various public intellectuals to turn viciously on the judges who had awarded her literary prizes, caused us to be denied further novels by someone who was, essentially, a talented and imaginative writer.

As for John O’Grady’s Italian avatar Nino Culotta, all that happened was that migrants were made to feel more accepted in Australia, and we all got to enjoy his books and the fantastic movie which was made of it.

History is a different matter entirely from literature. History is essentially the record of how humanity has developed since we started writing on cave walls (or were created by God 6000 years ago if you prefer). The writing and rewriting of History is a serious business, as it involves a deeper engagement with human nature and the past, and an attempt to arrive at the truth. History is often not what happened, but what we believe happened. And that is where authenticity will matter far more than in the expression of artistic license.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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