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I’m a fairly trusting bloke but only after I’ve exhausted all the possibilities of chicanery, deception and perfidy, commonly practiced by my fellow human beings.

A lifetime in journalism creates, if not a state of cynicism, at least a state of self-protective scepticism. I’ve been caught out once or twice early in my career, believing the best in people and reporting it, only to discover what cheats and liars the most plausible of folk can actually turn out to be.

For that reason every aspiring journalist or publisher should read ‘Max Harris: With Reason, Without Rhyme’ by Betty Snowden. (Published 2015 by Arcadia)

Max Harris was a brilliant young publisher, bookseller, editor, critic and commentator in Adelaide in the nineteen-forties when that city had even more pretension to cultural greatness than it does today. From that provincial outpost he took the whole Australian Literary World by storm with his magazine ‘Angry Penguins’. Precocious, outrageous and acerbic, the young critic was setting himself up for a fall.

The coup de(dis)grăce came in the form of an ingenious hoax called ‘The Darkening Ecliptic’. This was supposedly the poetic outpourings of a recently (conveniently) deceased watch repairer and closet poet, Ernest Lalor Malley. The wonderfully obscure, modernist but entirely bogus verses, were sent to Harris, who swallowed them hook, line and sinker. He reviewed ‘the discovery’ glowingly.

In fact, the work was the mischievous invention of two resentful poets, James McAuley (much later my old UTAS English professor) and his mate Harold Stewart. When the whistle was blown, young Max Harris, only 23 at the time, became a national laughing stock.

Reading this book, by Betty Snowden who once worked in Harris’s famous Mary Martin bookshop, I got the impression that the great man never entirely recovered. Winston Churchill once described humble pie as the ‘most nutritious and instructive diet’ he had ever eaten. Max didn’t agree. He locked his own poems away and he didn’t publish another book for ten years.

Today, reading this book and thus rediscovering Ern Malley, I now wonder if the hoax didn’t backfire? I’m not sure if these poems aren’t as good if not better than anything else the two chicane, deceiving and perfidious poets, McAuley and Stewart ever wrote.

It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the complete circle and the straight drop
Of a question mark
And yet I know I shall be raised up
On the vertical banners of praise.
                                    Ern Malley

Interested to hear what you think.

Deceptions and such pranks are fun though, especially when you are young and not on the receiving end. Remembering the Tasmanian poet and academic James McAuley, took me back down the time tunnel to the early seventies and my University days, here in River City.

The Vietnam War was raging and so were we students. That was in large part because we were likely to be conscripted to stop the advance of Chinese communism in Indochina, lest we would have to fight them on Nutgrove Beach.

Well that’s what Malcolm Fraser told us back then. So did Professor McAuley. I’m not speaking ill of the dead here, just noting how times change. Vietnam is now an inconvenient but fading memory and the Chinese are still Communists. But we would now love to give them Nutgrove Beach. At the right price of course, and any other waterfront property they would like to buy.

If you weren’t there, it is now hard to understand just how much Australian society was divided during those years. There was enormous distrust on both sides, so much so that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, (ASIO) actually had spies on Australian campuses. We students were actually in the process of growing up to be good conservatives but the Government couldn’t see that far ahead, so we needed to be closely watched.

ASIO’s man on the Tasmanian Campus was, reputedly, a fellow called Norm Curry, about whom I have always had lingering feelings of guilt. I can’t remember how we found him out, beyond the recollection that we were tipped off by a contact in the Commonwealth Public Service.

Above South Hobart, on a grassy hill with a steep north-easterly aspect, was a sign made of large white painted boulders, which could be seen from almost everywhere in the city. It read KEEN’S CURRY. It is still there today, more faintly, though I believe it now has a heritage listing. Before we made wine and cheese, Keen’s curry powder was probably Tasmania’s greatest contribution to the gastronomical world.

Back then, in a climate of deception and counter deception, we thought it would be a great prank to ‘out the campus spy’ by reorganizing the letters on the hillside. Like most nefarious deeds, it happened in the dead of night. A Physics PhD student, who had calculated the pattern for the easiest and most economical rearrangement of the boulders, guided about a dozen of us.

And so it came to pass that when dawn stole over the Derwent, the first rays of morning dramatically revealed, in colossal luminous white letters, the name
NORM CURRY.

Young and thoughtless, we took this to be a giant hoot. It was only later, as an aspiring reporter that I started to wonder what it must have been like for an equally aspiring, young security operative to find his cover blown, so farcically on that emblazoned hillside. How terrible it must have been, when all over town he heard people asking “Who is Norm Curry?” The question was even raised on the front page of ‘The Mercury’.

Whenever I see the Keen’s Curry sign I always think of Norm Curry and wonder what happened to him. What did he do then, and what did his bosses say? Of course, by now, if still alive he would be long retired, but I doubt, after such a dramatic outing, that he ever had much of a career in espionage.

In Australia it is now a Federal crime to reveal the identity of an agent.

So don’t try that one again kiddies.

It’s no longer funny.