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Michael Ackland

Excerpt from Damaged Men

The precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart

Allen & Unwin, Australia. 326 pp. with 23 b/w images. ISBN 186508445X

“ day it will be irrefutably proved that James McAuley and Harold Stewart were really figments of the imagination of the real-life Ern Malley and in fact never existed!”

Copyright © Michael Ackland and Allen & Unwin 2001. Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose. You can visit Allen & Unwin's Internet site, and you may purchase this book from bookstores in Australia:
Gleebooks in Sydney at,
or Readings in Melbourne at

This excerpt is 22,000 words or about fifty printed pages long. It has been abbreviated for this appearance in Jacket magazine.

The notes are a separate file — use this link: Chapter Notes.

All such pieces of juvenilia are never to be printed, reprinted, published, republished, reproduced by Xerox or any other method; nor are they to be distributed as cuttings, or in manuscript, typescript, or photocopies thereof; nor are they to be recorded on tape or disc, or broadcast or telecast at any time in the future... Such juvenilia are being preserved only for the author’s possible reference and use during his lifetime and should be destroyed on his death. (Original emphasis) [note 1]

EVEN THE NEUTRALITY of the printed word cannot silence the over-insistent, almost obsessive note in Harold Stewart’s final instructions to posterity, written as he approached his eightieth birthday. His past was sacrosanct. Certain pages were not to be reopened, much less exposed to public scrutiny.
      With this in mind, he culled once again the collected manuscripts and papers of seven decades. The instinct to hoard struggled with an equally strong desire for privacy. No unsightly end would be left for ‘biographical ghouls and psychoanalytical beachcombers’ to tease out. Australia had first spurned him, then ignored him during his life-time. Now he used this obscurity to tailor a story that conformed to his goals, that transformed failures or setbacks into necessary steps in a preordained pattern. Cutting, tearing, overlaying, he constructed a last collage and called it his life.

Damaged Men - cover

Cover of Damaged Men

James McAuley, left
Harold Stewart, right

Similarly James McAuley, knowing he had less than a year to live, endeavoured to shape his posthumous reputation. He, too, had always kept certain chapters of his life tightly closed from prying eyes, even deeming letter-writing an indecent form of self-exposure. And the previous year in Quadrant [magazine], having already burnt his accumulated papers and correspondence, he affirmed implicitly his right to use subterfuge to defend his privacy: ‘Authors have placed themselves irretrievably in the public domain. It is up to them to conceal, if they can, what they do not want posterity to know; for inexorably posterity will claim the right to know what can be known’. [note 2]
      Now he put this into practice in ‘A Small Testament’ and ‘Culture and Counter-culture’, essays in which he shrank from neither omissions nor misleading statements to buttress the image of a committed polemicist who had turned away from evil and darkness to the light, or ‘such light as is available to him’. One source of light acknowledged in ‘A Small Testament’ is his long experience of ‘visions’ encountered between ‘sleeping and waking’, such as his ‘most indelible’ dream, dating back forty years:

I saw myself in a crowded room, talking, drinking, saluting friends — a cocktail sort of scene. Suddenly, as if the vision was a painted picture, it was switched over to its reverse side, presenting an utterly different scene, which I nevertheless understood to be the first scene in its real meaning. I was a single cell of life in an absolute dead desert.

This he interprets as signifying ‘a final aloneness, an irreducible separateness’, as well as that ‘inmost point of isolation’ where mystical or supernatural experience may occur.
      What he does not hint at is that such visitations could be terrifying and had left him haunted by the spectre of insanity, just as he passes over deep divisions within himself which made choosing between evil and light far from clearcut or final. ‘The two halves of his life’, Amy Witting maintained, ‘were quarrelling halves. What he loved he hated. He was born under the star Aldebaran’, [pronounced al-DEB-aran — J.T.] and in its intermittently pink and blue flashes he recognised a symbol of his own conflicting impulses. [note 3] Jim, no less than Harold, had a good deal to hide as his end approached, including the extent of their common interests.

Photo of Harold Stewart, 1983

Harold Stewart, 1983

Stewart outlived McAuley by twenty years, and often reflected on their past. Sitting in his third-storey apartment in Kyoto, gazing out over the Eastern ranges, he vented his frustration at a life-time spent on the periphery of fame and cursed the daily trials which interrupted his creative work. Some of this bitterness was justified. When the local yakusa were not shooting it out with police in the street below, a chorus of neighbourhood barking reverberated around the hills and buildings, reminding him that he had always been beset by hell hounds since a huge black monster bit him at the age of six. Yet he could also be savage, especially when asked about his long friendship with McAuley:

In our school days at Fort St. Boys’ High [School, in Sydney], James and I were not friends but rivals, each editing the school literary magazine in turn. We became friends but only in our late teens after leaving school and remained so all through the 1940s and 1950s, until James was converted to Roman Catholicism, after which we drifted apart.
      My first visit to Japan in 1961 was a revelation and the most important events in my life [were] the discovery of Japanese culture in general and the Shin school of Buddhism in particular. Alas, my last meeting with James, which must have been just before my move up to Kyoto in 1966, was not a happy one.
      By this time, I felt, he had been trapped in various ways: his religious commitment had meant the accumulation of a compulsory family; his dabbling in Catholic Labour politics was a spiritual disaster, as touching politics in any form or colour is, to me, an excremental defilement.
      He had turned into a ‘Mr Right’: The R[oman] C[atholic] Church held the solution to all mankind’s problems (I forebore to point out that it had produced and perpetuated quite a number of them in the course of its history). He had become a bore and even though he well knew my allergy to tobacco was too busy smoking himself to a too-early death to notice that he was poisoning me as well as himself. [note 4]

The past, in Harold’s hands, was subtly malleable. Jim had given up smoking by 1966, but the anachronism does highlight an unacknowledged bias. The McAuley depicted here is the one who has lived on in cultural histories as the combative editor of Quadrant, the opponent of moral and ecclesial liberation, the staunch ally of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) [a right-wing splinter party — J.T.] and the defender of Australian engagement in Vietnam. Yet beneath the Cold War warrior remained the flawed and generous figure of earlier years whom Stewart knew so well, though he, like the acknowledged period of their friendship, is passed over in silence.
      Telling their story might have involved personal revelations, and these Harold always avoided. An intensely reserved man, as well as an inveterate punster, he longed for fame yet dreaded the probing and fossicking of ‘limperary cripples’. And with just cause.
      For Stewart was a gay who never became reconciled to his sexuality. Repulsed alike by the monotony of the bush and suburban banality, he fitted in nowhere, while mortifying failures set in motion a life-long pattern of concealment and affirmative self-imaging.
      Stewart revelled in pseudonyms, hoaxes and myth-making. Ethel Malley is his best known persona, the Buddhist poet-recluse of Kyoto the image by which he hoped to be remembered.
      Underlying these and other masks was a mixture of despair and self-belief. It led him alternately to shun or to solicit a world which he believed was fundamentally antithetical to, and unappreciative of, all that was dearest to him. As proof he would cite the unwaning popularity of the Ern Malley poems, which even obscured the hoaxers’ more serious efforts, leading him to claim that one day ‘it will be irrefutably proved that James McAuley and Harold Stewart were really figments of the imagination of the real-life Ern Malley and in fact never existed!’ [note 5]
      For McAuley, too, the legacy of his early years threatened to be a lifelong incubus. Feeling acutely a lack of faith and love at home, he sought compensation in fashionable ideologies and sexual conquests. Verbal brilliance, coupled with being physically small for his age, heightened an impression of precocity and arrogance, of genius and awesome prospects. Instead, his life unfolded as a series of near successes.
      A university medal was his but not a scholarship for study overseas. Academe beckoned but he had to settle for secondary school teaching. His poetry was acclaimed in Sydney circles, but remained circulating in manuscript until after the [Second World] war. Underneath the dashing lover, according to Witting, was a tormented Puritan ‘with stone feet [on] the staircase of flesh’. Following mobilisation he developed new interests and allegiances in an army research unit. Only a handful of individualists like Stewart remained doggedly maladjusted.

James McAuley (left) and Roman Catholic Cardinal James Freeman

      James McAuley (left) and Roman Catholic Cardinal James Freeman

By the mid-1950s McAuley had at last begun to fulfil his early promise, but the past still lay heavily on him. The philanderer in him never died. Nor did the tormented doubter who, when overcome with recurring bouts of malaria, registered that the pit of despair into which he fell became ever deeper, its sides prohibitively steep, making him feel the failed individual he had always feared to be.
      Despite their differences of temperament, and the dissonances which Stewart chose to stress, he and McAuley shared a great deal, especially their aspirations, breadth of interests and their turmoil. Interminable conversations in cafés, at home, on picnics or at their work-places were supplemented by lively correspondence, as their lives intertwined from the 1930s through to the mid-1960s. Manuscripts, ideas, scandal and barbed witticisms flew back and forth as collaboration became a long-standing habit.
      Their first crusade was against the dross and pretension of Australian ‘kulcha’ [culture], their next to find answers to the bankruptcy of western civilisation. And both struggled in secret to understand a psychological inheritance which threatened to set them irrevocably apart from mainstream society. Harold assiduously hid this, as did Jim, except in occasional poems like ‘Exploit’. There existence is recast in terms of the mythic Cretan labyrinth as an ‘unlit maze’, and himself as split between the quester and the unnamed minotaur:

That stealthy breathing, is it mine?
Are mine those sounding feet?
Am I myself, in this design,
The quarry I must meet —
The monster in its lurking place,
The thing that I must kill,
The central nightmare I must face
With failing powers of will?

McAuley acknowledges here something monstrous within himself, while the contemporaneous poem ‘Warning’ describes feared depths of the self, which can trigger ‘grief and madness’, as well as ‘terrible dreams / That sickened the heart’. Both Jim and Harold were deeply divided individuals, desperately seeking strategies for self-control or deliverance and destined, each after his own fashion, to become what they had projected as supposed nonsense during the Ern Malley hoax — ‘a black swan of trespass on alien waters’.

Chapter One — In the realm of Porlock

I come from Porlock. Well, how was I to know?

— Amy Witting

ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in early October 1943, two conscripts sat huddled together in a temporary wooden building, tucked behind a massive, blue-stone edifice on St Kilda Road [in Melbourne], plotting war. They had L Block of Victoria Barracks to themselves. McAuley was the duty officer, Stewart the rostered NCO.
      The empty, neighbouring desks were cluttered with miscellaneous documents and memoranda bearing on the Pacific War, to which the two part-time poets had added diverse reference works, from dictionaries of rhyme and quotations to the complete works of Shakespeare and pamphlets on malaria. For their target was not the once-triumphant Japanese army, nor overbearing American allies, but a literary foe whose main theatre of operations lay on the other side of Melbourne at the home of John and Sunday Reed in Heidelberg.
      With their aid Max Harris was publishing the avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins and presenting himself as the doyen of Australian modernism. McAuley and Stewart were determined to discredit him, and that day in L Bock they were assembling sixteen poems which they hoped to palm off on the unsuspecting Harris as the works of an unknown, untutored genius, Ern Malley.
      McAuley, pen in hand, transcribed their joint efforts. Interjection, random association and interleaving were the order of the day. The images of one conscript called forth a topsy-turvy sequel in the other’s mind, thereby assuring, they claimed, that Malley’s compositions were without coherent meaning, and that they could not be read as a single psychological document. The results were uneven but always tantalising:

‘Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds...’ Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
(There is a meaning for the circumspect)
Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles,
A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy
Over the sunken sodden breeding-grounds!
To clog the Town Council in their plans.
Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.

Ultimately, their plot relied on Harris’ infatuation with surrealism and his lack of critical discernment — others would say on his generous enthusiasm and eclectic taste — as well as on the engrained local philistinism which would reduce the haughty editor of Angry Penguins to a laughing-stock once the hoax became public knowledge.
      Collaboration was already a decade-long habit with McAuley and Stewart, who shared not only a thorough grounding in modernist poetry but also a deep legacy of resentment. More powerful even than their disdain for Harris was the repulsion they felt towards the values of the Australian middle class, which they identified with ‘Porlock’, the quintessential realm of stifling conformity that threatened creative endeavour.
      The term, derived from the famous interruption of Coleridge’s flow of inspiration by ‘a person on business from Porlock’, had gained currency among their university friends. One of them, rejigging the original tale to fit local experience, remarked that the English poet was ‘fortunate’: ‘He at least began. / Porlock was tardy, almost missed its cue’. The world, after all, got some of ‘Kubla Khan’ and also ‘The Ancient Mariner’. It could all have been much worse:

Think of his fate had Porlock been less kind;
The paps of Porlock might have given him suck;
Teachers from Porlock organized his mind,
And Porlock’s Muse inspired the vapid strain
Of: ‘Porlock, Loveliest Village of the Plain!’ [note 1]

As children of Sydney’s western suburbs, Jim and Harold were progeny of Porlock and they struggled for decades to throw off its baneful influence. Even in far-off Japan, Stewart bemoaned the invasions of Porlockers who prevented him from writing, while Jim, as a Catholic convert and fierce anti-communist, tried to reshape Porlock himself.


Harold Frederick Stewart’s youth was spent in unfashionable but solid Drummoyne. There he was born at home at 31 Tavistock Street on 14 December 1916 and the birth of a sibling, Marion, in 1925 completed the family. His father was employed as a health inspector by the local council in 1912, in time to oversee the final subdivision of the peninsular suburb. Its western, Five Dock side had remained rural, inspiring clichés like ‘nearly as much up the country as though 500 miles from Sydney’, [note 2] although this changed rapidly with the introduction of motorised transport to Central Station in 1917. None the less, in the 1920s the future poet could still wander along dusty, unmade roads lined with gumtrees and post-and-rail fences, reminiscent of country towns, and shimmering water was always close at hand.
      Nature caught his eye at an early age. As a child, an excursion to the Jenolan Caves inspired him to recreate them in an ingenious model and by the age of eleven he was executing detailed drawings of insects.
      Tavistock Street was shaded by camphor laurels and small gardens set off the entrances to most of its serried brick houses. The drab exterior of the Stewarts’ home accorded ill with its exotic Indian name ‘Chowringhee’ and its tastefully presented interior. A large rear veranda afforded easy access to a modest oasis of calm, with fernery, fish pond, vines and a spreading apple tree, while Marion remembered home-life as characterised by ahimsa, or non-violence of thought and deed.
      Harold was free to pursue his diverse interests in his own bedroom which served as study, art studio and music room. As a teenager he decorated it with flair. The bed, which doubled as a settee when friends called, had a deep blue coverlet shot through with muted gold thread and, unlike Jim’s utilitarian sleeping quarters, Harold’s room contained a large desk, ample library, music stand and gramophone, as well as a small table for displaying art works — making it the prototype of his successive dwellings.


Unlike Stewart, James Phillip McAuley had little that was exotic in his background. He was reputedly fifth generation Australian on both sides of his family. His father, Patrick, was born in 1880 in Goondiwindi, south-west Queensland, the son of stock inspector Peter McAuley, who had married Anne Lalor near Tamworth in 1865. Instead of attending secondary school, Patrick became a stockman, and his roving life brought him together with his future wife, Mary Maud Judge of Inverell in north-eastern New South Wales, who was four years his junior. They married in Petersham in 1909 and had three children. The family’s lack of distinction was supplemented by myth and speculation about its origins. Ireland was a vague, sentimental homeland and legend linked the McAuleys with headstrong local figures, from ‘an Irish soldier who bashed the convicts at Toongabbie’ to Peter Lalor, famed advocate of miners’ rights and rebellion at the Eureka stockade. [note 10] Patrick, however, was shrewd and directed his resources into real estate in time to profit from Sydney’s post-war boom. Hence the family moved to Lakemba, the latest frontier in the city’s westward expansion, where Jim was born on 12 October 1917.

Photo of James McAuley

James McAuley

By the mid-1920s they were settled in a brick, double-fronted Victorian villa at 52 The Crescents, Homebush, a suburb best known during Jim’s formative years for its stockyards and abattoir. His earliest memories were of immediate impressions, like the overpowering fragrance of wisteria or the antics of the fowls behind the house, while in front trains thundered by on the Western line. Its tracks lent his street a bleak aspect unrelieved by the plain Californian bungalows opposite of Loftus Crescent.
      Soon he was reaching out towards a wider world. Before entering kindergarten at five he ‘was able to read... the test was, could I read [the cartoon] Ginger Meggs ’. At night he watched the dancing shadows created by the lights of passing trains on his bedroom walls and dreamed of unknown destinations.
      That his parents were proud of his achievements or supportive of his studies does not figure in his autobiographical sketches. He gives no hint that his mother readily produced anecdotes about her son’s precocity, about his being destined for great things, while his father bragged of his prodigy of a boy, ‘reading leaders from the Sydney Morning Herald ’ at the age of seven. [note 12] Instead, Jim appears in his own accounts as a self-made man, burdened with a potentially disabling psychological legacy, attributable solely to his home environment.
      Family life at 52 The Crescent was harrowing and very Australian. It was a period when middle-class fathers often withdrew behind taciturnity and rituals of manliness, when mothers stifled their finer feelings and aspirations behind domestic routines. At the McAuleys’ this denial of natural impulse was pushed to extremes. Whereas other fathers kissed their sons on meeting, Jim was rebuffed by a man who never left the home, even to step into his backyard, without first putting on his hat.
      ‘Small things’, Jim recalled, ‘can pit the memory like a cyst’ or ‘cut like a saw’ and years later he feared that his feelings had been docked, like a puppy’s tail, never to regrow. Extended family was viewed as a burden, friendship as something best avoided lest it open the way to unwanted demands. The boy’s bedroom was ordered and impersonal, its furnishings kept to a minimum with a bed, dresser and bare walls.
      The other main area of blight Jim acknowledged was religious. His father was a lapsed Catholic and his mother Protestant, her faith strong but doctrinally vague. Their ‘mixed marriage’ resulted in an uneasy compromise. The children were to be brought up in the Church of England. Patrick was not to revert, while he justified his apostasy with crass attacks on debauchery in the confessional. The parents, although not attending church themselves, affirmed the code of middle-class respectability by sending their children to religious instruction.
      Jim was deeply affected by church ritual. At St Anne’s in neighbouring Strathfield he responded to Anglican ‘matins and evensong, the canticles, the psalms, the hymns, the Bible readings’, and became a choirboy. Then he graduated to serving at the altar, a fresh-faced youth with wavy, fair hair and striking Irish looks. For a time he and his brother John attended Christchurch St Laurence in the city, ‘which was the very centre of Anglo-Catholic activity in a very low church diocese’. Jim recalled how his enthusiasm spilled over into a plan to read the entire Bible. This was greeted as a recipe for going mad by Patrick, who also dissuaded John from converting to Catholicism.
      Stewart left few and inaccurate records of his early spiritual evolution and, as with McAuley’s recollections, they serve mainly to heighten the impression of his self-guided unfolding. ‘I was brought up a complete pagan’, he claimed, ‘and had to find my own way’. [note 13] The contrary, however, was true, at least with respect to his school years. His mother came from a strict Methodist family and his father was a member of the Church of England; however, his interests reached beyond Christianity to speculation on the source of all religions.
      Their children were not required to perform the one-sided Sunday rituals sanctioned by Patrick McAuley and a tolerant, informed home environment fostered in Harold an individualistic approach: ‘When I was eight I had the idea that the stars & planets were the atoms in the body of God & that the Milky Way was his backbone’.
      The emergence in each boy of serious personal problems coincided with the crucial phase of their schooling at Fort Street Boys’ High School. Established in 1850 as the model government school for the State, this highly selective institution was the natural choice of gifted pupils from the western suburbs and one of only a handful of high schools in Sydney which prepared students for university.
      Harold [....] learnt Latin, Greek and French, whereas Jim took Latin, French and German — a modern language which opened to him the rich verse legacy of Rilke and Trakl.
      Fort Street [during the Depression] maintained its traditions and the imperial ethos. With no jobs available even youths from working-class areas in the west of Sydney like Balmain, Glebe, Leichhardt and Rozelle stayed on at school. Teaching resources were stretched to the limit. An annexe was opened in Crystal Street and the normal four-class structure doubled. But important events on the school calendar, such as the debate between the Fort Street Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools, proceeded as normal. These annual clashes inspired keen interest, in spite of their predictable outcome which the school magazine noted ruefully in December 1935: ‘As is also customary, the girls won both these debates’.
      McAuley’s presence in the boys’ second team in 1934 made little difference, although The Fortian felt that, on this occasion, they were very unfortunate to be beaten by their sister school. Opposing him was the future Amy Witting, who said that thereafter he had a point to prove to her, while in the audience was the dark-haired Norma Abernathy [his future wife], upon whom he made a lasting impression as the dashing whip of the boys’ team.
      By then Jim was also a school office-bearer. He carried the flag on Empire day in 1934 and delivered ‘a preliminary address on “International Peace and Society”, referring to Britain’s responsibility in the promotion of harmonious international relations’. A year later as school captain he led an assembly, in which Harold presumably sat, in applauding addresses on ‘The British Empire’, ‘Our Flag’, ‘The Heart of the Empire’ and ‘Our Glorious Heritage’.
      Outside the assembly hall, however, the two boys had quite different preoccupations, as their contributions to The Fortian demonstrate. A showplace of school achievements, it offered annual prizes for the best poem and the best short story. These focused the rivalry which developed between the school’s two main proponents of literary independence and experimentation. McAuley won the Poetry Prize for ‘Madness’ in 1933 and the Prose Prize for ‘Hans Vogler’ in 1934, while Stewart received the award for poetry in 1934 and 1935.
      Jim’s juvenilia, in general, are lacking in distinction, but they do chart a rapidly maturing interest in poetry. His initial poems lean heavily on outmoded styles and subjects, such as Norse personification, sailors of Devon, or the bird as a correlative for soaring aspiration. The young McAuley, however, already had a keen eye for natural detail. In ‘Birdwood Gully’ (1929) he observed how gentle rain left ‘points of light on the leaves’, and in ‘Beauty’ (1932) he described a sunset with ‘clouds like ashes in the grate’.
      In June 1934 he signalled a shift in his reading with a three-page essay entitled ‘Some Aspects of Modern Poetry’, which contains separate discussions of e e cummings, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Herbert Read and others. The future co-author of Ern Malley reflected on obscurity, excusing what is attributable to ‘a difficult and abstract idea’, but enjoining readers to be on their guard against ‘lesser poets who substitute ingenuity for genius and obscurity for real subject matter’.
      For a young poet McAuley was very knowledgeable of major trends and, among contributors to The Fortian, was only surpassed by Stewart, who was also assimilating the legacy of modernism and profiling himself as a writer.
      From the outset, Harold’s voice in The Fortian is distinctive and intriguing. There is no puppy fat on his early work. Instead, he burst forth in December 1932 with a half-page of whimsical, finely tuned prose on ‘Strange Pets’: ‘Annie, my performing silverfish’ and his ‘Jabberwocky, a pet pterodactyl, and such a darling — only 200 feet long by 100 round the hips, and so docile!’ And ‘strange’ is the operative word for ensuing contributions. These range from occasional poems which view reality aslant — whether from the view-point of flowers in ‘Pansies’, of the fabled in ‘The Elves’, or of a foreboding, noble woman in ‘Gudrun’s Song’ — to aesthetic pieces and more confessional works, published under the pseudonym ‘Skald’.
      Most of these pieces, though advanced for a late adolescent, are distinctly flat in comparison with what Stewart hoped to achieve, as outlined in his notes to ‘Water Images’ (1934). These are prefaced by the remark that ‘annotation is not so much a proof of weakness in the poet, as a proof of lack of intelligence on the part of the reader’. The ensuing notes rarely descend from this giddy height. The reader is asked to observe such subtleties as ‘the concentrated association of ideas with the senses’ or ‘the ominous ‘‘Prelude in C sharp minor’’ done with slow iambuses’, here ‘a faint hint of Hitomaro’, there of Ezra Pound’s ‘Cathay’.
      In later years the need to parade his erudition, to dictate the bounds within which his verse should be appreciated and his blindness to artistic shortcomings were to remain largely undiminished — a tendency not lost in 1935 on the poetry prize judges from Sydney University who mildly rebuked his ‘superior tone’.
      [T]he confessional poems, usually dedicated to R.M., [...] when read in sequence, graph the bloom and eclipse of a youthful passion. These begin in the December 1933 issue of The Fortian and end in December of the following year, as Harold turned eighteen. In June 1934 R.M.’s gender is clarified by the dedication ‘For R.M. (If he will have it)’. Unlike Stewart’s impressionistic pieces, these works become insistently personal. They open cryptically with ‘Whither Away — ?’ and ‘Estranged’, which deal with a threatened or transient relationship terminating in ‘the grave where true love laid to rest / his golden curls’, because the speaker’s beloved is ‘unheeding, poisonous proud / and full of scorn’, and they conclude in 1934 on an intense, homoerotic note:

I held firm your arm in my hand
I held my eyes fixed on your browning skin
I grasped your shoulders
I took your face in my cupped hands
and held you
looking into you
feeling you enter into me with your life
like a new fire.

Remembered scenes of ‘sun-glare on the wet sand’ and exposed bodies evoke Sydney and a summer romance — linked now with ‘the unfulfilled want of you /... / who are denied to me’. A related, acute sense of male beauty infuses ‘Model. The Artist Speaks’:

‘Oh that you never spoke! but only stood
and stood, that I might gaze with endless gaze
upon your form, and feast my lusting eyes
with tireless surfeit of the naked flesh;
that I might touch and smooth with trembling hands
the curving mouldings of your body’s shape’.

The model’s words are coarse (‘all that’s foul upon the earth’) compared to the projected ideal, but the artist chooses life over art, supplicating him to speak and ‘break the poem’s spell’. By December 1934 the point of absolute rupture, foreshadowed by tensions and setbacks, is reached in the poems ‘Ambition’ and ‘Betrayal’. Here bitter frustration and hurt inspire, not great verse, but direct speech:

How, now have you slipped back,
and away from me,
with your littleness and your no other ambitions
than to live, work and to marry, enjoy, breed and
to die
where to me these seem such little hills.
I am sick with your petty insignificance.

Disappointed in his passion by one who is ‘very young’, he seeks solace in art — not for him the realm of heterosexual normality or to be ‘one of the mere mass of robots’: ‘Instead I will surmount / I’ll overspread the years, I will span on to greatness’. The final nails in this coffin, the first of many closed upon his humbled emotions and shut off from curious onlookers, are scornful rejection and perjured faith (‘What did my honour matter to revenge?’), together with his lover’s derision aimed at poetry for being ‘a fool’s toy / a self-sympathy, a dramatic casing for an over-sensitive and sentimental soul’.
      From these poems we can surmise a crisis in Stewart’s life in the early 1930s. At what point he discovered his homosexuality is uncertain. But his Fortian pieces document its massive impact, as well as his growing awareness of a world in which he would never fit. Both the time span of this relationship and that R.M. was not a figment of his imagination are confirmed by notebook entries of 1933 — 34, which Stewart blacked out with heavy pen deletions. One of these, ‘Country Vacation Suite’, depicts family dissonance. His parents ‘wonder why I have gone limp with listlessness, / my spirit dampened & my interest gone’. Certainly ‘disheartening country nothingness’ is a factor; however, the concealed source of woe is ‘being parted so very far from you / And they wonder why I wander silently about’. [note 20]
      Similarly, in ‘Clair de Lune’ he fantasises about gazing voyeuristically into the room of his sleeping friend, being ‘ravished / by this mad fragrance of desire’, while ‘Small Consolation’ turns on the hardly satisfying conceit that, although ‘It is not moral that I lay / My body next to yours’, yet ‘At least I’ve still the right to write / Your name alongside mine’. [note 21] In the depths of youthful misery Harold complains of never having known joy unalloyed by sorrow — a verdict which would remain largely unchanged by future events.
      This personal turmoil also throws light on his otherwise inexplicably patchy academic record at Fort Street. There is no shortage of testimony to Harold’s ability, if he chose to apply himself. His English master in 1935, for instance, remembered him as the most remarkable student he ever taught. On his army aptitude test he scored 98 per cent. [note 22] Years later internationally recognised academics, who knew him well in Japan, recognised his great gifts, and he himself acknowledged having an ‘elephantine memory, which I modestly describe as only semi-omniscient’. [note 23]
      This promise was already evident in his third form results in 1932: English A, Mathematics I B, Mathematics II B, Latin A, French A, Elementary Science A, Greek B. The Fortian, however, gives no results for him in 1933; and at his first attempt at the Leaving Certificate in 1934 he passed only five of the required six subjects — his fraught emotional life having apparently obliterated his academic ambitions. [note 24]
      In 1934 he barely scraped through in French, a subject where he had scored 91 per cent in second year and A in third year, while in 1933 he failed English, for which he had won the third year prize in 1932.
      James Baxendale, his English teacher in fourth form, had dubbed Stewart a queer bird and a genius. [note 25] He was, however, left nonplussed by Harold’s end of year paper in which he spent all the allocated time answering only one part of a three-part question. Instead of providing a few facts on a modern author, he wrote a scintillating essay on ‘The Amazing Genius of Noel Coward’, and did not even attempt a response to the other six examination questions.
      Baxendale found Stewart’s answer exemplary in every way and gave it full marks — which left the student with 4 per cent on the entire paper. [note 26]
      To his later English master, John Tierney, this seemed evidence of brilliant idiosyncrasy: ‘Couldn’t help himself really, I do believe. That’s the sort of fellow he is’. Yet even this act of apparent bravado was hollow. The staggeringly polished answer was no doubt a regurgitation of his essay ‘On the amazing Mr Noel Coward’, which appeared in the December issue of The Fortian that year. There he celebrated Coward’s delightful treatment of contemporary society and ‘sexual-attraction problems’.
      Thereafter he became an enigma to his teachers and an embarrassment to his parents. As Tierney remarked of his fourth form English paper:

it was characteristic of Stewart, typical of his career during the next few years. In the narrower point of view he was hopeless as a student for he cared nothing for the priceless marks that lead to narrower success. But it showed too, in the larger way, how intense his study could be: he had chosen a path and could pursue it to the exclusion of all else.

In The Fortian of 1935 he took revenge on his dreary neighbourhood by transforming its geraniums, rubber plants and terracotta roofs into the stuff of aesthetic verse. About his academic disgrace, personal humiliation and deep sense of powerlessness he could do little. Years later notebook entries reveal bottled-up resentment: ‘Childhood will be the last slavery to survive. Fortunately it is one out of which some grow in time’.
      In future his feelings would be kept closely buttoned up, and personal confessions avoided. The pain of these Fort Street years proved sufficient to efface his benign early home life, to make him fulminate lifelong at ‘the miseries of babyhood schooldays & adolescence’, and be adamant that the individual’s golden age lay before him to be hard-won in adulthood.


McAuley had little difficulty accommodating the school ethos, yet he too was beset by doubts and acute tensions. Although in a brief essay of 1932 he could affirm the approach of the genuine pessimist over that of the optimist, because he ‘goes round the question and views it from all angles’, the bulk of his writing in 1933 is preoccupied with the need to act decisively, as in two ‘Epigrams’. The first describes as a ‘mere mortal’ he who fearfully shrinks from engagement and hides behind ‘vain pretence’ too long: ‘He let life out before he let it in’. The second, ‘To Baudelaire — a fragment’, recasts the issue of choice in sensual terms. The French poet is praised for at least having sailed to Cythera’s isle of love despite ‘the squall’, whereas ‘we cough and grow pale, and dare nothing at all’.
      On the other hand, McAuley’s prize-winning story, ‘Hans Vogler’, highlights the dilemmas confronting contemporary writers and the reasons why art must be kept distinct from political commitment. Set in Nazi Germany, it traces the fate of a painter whose ‘actual beliefs’, probably not unlike Jim’s, ‘lay heaped up in his mind in a very confused and amorphous condition’. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to throw in his lot with the Communist Party out of opposition to fascism, and to disprove the standard reproach, levelled at him by the communist leader, that artists lack grit. Vogler and his paintings are thereby destroyed.
      Finally, Jim was reading himself out of Christian belief in his senior years, as is evident from ‘God in the Garden’, published in December 1933. The setting ‘in the cool of the evening’ recalls Genesis 3:8, only here it is God, not humankind, who weeps and leaves the garden, bleeding on thorns under the speaker’s gloating eye.
      As a Fortian McAuley also began to reveal his lifelong preoccupation with unusual mental or visionary states. When he first experienced these is uncertain. In his MA thesis of 1940 he acknowledged a fascination with accounts of how, ‘by some trick of light or some deflection of neural habits, the visible world is present to the brain more vividly, more immediately, and as it were charged with an unusual ‘‘intention’’ [note 27]  —   and in the 1960s he attributed a similar early experience to himself in the poem ‘One Tuesday in Summer’.
      Apparently strangely ‘charged’ moments were already of concern to Jim as a boy, for the contemporaneous ‘Soundings’ presents his adolescent self asking ‘Could I have visions, like William Blake? / Or that strange Irishman AE?’; and as ‘Pressing my five senses hard / For revelation self-induced’ in vain. This portrait, however, is misleading. Perhaps such a scene did actually occur. But the author of Surprises of the Sun (1969) knew very well that revelation could not be willed, and the recurring portrayal of inexplicable, sometimes terrifying seizures in his Fort Street verse suggests that they may have been an additional blight on his adolescence.
      ‘Longing’ (1932) describes a voice from above, ‘More dreamt than known’, that causes the speaker’s soul to burn ‘In fever’s fire / With thoughts too full for sound’. More threateningly, the protagonist of ‘Madness’ (1932), we are told, ‘lived in a world of [great black] whirring wings’, subject to abrupt mental changes at twilight or night, when

a creeping sense of fear
Of something indefinable but near,
That whispered like a white wind in his brain
And lifted up the corners of his soul.

How was an adolescent able to evoke so powerfully this extreme mental state? Messieurs Waldock and Howarth of Sydney University probably never asked themselves this question when they awarded this work the annual Poetry Prize. The mysterious voices heard in subsequent years were probably already audible to the teenager, and in ‘The White Giant Comes...’ the Leaving student of 1933 projected upon a ‘snow-laden cedar’ mute anguish, associated with ‘terrors of the dawn’ and ‘agony of a soul beyond the world’, in another foretaste of the demons who haunted his later years.
      In the public arena, however, McAuley gave no sign of inner turmoil. That he never made his mark in sport mattered little in a school where, as The Fortian noted in 1934, ‘all is not as it should be in the Athletic field’ compared with its consistent academic success. A prefect already when he passed the Leaving Certificate in 1933, Jim returned to Fort Street to add to his laurels the school captaincy and improve his results. [note 28]
      An impressive haul of prizes was his as well, including the Headmaster’s Prize for School Service and Best Female Impersonator on Play Day — the earliest tribute to a histrionic talent with which he would mesmerise future audiences as well as conceal his motives. McAuley was in sovereign control of the world portrayed in The Fortian of term dances or the annual Senior Dinner, when ‘the hall seemed electric with the feeling of good comradeship, and the atmosphere so produced was delightfully natural and charming’. On such occasions he took the lead, proposing toasts to monarchy and staff. Captaining a school which boasted the former [State] Premier among its old boys was a major achievement, and one with wide community responsibilities, as when a Fort Street prefect had been selected to deliver a good-will message to [State Premier] Lang at the opening of the Harbour Bridge.
      Both young men, by the time they finished at Fort Street, had begun to grapple with drives or impulses which ran counter to society’s ideals. Scepticism clashed unsettlingly with the call of civic duty in Jim’s mind, while indices of mental unrest, like the Fortian images of destabilising encounters at twilight with the ‘white wind’ and ‘White Giant’, point to a psychological continuity with himself as a disturbed undergraduate, beset in his sole recorded nightmare by white butterflies.
      Nevertheless, McAuley left school in a blaze of glory, whereas Stewart’s sexual awakening marked a turning-point in his career and left him, for the moment at least, seeing ‘nothing ahead / but another door and another sword / called pain / and death’. [note 29] By 1935 he had suffered a major personal and academic check. His creativity had also been deflected. The youth of 1934 who spoke from the heart, who chose life over art, and who acknowledged needing ‘the crudeness of your brain’ otherwise ‘I could write nothing / feeling nothing / true’, would in future omit intimate feelings from poems whose spell was now to be unbroken. [note 30]
      It was a choice that contributed significantly to the waning of his poetic star, for local reviewers would find that his subsequent works, devoid of lived experience, rang hollow or were stillborn.
      In 1935 the prospects of the two young men were diverging alarmingly. McAuley, in the words of The Fortian, was ‘scoop[ing] the pool in English at the first year Arts examinations, gaining every prize offered’, and seemed bound to carry all before him, whereas Tierney was noting with regret that ‘there was no place in a modern school for such as Stewart’ — a verdict which could be extended to his next 30 years in Australia’s most modern cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

Chapter Two — Around the Quad

...I wade in a wide-oncoming night,
Lacking the strong soul’s confident foresight
Asunder torn a hundred ways inside

— Harold Stewart

A MAJOR FOCUS of McAuley and Stewart’s literary activities at Sydney University, and a common cause which brought them together, was the embattled magazine Hermes. In 1935 it had completed fifty years of publication, but its jubilee was marred when the SRC (Students’ Representative Council) voted to reduce its usual three numbers to one, so that its editors were forced to exhort their potential readership to ‘keep on paying for us’ in the face of opinion which ‘think[s] us dear at 4d. a time’.
      Hermes’ editors were right in labelling the prevailing climate on campus as one of ‘limp acquiescence’. Sydney University in the late 1930s was an élitist institution of an overwhelmingly conservative cast. Mass tertiary education was still decades away. At the time Australia had only six universities, one per state, and Sydney admitted around 3500 students. Most were fee-paying, came from well-to-do backgrounds and subscribed to the eleventh commandment ‘Thou shalt not be different’. [note 4]
      Over 500 students, including Jim, were public exhibitioners who were exempted from fees as a result of their outstanding performance at the Leaving Certificate examinations.
      Another significant group, which included Stewart, Donald Horne and Joan Fraser, the future Amy Witting, were trainee teachers. They received a stipend of £40 per annum and were bound to the Department of Education for five years — if they completed their studies.
      The main glimmer of light in this largely uncritical, self-perpetuating culture, from the students’ point of view, was John Anderson, who by McAuley’s time had assumed legendary stature. To his admiring followers, his lanky, dark-haired figure stalking across the Quad stood for free thought and unrelenting opposition to ‘powerful social forces that could never be ultimately and finally defeated’. [note 6]
      Since his appointment to the Chair of Philosophy in 1927, Anderson had fearlessly brought objective criticism to bear on a range of received opinions. In 1931 he achieved notoriety by attacking war memorials, the misuse of religious ceremonies and unthinking loyalty to the nation. In 1937, although a member of the Communist Party, he publicly underscored Stalinist and Marxist shortcomings, placing truth above the Party line. Less spectacularly, he promoted university reform. In 1933 he pushed to overhaul restrictive Arts Faculty regulations, while his lecturing style interrupted the usual professorial monologue with challenging questions to students.
      He was probably most influential, however, in the Free Thought and Literary Societies which, under his tutelage, provided vigorous forums for the reception of contemporary writing such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. There Anderson wove a spell that won him disciples and left the impression, at the end of an hour, that ‘we had just witnessed an important new contribution to the theory of aesthetics’. [note 7] Crucially, too, the pre-eminence he accorded the critical spirit set his leftist disciples apart from Stalinist ideologues and ‘immunised quite a large number of people in the 1930s... [against] fellow-travelling’. ‘John Anderson’, McAuley added, ‘taught so many of us to think’, though he himself was only ‘an Andersonian... with reservations’ — a view neglected by later commentary but confirmed by his undergraduate activities. [note 8]
      The record of Stewart and McAuley’s tertiary studies can be quickly told. Harold took a Teachers’ College scholarship and enrolled in English, French, History and Philosophy. He dropped out from lectures, however, after less than a term, and sold his Teachers’ College texts to pursue other interests. ‘I found the courses... arid and boring to distraction’, he remembered. ‘I have never been so bored in my life, no, not even in the Army’. [note 9]
      Afterwards he could be encountered composing in cafés or walking with books under his arm. In the Public Library he copied out by hand favourite poems to save his limited resources and, moving beyond Eliot, Pound, Crane and cummings, made a concentrated study of early symbolist poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry, of whom he published occasional translations. He would never take a degree, and became a modern version of that quintessentially colonial phenomenon, the autodidact, displaying considerable erudition, as well as a lopsided intellectual development, self-defensive pedantry and a deepseated insecurity about his own expertise even in matters which he had studied intensely. [note 10]
      The practical consequences of his decision were also considerable. Although at the time his one thought was to escape ‘the whole racket’ represented by ‘Degree Shop’ and ‘Deaducation Department’, Stewart was contributing powerfully to his future as well as present alienation and thirty years later he recorded bitterly: ‘I have been handicapped or penalized for the lack of a degree all my life, whenever I applied for a job or a scholarship or a grant’. [note 11]
      McAuley’s undergraduate record, on the other hand, was a string of triumphs in English, winning in first year the Josiah Symon Scholarship and MacCullum Prize, followed in second and third year by respectively the Thomas Henry Coulson and James Coutts Scholarships. He finished with First Class Honours in English and the University Medal. He also completed majors in Latin and Philosophy, as well as first year Psychology, but finished with only Third Class Honours in Philosophy. This deprived him temporarily of a coveted travelling scholarship, for which he needed a double First.
      Nevertheless, Jim saw himself as a ‘hot-shot literary academic’ in the making, with only a Masters dissertation before him as the last stepping stone to postgraduate study in England.
      While contemporaries forged ahead with their career plans, Stewart led a desultory, unstructured existence which was antithetical to his father’s ethos of responsible labour. Years later in an interview he passed over the period from 1936 to 1942 in virtual silence: ‘I stayed [at university] only a very short time. By this time the war had broken out and I was called up for Military Service’; however, to a friend he confessed to having been lost in a wilderness, to having gone up a succession of blind alleys to little avail. [note 12]
      Trying to understand himself and to justify his life-choices, he read widely in both western and eastern lore. For a decade he fell under the sway of Jung’s Integration of the Personality and his Psychology of the Unconscious, using them to diagnose his own state, while through Jung he first encountered The Secret of the Golden Flower and other Taoist classics, which he read as symbolic expressions of psychological processes. He studied Freud and Adler too, while Blake’s views on psychic reintegration, heaven and hell and the transformative power of verse fascinated him.
      Also, whereas his Fort Street publications had displayed an acquaintance with Japanese art forms, now the influence of China was more pronounced. His deep study of Taoism lasted allegedly from ‘1939 (when I first read Lao Tzu) to 1949’,by which time he had learned to apply its principles to his ‘actual way of life: that refusal to fit it into a preconceived form... allowing it to find its own shape’. [note 14]
      Or, we might add, to use Taoism to justify and elide a lost decade when it was ‘always six o’clock / ... / There are no figures on the dial / and though the hands are still / the pendulum still ticks away the time’.15
      Nor was this period particularly rich in compositions. Little more than a score of poems and essays from his pen appeared, initially in Hermes then in other university publications such as Honi Soit and Arna, allegedly because he was busy reading his way through English poetry and the Elizabethan dramatists. This may have been so. But what his verse does reveal is a shift towards classical mythology or subterfuge when dealing with matters close to his heart.
      For example, in ‘Annunciation’ (1940), Aurora, the Greek goddess of dawn is recast as a youth of striking physical beauty, while ‘Autumn Nakedness’ (1942), appropriately to the season, has ‘fallen love’ between heterosexuals as its ostensible subject. Yet apart from being addressed to ‘my lady’, this account of casual coupling in a park, together with threatening outside forces, evokes perfectly a homosexual encounter:

Rain on our nakedness will not be warm,
so part and flee before the sombre storm:
never again to be, no more to lie
like fallen leaves together, when they die.

With a dialectical panache that would have done credit to a Marxist, he began to read setbacks as evidence of his uncommon gifts or to envisage them as necessary trials preceding his apotheosis.


McAuley, profiting from a system which kept formal contact hours to a minimum, was also distancing himself from official curricula to pursue a self-conducted reading program.
      Students were expected to imbibe wisdom and an overview of their discipline from lectures, which were delivered slowly to facilitate verbatim note-taking and later memorisation. None of them, Jim recalled, ‘really inspired me or deeply touched me intellectually’, so that ‘the City of Sydney Lending Library... [was] a great deal more my university — and the Fisher [Library] — than what happened in lectures’.
      At Fort Street he had chosen Yeats and the Celtic Revival for special study, and begun assimilating T.S. Eliot and his sources, from French symbolists to Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Now, following Yeats’s lead, he discovered Blake, who became a consuming passion. He also read intensely the verse of Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George, and found in Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ a credo of self-development that confirmed his autonomous approach. Studying for examinations, too, was crammed into the last weeks of the year, generally with notable success, until his final year result in Philosophy —   a subject in which Anderson had asked McAuley to work towards a First. This debacle Jim attributed to finding his ‘sympathies were being withdrawn from Philosophy. I just couldn’t bring myself to put the pressure and energy into it’.
      What was at the root of this disinclination? The main problem was literary. McAuley was discovering his vocation in poetry, and consequently found it difficult to muster up enthusiasm for an increasingly secondary field of study. Also, as a practising writer, he was moving towards a view of literary creation which ran counter to the Andersonian theory of literary values. In particular, Anderson was highly critical of the current vogue of expressionism and of Romantic idealism. [note 20]
      In the words of an acolyte who tutored Jim, ‘aesthetics is a positive science’. [note 21] Art is to be subjected to a rational critique, which demands of it the coherent development of a clear theme to the exclusion of subjective, emotional, subconscious or mystical considerations. At that time, the work of the future co-author of Ern Malley was far from this stringent, impersonal ideal and in addresses to the Literary Society he boldly underlined shortcomings in the master’s aesthetic theory. Not only did it turn a blind eye to music or metrical effects, where organising principles other than logical ones were at work, but it failed to account for verse like Donne’s or Eliot’s.
      There disparate ideas, mental conflict and varied effects of wit are used tellingly to present ‘psychological problems’ and ‘a breakdown of traditional beliefs’. [note 22] The Andersonians countered that good art has to be realistically and rationally coherent, so that ‘the distorted presentation of real things Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” rejected as bad art’. Though anathema to Jim as well as to Harold, on this last point the custodians of Porlock and card-carrying Andersonians could agree.
      The independent paths of the two poets came together in the Quad. This grassed quadrangle, inside the great rectangle of sandstone buildings which then housed the Arts Faculty, was an informal centre of student life and a second academy. There Stewart, although a drop-out, became a recognised figure with his genial, open face and dark hair parted neatly down the middle, and fraternisation was possible with less hide-bound professors like Anderson, who adamantly refused to doff his hat when the carillon in the clock-tower struck up ‘God save the King’. There, in true peripatetic style, knowledge and gossip were exchanged, while its surrounding rooms accommodated meetings of the Literary Society, as well as improvised gatherings like the lunch-hour concerts organised by McAuley and Joan Pettison, who introduced students to trad. jazz through recordings of Armstrong and Ellington.
      Jim and Harold were also members of the Hermes’ clique which congregated here to decry parochialism and the dearth of unregulated thinking within the university’s walls.
      Inspired by continental precedent, McAuley and Stewart passed hours in the cafés of Glebe and the inner city, writing, preening and jockeying for status. Sherry’s Coffee Shop in Pitt Street was a favourite haunt on Saturday afternoons. Here those with a literary calling gathered, together with those who required social stimulation to fire their muse. Works circulated in manuscript, others were composed by various hands. Parodies were ignited by sallies of wit and malice. Reputations were traduced with bravado: ‘She took the course that Fate had clearly bidden: / Her name was Steed, and she was often ridden’. [note 24] Pretensions and sexual experimentation were snidely noted, but accepted as affronts to bourgeois convention.

A lovesick pansy burbles with delight
while listening to his languid boyfriend drone
Swinburnian misquotes. Near a bust of Freud
some withered shade of Sappho smokes alone.[note 25]

Here McAuley held forth on the defects of his contemporaries’ verse. The above lines from ‘Arty Cafe’ by Garry Lyle were, in his view, the work of ‘a man who suffered intense peripheral irritation without being able to transform it inwardly into a poetic revelation’, while Stewart’s aesthetic poems were too precious, too contrived. [note 26] Yet when Harold made his usual unobtrusive entry, looking for all the world ‘like an honest man of the suburbs come to make some repair to the house’, Jim’s eyes lit up. [note 27] Soon they would be lost in animated discussion of their latest drafts, McAuley exclaiming at an unexpected felicity, Stewart deftly weaving resonating word-plays. Minutes expanded easily into hours passed over renewed cups of tea or coffee, as ideas and phrases were freely exchanged in unconscious preparation for the co-production of their most illustrious brain-child, Ern Malley.
      The last element required for the success of the future hoax was a savage, unpitying streak which both of them had in abundance. Occasionally Harold displayed a vein of real malice, a bitchiness that was funny but unkind and, with reserve cast aside, he could fire off slick lampoons or chant ribald verse as he sped down George Street. Inevitably he was drawn to the satiric genius of Alec Hope, whose mask of Olympian detachment covered salacious, vitriolic depths:

I hope you saw Hope on Hope in his review of ARNA. This is one of the major pleasures of living, this yearly comment of Hope on himself; this year it ran: ‘There are also two religious poems by A.D. Hope, the well-known god-fancier’. Lovely man, Hope. Nice and nasty. [note 28]

Stewart’s own caustic squibs included a sketch of the showman McAuley with his ‘wardrobeful of attitudes’ who, ‘if his gallery applaud for more, / Will rant them vast superior platitudes, / And autograph their arses at the door’. [note 29] Also the usually genial McAuley could, if touched to the quick, ‘distil a fine old, two hundred proof venom’ in a clever though savagely distorted way, [note 30] and Harold had good reason to be wary of him:

Stewart is nice, he gets his tuck
Like Onan — vide Genesis
When coaxed, the organ of his art
Exuberates a stream of piss. [note 31]

Even in their sharp-tongued circles Jim enjoyed the reputation of being without peer in producing impromptu verse, and he could be equally unsparing of his own shortcomings. For whereas Stewart’s precarious self-image permitted the expression of neither serious self-doubts nor scarifying self-criticism, McAuley’s intense self-awareness fed his creative exuberance: ‘God endorsed the slavey’s spit, / And made me, as my friends admit, / A very nasty piece of shit’. [note 32]
      Quarter was scarcely to be expected from such men, especially if their vanity was wounded or their poetic craft called into question.
      Apart from these intense literary encounters, the private lives of the two ex-Fortians were played out in largely separate spheres. Certainly they saw each other often on campus or at parties, but the centre of Stewart’s emotional life lay elsewhere. He tended to slip inconspicuously in and out of heterosexual circles, preferring to bury his past and assume adult freedoms among the artistic fraternity in Kings Cross. There, more completely than anywhere else in Sydney, the staid Anglo-Saxon heritage of his childhood, with strict closing hours, sexual taboos and stodgy food had been routed by a milieu which was insistently European, bohemian and permissive. There, too, Harold became the lover of William Dobell and Donald Friend.
      Both were painters set apart from mainstream society by their homosexuality and their devotion to art. Dobell, born in 1899, had spent a decade in London studying modern and early masters in the original rather than from the monochrome reproductions available in Australia. Returning to Sydney late in 1938, he was soon adjudicating local art disputes, cultivating a conservative persona and remarking that his countrymen had practically become foreigners to him — a sentiment which Harold would later echo from Kyoto.
      Friend, with his rakishly styled dark hair and modish clothes, cut a more relaxed, debonair figure. Like Dobell he was a source of exotic tales, supplemented in his case by a collection of African curios. In 1936, for instance, he had witnessed the outcry unleashed by the International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Tabloids had condemned its exhibits as decadent and broadened their attack to include sexual deviance: ‘There are about too many effeminate or epicene young men, lisping and undulating. Too many women without manners, balance, dignity — greedy and slobbering sensation-seekers’. epicene 33]
      Friend had applauded this vital scene and been fascinated by black jazz musicians, at home with their bodies and unrestrained rhythms. Thereafter black physiques in their native settings, like Sri Lanka and Bali, drew him irresistibly, and in 1938 he took a boat to Nigeria. Here he spent two years in the palace of an Ikere chieftain as his adviser, before slipping back to Sydney as war loomed menacingly in the Pacific.
      Harold met Friend through Dobell, and they not only introduced the poet to the contemporary art scene but provided important lessons in coping with a hostile world. He was a frequent visitor to Dobell’s studio-apartment on the top floor of the Union Bank Chambers in Darlinghurst Road and to Friend’s balcony room on the first floor of Elizabeth Bay House, overlooking the harbour.
      In his lovers’ eyries Stewart could indulge his carnal self as well as in fantasies of intellectual superiority. Proud of his friendship with Dobell, Drysdale, Friend and other lesser painters, he took Jim to Dobell’s studio and by 1941 Harold was flaunting his new-found expertise as art critic for Honi Soit. Readers heard that Dobell’s ‘craft may be as an Old Master’s, but no one could ever accuse him of not being contemporary’, [note 34] while Stewart defended the decision to hang reproductions of modern masters in the Union building with a series of articles headed ‘It is not the painters who are the fools’. In these and related essays, modern art emerged as the first of several areas chosen over the years in which his specialist knowledge raised him above philistine minds:

It is a dismal but indisputable fact that most people are so blinded by habits of thought and action, so protected from life by inherited and acquired rituals and dogmas, as to be but rarely capable of fresh, first-hand experience either of themselves or their environment. [note 35]

From this assumed eminence Harold could also speak sneeringly of the scene of his most recent debacle: ‘It now seems to me something of a miracle that in this super-high-school (known euphemistically in the local circles as a University) anyone should ever have noticed them [the modern reproductions]’. ‘Interest in the arts’, he asserted, ‘would stagnate in the usual hack academic backwaters’. [note 36]


McAuley’s life was more public and controversial. Renowned already for his trouper’s repertoire and wild actions, like jumping off a moving train at Lewisham, he was devoted to drinking, young women and all-night gatherings. Admittedly, he could strike a blasé pose about humdrum parties with their insipid frankfurters, Victor Sylvester records and kisses snatched from anonymous girls. Yet he rarely missed them, nor the opportunities they afforded to shine with repartee or jazz played on the piano tirelessly, compulsively. Then listeners no longer noticed his lack of height or physical bulk, but were struck by his smooth, swaying body sheathed in a damp shirt and surmounted by cascading blond hair, which gyrated to the rhythms he conjured from the keyboard between nicotine fixes and snatches of neat gin. He kindled passions in many female hearts and in turn was often swept away himself, even to the extent of treating the girlfriend of his best mate as fair game.
      In his set women were regarded as sex objects; male agendas, like their gaze, were, as Hope revealed, virtually unchecked:

I can cut the brain film here — the preliminaries
have been too often, too well rehearsed before,
And with various leading ladies — cut to the scene
of your standing naked while my greedy eyes
recite you... my mouth on your breast, my hand between
the delicious consolation of your thighs. [note 41]

McAuley seconded Hope’s sentiment and sought in transitory embraces an answer to his nagging fear of emotional impairment. Instead, his liaisons sometimes ended traumatically. On one occasion friends were asked to help him pay the cost of an abortion, while Witting confessed that McAuley made her life ‘hell and misery... He treated me as a sexual dog with great cruelty, real spite, and also of course as a great tease. He needed to torment me because he needed me’. [note 42]
      In short, Jim’s star shone brightly, if disconcertingly, or as Witting wrote of his fictional surrogate: ‘Everybody dislikes Kenneth from time to time. But nobody wants to miss a word he says’. [note 43]
      These liaisons also roused his muse to create poems which accorded well with Hermes ’ modernist program. In its pages ‘J. Mc’ (Jaymuck to his friends) is alternately libidinous and impious, his surrogate ‘Glaucon’ is given to dyspeptic musings. Laughing knowingly in a story at the Young Man who naively seeks the Secret of Life in female love, McAuley raises carnality into a sacrament: ‘that flung plume of yellow hair, / Which from your body breaks in bright desire, / Burnt on an altar in the well-known arch’. [note 44]
      Whether championing literary modernism, criticising repression and misinformation, or refusing to be ‘unduly disturbed by the confused quacking noises that issue from the local barnyard’, McAuley as an undergraduate displays the willingness to stand against the tide of public opinion which would be a hallmark of his editorship of Quadrant.
      Aside from their literary interests, the other central concern which Jim and Harold had in common, although they kept it hidden from each other as well as from others, was psychic turmoil. In McAuley’s case, it contributed to making him, as one of his closest university friends remarked, ‘a puzzling and strange man’. [note 52] There were sides of his character which no one could fathom, least of all himself. It was not simply that he combined in his person many disparate roles: the part-larrikin, part-libertine from Saturday night could metamorphose into a church organist on Sunday, his innocence set off by an aureole of golden hair. His very nature seemed paradoxical and he was prone to abrupt swings of mood as well as violent nightmares. In addition, his poetry frequently testified to night-time anguish and unnerving visions, as in ‘Preludes’ (1936):

In the mid dark, the batblind hour,
No airs invade the ivory tower,
Walls crumble, faces blur,
Footsteps fade on crumble stair,
Words lose meaning, meaning words.
Dawn eddies in the ivory tower.
Dawn is more terrible than dark,
Wan light to show the mind’s selfstare.
What terrorgaps and dreamfogs lurk
In airless batblind upper dark
At the grim, daunting hour
When words fail in the ivory tower?

Accounts of his being a prey to ‘terrorgaps and dreamfogs’ commence during his university period, although this may reflect less their prevalence than his maturing powers of self-analysis, as well as the presence of outside witnesses to his plight. Witting, who claims to have known him then as well as anyone could, maintains that he feared for his sanity because of inner voices and his night ordeals. [note 53] What form these took is unclear, except for one report of white butterflies eating his eyes. [note 54] Blurred boundaries, crumbling consciousness and the terrors of dawn in ‘Preludes’ recall the mental disequilibrium registered in his Fort Street verse, as well as the ‘twilight zone’ depicted in ‘A Small Testament’ (1976):

There lies between sleeping and waking a twilight zone of hypnagogic images. The dream-making powers meet the dawning or dusk of waking awareness. The images arise, not as in full dream where they reign with no other reality than their own; on the other hand, they are dream images even though consciousness may faintly permeate them with its meanings or reactions.


For Stewart, too, the late 1930s was a time of mental disarray which, in an intriguing notebook passage, he dubbed his schizophrenic period. Contemporaries, however, are adamant that he was not technically schizophrenic, while his inveterate need for privacy militated against hurtful revelations or an account of his actual state. Instead, although purporting to be frankly autobiographical, this entry offers a neatly periodised but familiar paradigm of spiritual enlightenment, psychiatrically updated and couched, as he remarked, in ‘monstrous hieroglyphic jargon’:

1 — Before 1936 I was not yet grown up. I was not aware of having ideas. I was lived by my experience instead of living it. I projected my mental contents on to my environment & rather made no distinction between inside & outside. Climax was ‘Phoenix Wings’ ’37.

2 — From 1936 — 1940 was my schizophrenic or split personality period in which I grew up & became ‘adult’, my innocent wonder adulterated by sophistication, cynicism critical disillusionment & analytical iconoclasm. I became self-conscious of my ideas & was lived by them. This was the first premature & false conversion necessitating rebirth (period of the ‘Destruction of the World’ Dream heralding an introverted death). In 1940 — 41 there set in the period of great sterility & underground maturation after the false start made at the long Phoenix Poem (Ascension of Feng).

3 — About October — November ’41 I made a pact with the devil in a dream and this was the beginning of my regeneration, ushering in the epoch of fire and social intercourse. Finally in May — June 1942 I grew down again having experienced satori at the climax of the period of fire. I discovered Zen after alternating between Chung & Yung, the fire & the Golden Flower, power and calm. Finally I rest in Tao living my ideas & experience as one.

In the privacy of his notebooks, the outwardly feckless, rootless failure could remake his life as he willed it to be, imposing a satisfying order on a period which, years after, he preferred to pass over in silence. Like many of his sweeping, backward glances these entries from the early 1940s obscure crucial facts. He later confessed to McAuley that he was ‘always falling apart under the impact of the world’ and becoming ‘hopelessly lost and scattered fragments’, [note 55] and the notebook attempt to redefine schizophrenia as an awareness of dichotomies, such as inner and outer or reflecting and unreflecting, points arguably to a preoccupation with his own mental state as being different or disturbed.
      So, too, does an autobiographical vignette which describes this period of failure to acknowledge ‘the reconciling principles between the opposites’ as a recipe for madness.

Unfortunately, I had to take my choice: either I could humbly go down on my knees before the nature of things as they are and admit my error, or I could go mad... remaining voluntarily in hell to pander to it [my intellectual pride]... I really had no choice. The Nature of things as they are demanded that I adopt the way of genius not the way of madness. [note 56]

A self-proclaimed ‘aristocrat of the soul’, Stewart imagined deliverance was at hand: ‘My life has run its course, it is fulfilled & consummated. I can rise no higher than this, I have achieved the summit of human experience in the art of living... “God” walks with me’. Dangerously removed from reality, this exalted perception had not even had to withstand criticism because, in the politicised 1930s, it had been ‘necessary to dissemble one’s real allegiances and disguise oneself under a cloak of superficiality, if one was to retain any friends at all (including McAuley at that time)’. [note 57]
      By 1940 the two ex-Fortians were deep in their respective valleys of soul-making with no clear end in sight. Jim, as a university medallist, could hardly feel that doors had closed against him; nevertheless, ‘Something — guilt, tension, or outrage — ’  haunted his nights, while his attempt to write a novel entitled The Pane of Glass, about ‘the unnoticed but distorting screen’ erected by the passions between the self and the external world, foundered. [note 58]
      Then, as ten years later with the birth of his daughter imminent, McAuley was unsettled by a powerful sense of maimed emotions, a ‘gush of sickness and wretched bewilderment never really faced or got rid of’, which hindered his capacity to create and love as well as to grow. [note 59]
      Jim certainly saw himself as a ‘Damaged Man’ and Harold was struggling, ‘asunder torn a hundred ways inside’, to see himself as something more than a psychologically disturbed or ‘abnormal individual’. His writing, too, was marking time. Although society could not conscript the wind, nor regiment a field of grass, it could and did call up Stewart. Deprived of choice, Harold tried to rationalise this as a timely end to his ‘lazy old life’, during which he had grown in wisdom to a point where he ‘would remain unharmed by militarism’ — a belief quickly dashed by future ordeals. Both young men had still to follow the admonition of ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ ‘to harmonise your extroverted and introverted life’. As Rilke asserted to the would-be writer Kappus, you must ‘find sufficient patience in yourself to be able to suffer, and sufficient naivety to believe... in the last instance, let life just happen to you. Believe me, life is inevitably right under any circumstances’. [note 60] Stewart was mentally closer to following this injunction, though typically it was McAuley who grasped their actual situation in words which came ‘as a scourge, a prayer, a consolation, in the insomniac nights’:
      “The nightingale chanteth: I am silent. When shall my spring come? When shall I be as the swallow that I may cease to be silent?” [note 61]

Chapter Three — Fowle Ayres and false starts

I sometimes think we are a bold but not a brave people.
Boldness is of the appetites and the body, bravery is of the mind.

— Mary Gilmore

ARROGANT SELF-ASSURANCE coupled with withering contempt for the abysmal level of Australian cultural life was de rigueur among McAuley’s university set. Communities got the poets and newspapers they deserved, Jim claimed, pointing to articles in the Sydney Morning Herald on the eve of war which were ‘gutless wonders that shirk the development of anything but surface analysis of purely political moves’. [note 1]
      Stewart expected the worst from a country he felt at times inclined to disown, having grasped as an immutable law ‘that all politicians are either fools, criminals or lunatics. If they can manage to combine all three qualifications they are called statesmen’; while Horne spoke for them all in labelling Australia ‘a rubbish tip of European culture where all that was native was the suffocating dust of a third-rate nationalism’. [note 2]
      Prior to the Pacific War, both McAuley and Stewart aligned themselves with modernism. On campus Jim was recognised as its foremost exponent in poetry, while Harold emerged in the early 1940s as its fervent advocate in the arts. In 1939 he had assiduously attended the Herald exhibition of French and British Modern Art, relishing the chance to study in depth originals by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque and Matisse and expounding them to willing listeners like Donald Horne. These works inspired a major exhibition of the breakaway Contemporary Art Society in 1940, which Stewart praised for its vitality despite the fact that it ‘showed many symptoms of acute artistic indigestion’.
      And in 1941, as art critic for Honi Soit, he championed modernism to the uninitiated student body in articles which described the aims and techniques of the principal figures of the ‘école de Paris’.
      Harold also kept Jim abreast of the Sydney art scene. He extolled to him, for instance, Dobell’s exhibition of 1944 as ‘well up to his best’, and shared ‘the stories Bill tells of his visits chez Gowrie & like “high” society’ which, like the commissioned portrait of [Australian Governor-General Lord] Gowrie, were ‘hilariously satirical’. [note 6] By then, however, the painter was embroiled in scandal and legal proceedings over the alleged unworthiness of his 1943 portrait of Sir Joshua Smith, which had won the Archibald Prize. Harold never forgot ‘the vile abuse heaped on Bill’s head by brave anonymous phone-callers’, [note 7] nor the prejudice revealed by Porlock towards all that was not immediately comprehensible and safely conventional.
      Entrenched hostility to the new suggested the need for the avant-garde to make common cause, but fierce rivalries militated against this, as Stewart’s oscillating attitude to the verse of Max Harris demonstrates.
      Born in 1921, Harris had passed his formative years in Adelaide and Mount Gambier, topped the State in English at the Leaving Certificate, and in 1940 had his first volume of poetry, The Gift of Blood, published by the Jindyworobak Club. Sporting distinctive black shirts and white ties, he held forth on European literary trends at every opportunity, flaunted his links with the English proponent of modernism, Herbert Read, and shocked the public with surrealist images in his verse.
      By 1941 Harris was an established writer and controversial figure, whereas nationally Stewart was a nobody, whose conviction of his own artistic superiority could produce savage reviewing. Most of the poetry in Harris’s initial volumes is dismissed as ‘first rough-drafts’, needing still to be ‘lick[ed] into shape, [or] confined to a place of great heat’, so that he will rue ‘having let his juvenilia out’ if he ‘ever lives to find out what he is really doing in his poems’. For Harris, Stewart prescribes ‘a good course of epigrams and a sense of satire’ to offset the ‘fatal facility’ of ‘semi-surrealist verse... [A]ny poet of talent could produce a hundred lines of it a week for the rest of his life. Once you get the knack, it is no harder to do than a free-association test’. [note 8]
      Yet elsewhere Harold acknowledges that occasionally Harris’s verse is ‘authentic utterance’. In comparison with the ‘utter technical immaturity and banality’ of much local verse, the southern enfant terrible is paid the ultimate compliment: ‘None of them share any background of painstaking and conscientious work with their materials such as characterises the work of Harris, McAuley and Stewart’. [note 9]
      On the one hand, Harris needed keeping in his place; on the other, he formed part of an élite struggling against local apathy and the illiberal, repressive climate generated by war — though by 1944 Harold agreed with Jim that  ‘the moments when he [Harris] showed earlier that he could write are disappearing under... [a] frightful mass of silliness’. [note 10]
      As an apprentice modernist, McAuley’s major concern was to keep artistic creation distinct from ideological commitment. In 1936 he complemented the verdict of ‘Hans Vogler’ by arguing, before the Literary Society, that art was not fundamentally dependent on contemporary tensions but an end in itself. Similarly, in 1938 he applauded the stance taken by Dorothy Auchterlonie in Hermes against ‘recent [national] attempts to subordinate art to the demands of politics’.
      Nor was student receptivity necessarily increased by the declaration of war. A visiting speaker to the Labour Club in 1942, who asserted that the writer must be a propagandist dealing with social questions, was heckled by a pipe-smoking ‘brains-trust’ up the back, which no more accepted Soviet-style literary control than it did a ‘bosses’ war’.
      Stewart meanwhile was turning his back on the gathering storm. Quoting Lao Tzu that there is nothing which cannot be effected by non-action, he maintained that ‘the sole aim of the artist... was to make a faithful reproduction of his state of mind, to communicate his experience through the art-object he made’. [note 11] For all of them, in Auchterlonie’s words, it was a question of whether art was ‘to remain... a vital force’ or to be ‘a puppet dancing to the tune of dictators’. After sniping at calls for artistic accountability she concluded by affirming Dr Johnson’s verdict that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.
      Jim, having missed out on a postgraduate travelling scholarship, had no clear-cut path before him and began an inconclusive search for employment. Even the first step of limited flight from home required money, and an interview with the Department of External Affairs ended in McAuley being advised to follow his literary interests.
      A temporary job was found for him by the University Employment Agency at Bungendore, [a town in the bush] east of Canberra. There on the property ‘Currandooley’ he had his first chance to develop a pedagogical bent by tutoring the Osborne children for admission to [the exclusive private school] Cranbrook — an experience which was not without its trying moments: ‘God deliver me from the Child Heart. I have 3 Child Hearts to knock sense into here’. [note 12]
      None the less, he enjoyed his country exile, adopting the detached attitude of one in ‘Transalpine Gaul’ to the Rome of Sydney. ‘Just now I am shying clear of either discussion or action. Later perhaps I may indulge in both’. Books were not scarce and, to judge from his letters, nights and a good part of the days belonged to the writer. He had leisure for critical reading:

Beverley Nicholls... . a vomit
Naomi Mitcheson....wonderful
Rare Poems of 17 C....on my dunghill
Proust....A la recherche du Sens perdu.

In 1939 Jim set about giving fresh direction to his life. He now had a collection of interlinked poems to place and this could be done more easily in Sydney, even if his heart was set on a London publisher. Quipping that Australia already had enough backyard industries, he avowed a disinclination to further enrich [Sydney publisher] Angus & Robertson. There was also the question of an eventual career in tertiary or secondary teaching for a man who seemed to his friends ‘one of nature’s Professors of English’. [note 14]
      For a short time McAuley earned a pittance as companion to a young semi-invalid at Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains. Once back in Sydney, he did relieving jobs at Shore and Sydney Grammar, worked on his thesis, and taught at night school. These efforts were rewarded with a position as junior housemaster and English teacher at Shore in 1940, leaving him then with his personal life to set in order. He had many ‘real companions, real friends in various respects’, but he felt ‘ultimate isolation’. [note 15] Half-seriously, half-ironically, he described himself as ‘a simple, home-loving soul without a home’. [note 16]
      This, however, was soon to change thanks to a chance encounter with a university friend, Joan Pettison. She was enjoying an outing in the city with a fellow teacher, Norma Abernathy. Jim had already impressed Norma as a Fort Street debater and years later she fondly recalled this first introduction to McAuley, with his elegant felt hat, his arms full of books and his engaging smile.
      The other event which had unforeseen consequences was McAuley’s M.A. thesis ‘Symbolism: An Essay in Poetics’. At the time, it represented his last realistic chance to pursue an academic career. Having allegedly abandoned an initial topic because of inadequate motivation and sources, he turned to the poetic heritage which had preoccupied him since Fort Street, intending in addition ‘to grapple with one of the burning questions: how does one relate symbolism in literature to symbolism as Freud and Jung and others were talking about it?... [and] to repel the invasion by Freud into literary symbolism’.
      The thesis, apart from admirably meeting the academic requirement for sustained, original research, provides a rigorous stocktaking of the traditions most influential on his own art, as well as a guide to major concerns, both literary and personal, which would inspire his research for decades to come.
      Why then did this ambitious thesis, typed by Norma, fail to gain him the desired travelling scholarship? It is a matter of public record that, although awarded First Class Honours, it was ranked second to a Masters dissertation by Thelma Herring. Consequently she went overseas, returned to her alma mater and pursued an orthodox, uncontroversial career. Years after, Jim recounted how Howarth, when pressed for an explanation of McAuley’s ranking, attributed it to the fact that the thesis had to be sent to the Modern Languages and Psychology departments as part of the examination process and, finally, to its unconventional pagination and frequent Gallicisms. ‘At the time’, McAuley records, ‘I thought this was just the stone end’. Equally important was a later admission:

I think I didn’t fit their pattern. It was quite evident to them, of course, that my attendance was exceedingly patchy, that I was clearly on my own and not attaching myself to them or being the faithful student, being formed in their mould.... the M.A. thesis brought it to a head, in a sense. This was alien to them.

His attitude, in other words, had put academics off-side, as in his third year when he added public scoffing to his cavalier disregard of the system. First, he was reported to have said at an SRC meeting that lectures were ‘completely superfluous’. Then he wrote to Honi Soit to correct this overstatement. Occasionally lectures were of use, he conceded, but at issue was freedom of choice: ‘a student’s business is to study certain questions in the best way he can, and it is not his business to waste his time at the dictation of his teachers. If he wants to waste his time there are many better ways which his own inclinations will suggest’. [note 17] His disdain for the English Department was especially pronounced, while he let it be known that he had ‘seen through the traditional reactionary academic... futilities’. [note 18]
      This haughty superiority is traceable to Fort Street. There he and two close friends, who were each gifted in mathematics, were reading ‘way ahead’ in their respective subjects. ‘We played a sort of game, we got hold of the university third-year papers for the previous year and satisfied ourselves that we could pass. We tended to treat the university rather lightly when we went there, did our own thing, and we all did pretty well’.
      Similarly, in his thesis he pontificated on the nature of verse and on the major European poets of two centuries, arraigning great names like Novalis and Hugo for alleged shortcomings. Vain and opinionated, McAuley unwittingly prepared his own crash, much as decades later his sarcastic reflections would lose him supporters and motions at the University of Tasmania.
      Overshadowing and sometimes contributing to his setbacks was the unfolding war. Its outbreak he acknowledged in ‘Dawn, September 2, 1939’ with ‘The newsprint like a bouquet in my hand. /... the eastern sky / Lifted an eyebrow on my vanities’. Others, however, were less benign. Soon after the declaration of hostilities a ‘very belligerent young woman glared at Jim and said “I wish I was a man”. He said, “I wish I was a woman so that I could wish I was a man”’. [note 19]
      In 1940 pressure was put on him at Shore to enlist or go elsewhere. McAuley resigned and, with his life in disarray, went to live with Alec and Penelope Hope in their old sandstone house at Woolwich.
      Hope, a decade older, shared with Jim a passion for poetry as well as a stalled academic career. He, too, had passed through Fort Street High School before being awarded a Sydney University Medal for Philosophy and, although he secured a travelling scholarship to Oxford, a third-class honours result there in English temporally frustrated his ambitions. Back in Sydney, he had cast about for alternate routes into tertiary teaching, and begun to make his mark as a poet and biting commentator. In 1937 he was appointed to a lectureship at Sydney Teachers’ College. This was the first of many academic stepping stones which took him to Melbourne, then to Canberra and, post-war, made him an influential figure capable of aiding McAuley’s own late advancement.
      The Woolwich home, with its wide verandas and overgrown garden that looked out over the harbour [Sydney Harbour] to Cockatoo Island, seemed a world apart from notices of war and mobilisation. Martial exploits had little appeal to the younger poet, but neither did Long Bay gaol which awaited a conscientious objector, so that Jim toyed with following Hemingway’s lead and joining an ambulance unit.
      In 1941 he enrolled for a Diploma of Education at Sydney Teachers’ College, and ‘did as little of all that as possible’. He also moved to a bed-sitter in Johnston Street, Annandale, the street where Norma lived. They were courting and hoping for teaching appointments close to one another the following year. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December little seemed certain, except further jolts from disruptive forces which, for McAuley, were encapsulated by a print of Franz Marc’s Tower of Blue Horses, hanging in the Teachers’ College.
      Seeking self-confirmation and a defining intellectual position, Jim turned for a time to anarchist philosophy, as did Stewart and Harris. The Spanish Civil War had disillusioned McAuley with the ideologues of the left and the right, but it kindled his interest in anarchism, which was free of totalitarian taint.
      As he soon realised, its endorsement of personal freedom complemented Andersonian libertarianism and experimentation in the arts. By the 1940s he had built up a good collection of anarchist books and pamphlets from Sydney second-hand bookshops, though he later jettisoned it during his military service because of Special Branch’s hunt for potential subversives.
      Stewart also saluted anarchism’s support of ‘mental autonomy’ and dilated on its adoption as a three-phase process. [note 20] ‘The unconscious “natural” or instinctive anarchy of the animal & vegetative world’ is succeeded by its self-conscious acceptance and, finally, by the discarding of theory when its principles are assimilated by the individual, as in his credo: ‘There are no musts or oughts. You should have done whatever you did do. You must-do-whatever you happen to do. You shall do whatever you will do’.
      The self-conscious phase, however, can easily degenerate into ‘a mere pose’ or ‘attitude adopted to impress oneself & influence society’ — a barb perhaps aimed at Max Harris, author of ‘I’m an anarchist — so what?’ and of much feisty writing in which anarchism is often an unmarked leaven.
      Sufficiently amorphous to allow writers to work out a position which suited their own needs, anarchism strengthened the resolve of all three poets to pursue whatever they felt was necessary to their development as distinct from national or ideological objectives. In Harold’s case, it was recast in terms of the tenets of ‘that old arch anarchist Lao Tzu’, while Jim wrote to Horne in 1943 of his decision to ‘go on being a little anarchy [sic] in my own way’, [note 21] having already seen first-hand anarchism’s potential shortcomings in two provocative figures from his own circle, Oliver Somerville and Harry Hooton.
      In art as in individual action Hooton, like Somerville, represented an extreme which McAuley’s set flirted with but ultimately abandoned. Both young men subscribed to Herbert Read’s assertion that the poet was an anarchist. To impressionable students, Oliver Somerville personified a life of anarchist protest, which culminated in breakdown and early death. Remembered for his white sandshoes and an overcoat that looked as if it had been slept in, Somerville frequently wore shirts which were grimy and tieless, as well as a hat remarkable for its rents — sartorial gestures aimed at the standards of his comfortable, middle-class home. A former Andersonian, he rejected civilisation as the breeding ground of totalitarianism and revolution as too noble for humankind. Although only a mediocre poet, his anti-commercialism led him to acquire a Gestetner [mimeograph] printer.
      With it he brought out the irreverent First Boke of Fowle Ayres and booklets of verse by Hope and the worker-poet Harry Hooton, whose parodic pamphlet These Poets (1941) had made him a minor cause célèbre in Sydney literary circles. [note 22] Hooton was no friend of the establishment either. After arriving from England, he had done time in Maitland Gaol for unarmed robbery and led an itinerant existence, before launching himself as a poet and amateur philosopher. Undeterred by surveillance or a raid by military police, he proselytised for anarchism as ‘the ultimate ideal’:

Anarchy is a condition of society in which no man rules over another. To the Christian it is the rule of God, when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth. To the Communist it is the rule of a dialectical process, an idea... The artist, who is also an anarchist, parts company with them all. Not only does he object to postponing the free society to a later date, he distrusts this delegation of his power to myths or abstractions. He wants to be free from gods as well as masters. And he wants to be free now. [note 23]

Though not always as coherent as in this essay of 1944, Hooton was an enthusiastic conversationalist, and Somerville encouraged him to seek out McAuley when the Department of Education sent the Sydney poet to Newcastle Junior High School in 1942. Frequent visits and mutual appreciation followed. Here for McAuley was poetic fellowship as well as intellectual relief from the tedium of a school which taught only up to Year 3.
      Moreover, as he confessed, ‘in the late 1930s and early 1940s I felt within myself the attraction of what one might call a revolutionary poetic — vitalist, lawless, a thing of passion, impulse and wild humour’, that is, an anarchist poetic, which was realised, at least in part, by Hooton’s verse:

What did you say Pope? Whatever is is trite
By christ you’re right
What is what isn’t
The poet of today!
Hell’s bells — bull — Hemingway’s bell is not a toll important
Who gives a continental cupful of cold water for the too
much told tales leading to the contacts penis-urethra
Of Dell or Lawrence Mannin. [note 24]

Hooton’s advocacy of individual rights and untrammelled thought, together with his aim of ‘try[ing] to spread disaffection among gun-fodder’, held considerable appeal for McAuley. [note 25] But Jim was not blind to the huge gap between the Englishman’s claim to meticulous craftsmanship and his rambling productions, nor to his woolly concepts. Horne pinpointed ‘a terrific din hiding a simple confusion in everything he says’. Harris spoke superiorly of ‘our anarchist bull [who] careers madly through his intellectual fog’. [note 26] Friendship softened McAuley’s verdict at the outset, although years later he described Hooton as ‘an anarchist whose writings were without talent or coherent ideas’ and, more personally, as having helped him to grasp that ‘poetic revolution is in its sphere as much of a disaster in practice as political revolution is in its sphere’. [note 27]
      Despite his Newcastle billet Jim remained in frequent contact with Sydney friends, as well as intellectually close to Harold. Initially he had the incentive of Norma to lure him south for a weekend spent ‘in the arms of the big city’, [note 28] and he still contributed to campus controversies.
      This was done through signed pieces, or under the pseudonym of Dulcie Renshaw which he shared with Stewart. In 1941 the newly launched Southerly was savaged by Jim, alias Dulcie, for ‘gutless irresponsibility’ in abdicating the task of ‘represent[ing] what is living in Australian literary tendencies’. Instead, it had allegedly opted for trite commentary and poems which ‘are nauseating little gobbets of Victorian “pwettiness”’. [note 29]
      McAuley’s larger target, however, was the university’s English Department, responsible alike for Southerly and the recent grading of his Master’s thesis, so that the pen-name was needed to keep ‘Howarth and co. guessing’. [note 30]
      Similarly, it covered Stewart’s attack in the following year on publications in the Melbourne University Magazine, as well as an amused commentary on advocates of social realism and literature as propaganda.
      The two friends again were of one mind, and unusually tactful, during a campus dispute in 1943 on the merits of Hooton’s verse. Stewart couched his case genially as a one-sided epistolary exchange between proponents of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Generously he acknowledged Hooton’s raw energy and inventive powers. But he decried ‘the freely flowing lawlessness of your emotional outpourings’, which approached dangerously to ‘burbling surrealist nonsense of no particular literary quality’, and insisted on the need for ‘hard, cold, polished perfection of formal structure’ to achieve better effects. [note 31] McAuley was even more light-handed in his review of Hooton’s efforts:

He is a terrible man when in an intellectual tantrum. A Hooton poem is a one-man wrestling match. Hooton v. Hooton refereed by Hooton. There is some ‘real rasslin’ and the rest is just grandstanding. The audience sit around and barrack: ‘He’s down! No, he’s up again! Kick him Harry! Look, the dirty bastard’s using his teeth!’ When Harry rises smiling to his feet we all shout: ‘Who won, Harry?’, and he says: ‘I did. The proceeds will go to the international working class’.
      I like reading a Hooton poem but there’s no accounting for tastes. When Harry is visited by ideas he hits them with everything about the home but some of them survive. Occasionally he achieves an incisive statement, but he hastily covers up the incision with a litter of words. If you haven’t met a Hooton poem before, get in the way of one of these and then see how you feel. [note 32]

Somerville railed at McAuley’s sniggering evasiveness. But Max Harris would have been well pleased had the McAuley-Stewart team shown comparable circumspection the following year when they deployed their latest fictional character before the reading public.
      In Newcastle Jim also tried to put the emotional anarchy of his student days behind him. To Horne he wrote half-mockingly of his forthcoming ‘Farewell! to sunny Batchelordom [sic]’ to take place in a registry office with the Hopes as witnesses: ‘A good time will probably be had by all except the victims. But what is a young man to do? It is unpleasant to divide one’s time between whores and rumours of war’. [note 33]
      He married Norma on 20 June 1942. A low-key party in a Hunter Street coffee shop completed the proceedings, and ushered in a brief period of idyll and indecision. Outside school hours the couple performed in music and repertory groups or explored the countryside, where they delighted in simple scenes like those recalled in the poem ‘Catherine Hill Bay 1942’. In their flat, new love lent a glow to their minimal existence among make-shift furnishing.
      Heavy drinking remained, however, an important part of Jim’s social life, and night a time of ordeal. ‘Screams often startle the house: / He leaps up blind to escape’.
      McAuley was powerfully aware, too, that his life had acquired neither direction nor meaning. His name was scarcely known outside Sydney literary circles, his poems still languished in manuscript. He and Stewart struggled to be represented in Angus & Robertson’s annual anthology of local verse, whereas Max Harris already had two collections published and a magazine in which to air his views.
      Then came McAuley’s call-up on 6 January 1943, by which time Harris and Angry Penguins had moved from Adelaide to John Reed’s ‘Heidi’, setting the stage for a decisive struggle for supremacy between the modernist literary factions of Melbourne and Sydney.
      War for the men in the Sydney University set was a lottery which started with induction and basic training. Usually it began with the dreaded summons to ‘bring a cut lunch to the Sydney Showground on such-and-such a day’. There contacts could be all-important. Somerville advised Hooton to ‘ask (unobtrusively) to see Sergeant Webster, aptitude testing section, who is an old and estimable friend of mine (he was of some use to Stewart passing through)’. [note 34]
      McAuley spent an afternoon doing the standard tests and, thanks to a youthful passion for Meccano models, produced the profile of ‘a mechanical genius. Your score has gone off the page’. This verdict was delivered by Johnny Watson, a psychology graduate whom Jim ‘knew quite well’, so that he was able to negotiate his way out of his prospective fate with the engineers into the 128th Australian Infantry Brigade. Then followed a period of tedium and mind-deadening drill at places like Randwick military camp, ‘this womb of crime / [where] a nation’s Fagans teach each crafty fetch’. There ‘few, indeed, — not one in ten — wanted to be in the army: many openly, cynically, bitterly denounce the war’. [note 35] Most cursed ‘the virus of being young’ and sought a safe alternative to heroism:

Let the good or the bad cause triumph, the one or the other land,
I will be just as dead
When the sons of each fatherland lie in somebody’s motherland
Defending Dad’s double-bed. [note 36]

McAuley, the man who a year before had publicly wondered out aloud ‘what dark thoughts lurk in his [the propagandist’s] mind about the nature of this war, that he so distrusts the effect of truth on the Australian public’, [note 37] now found himself in a related role, working camps with the Army Education Unit in the Hunter River area. This billet saved him from the front line and kept him close to his young wife.
      He owed it, presumably, to the anti-capitalist bias revealed in occasional verse and his contribution to the New Theatre League revue ‘I’d Rather Be Left’, which enjoyed a successful Sydney season early in 1941.
      With such credentials McAuley fitted easily into a unit which, he conceded years later, had been penetrated ‘very effectively’ by the Communist Party. Max Harris at the time likened military camp to being buried alive, and war hysteria to ‘mind tunnels’ rendered hideous by ‘the drool of fear’. [note 38] He found an escape from the military treadmill through exemption as a research statistician; Sidney Nolan deserted.
      Stewart, unable to avoid conscription indefinitely, at least found a partial remedy to regimentation in bouts of prolonged sickness. McAuley’s senior by a year, he joined the armed forces on 28 September 1942, and did his basic training with a Field Survey Unit, making maps from aerial photographs near the Dandenongs.
      Soon after he was struck down with a disease which at first defied diagnosis. Early in 1943, while still in a Heidelberg ward, he could report a four-month stretch ‘in hospital and convalescent camp’. An initial illness required a month’s treatment, then came a further six weeks in bed owing to ‘meningitis, — a septaesemic [sic] condition’ which led to ‘painful swellings, notably in the left ankle’, followed by rehabilitation and later operations. [note 39]
      Nor would he forget being sent to Ballarat to recuperate ‘in the middle of winter in a tent with an inch of water and two inches of mud as its floor! There is a special wind which the Ballarat Council charters to blow every winter direct from the South Pole, so that they can claim to be the coldest city in Australia’. [note 40] Midway through 1944 his ailments had diversified, his sick-bay changed. Writing from Concord Military Hospital to Jim and Norma, he struck the humorous register typical of later accounts of his deteriorating condition:

My health continues to be as bloody, literally & figuratively, as ever. There is still a manpower problem at the Water Works & the Sewerage contractors have gone out on strike out of sympathy for the Butcher Girl of Portland. Mine enemes [sic]contrived against me & all’s to do again. I menstruate so vehemently that my Kotex requires changing thrice daily. I am contemplating a tender little ballad: —
‘The menstrual boy to the whores has gone’[.]
I solemnly swear that I shall never have my ovaries removed again! [note 41]

The letter is signed ‘Yours as usual, Euthanasia’. Moreover, he remained, as McAuley remarked, ‘intermittently ill in a sub-clinical fashion’.42 These cumulative woes, he later maintained, accounted for two of his six years spent in the army — an exaggerated claim —   and made him ‘B class and... eligible for a base-bludger’s job’.43 [bludger: a shirker who imposes on others. — J.T.] Equally important, they either created or reinforced in him an acute sensitivity to his health, as well as a predisposition to urge its poor state as a means of escaping unpalatable obligations both during and after the war.
      In hospital writing and reading were his principal pursuits, with books and materials being supplied by friends, though as a convalescent he had to take part in camp life.
      During his first sojourn at Heidelberg he produced ‘a new poem & a whole book of prose essays & aphorisms’, while at Concord, in between writing long discursive letters, he tried to capture the changing vista observed ‘from the veranda for weeks. At evening when the valleys fill up with smoke & go purple, it is an exact replica of the scene in the poem’. [note 44] There ‘The valley’s smokey petals hold / quick points of silvergold / The shy air turns amethyst’ and ‘soft with soot, the stacks arise / like black stamens in the skies’. Zen Buddhism and D.T. Suzuki’s writings featured prominently in his reading.
      Later at Ingleburn Military Camp, despite six to ten parades daily to limit desertions, he was happily employed with verse, art criticism and a ‘vitriolic little satire’ on music reviewers. Here he was required to offer ‘a talk... for the peasants’ as part of the camp’s educational focus on arts and crafts, adding bitterly: ‘what the hell do I care if I only get an audience of one?’ In fact, Harold did care. His highly descriptive, aesthetic approach was carrying his work further from public notice, whereas charlatan gurus and modernist impostors could parade their ideas to an appreciative international audience:

At the moment I am likely to break out into a tirade and tear Herbert Read to pieces. In his latest anthology of quotations of psychic uplift and social hope from The Great Psychologists, he refers to Chinese Painting as ‘Impressionist’ & describes it as the product of ‘the introvert sensation type’ or something. ‘Culture forsooth! Albert get me my gun!’ [note 45]

Harold’s Jungian phase was clearly waning, and although Read was out of range, his acolytes among the Angry Penguins were not, and would soon bear the brunt of Stewart’s resentment.
      This unenviable record of ailments, followed by long periods of convalescence, made active service unthinkable for Harold, but both he and Jim were saved in any case from a front-line unit by the intervention of another Sydney friend, Alfred Conlon (1908 — 61).
      At first sight there was little that was striking about the crew-cut Conlon except his heavy glasses and ever-present pipe, while to outsiders in the 1930s he must have seemed a perpetual student, reading in succession for degrees in Arts, Law and Medicine, till the latter studies were sidelined as he moved into student politics. Cultivating contacts was his forte.
      While University Man-power Officer he established personal links with General Stantke and the new Prime Minister, John Curtin; later he became head of the Army Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs in Melbourne, which reported directly to the commander-in-chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey.
      A formidable tactician with grand visions, Conlon thrived on intrigue and exuded privileged knowledge. To some he seemed an arch manipulator, to others a brilliant facilitator who encouraged original thinking and made staff see their specialities in a new light.
      The downside of his unconventionality was resentment created by both stratagems for avoiding the established lines of authority and a bloated establishment of officers without active service. They had simply been appointed to Blamey’s special list at Conlon’s behest. In peace-time Conlon’s summariness caused dissension, supporting the view that he was best as ‘an adviser, as a man who came up with ideas’, but not ‘when he himself was responsible for administration, or indeed for final decision on policy’ — a state of affairs which left McAuley with severely divided loyalties in post-war Sydney. [note 46]
      Conlon’s empire depended both on Blamey’s goodwill and on tangible results. Shifting from its original focus on manpower and morale, the Directorate’s brief became to advise the new commander-in-chief on key military and governmental matters with which conventional army services were ill-equipped to deal. It was discovered, for instance, that there were no maps of the Northern Territory adequate for military purposes. ‘Conlon’s heroes’ made good the shortfall, just as they found substitute sources for quinine when Australia’s normal suppliers came under Japanese control.
      Wherever practicable, Conlon drew his personnel from New South Wales. He had known Stewart and McAuley while a Student Senator at Sydney University and he shared Stewart’s interest in Oriental culture. A firm believer in Harold’s talent, he would put the poet up in his family house in Sydney after the war and support his efforts to study in Japan.
      A niche was found for Stewart as Corporal N436963 in the Directorate assisting Ida Leeson, formerly of the Mitchell Library, to organise the unit’s growing collection of research materials. Card filing, ordering books, collecting newspaper cuttings and other menial tasks left him with sufficient mental energy to spend many evenings profitably in the Public Library. Unlike Jim, he never underwent officer’s training, claiming that he felt ridiculous and out of place, like ‘a librarian in fancy dress’, and had no vocation for the army. [note 47]
      McAuley, as usual, succeeded in rising within the system and in pursuing his own interests. Officially he worked on America’s expanding war-time role, but he spent hours at his desk extending his reading in philosophy, aesthetics and anthropology.
      The two ex-Fortians were thrown together in the unfamiliar milieu of Melbourne as never before. Not only did they work close to one another in L Block but frequently they ate together beyond Victoria Barracks, whether in the open air of the Royal Botanic Gardens opposite, at the more lavish American Forces canteen nearby or in inner city cafés.
      As well as their passion for poetry, they now shared an engrossing quest for new frames of reference and belief, which led them to develop a growing interest in ‘Chinese verse, Asiatic studies, recorded music, Chinese cuisine’. [note 48]
      Neither poet subscribed to an unthinking service mentality, as Stewart frequently underlined, and as McAuley revealed to Horne: ‘The grand llama of our enterprise down here is doing reasonably well, though no-one nurses any illusions (except maybe AGC) about the ability of things to go pretty much their own way in spite of a bit of amateur tinkering with the throttle’. [note 49]
      Most of this ‘tinkering’ concerned the Asia-Pacific, with special emphasis on territories due for reoccupation, such as Borneo, and on the situation in Papua New Guinea. Conlon made five trips there during hostilities — a lead followed by other members of his staff, including Jim. For McAuley the experience proved seminal, as did the lesson that more could be achieved through contacts and skilful behind-the-scene manoeuvring than through committee action exposed to public scrutiny.
      McAuley and Stewart were also Conlon’s court poets, sharing their verse and humour among colleagues, as well as with distant friends. These ranged from virtuoso performances to joint efforts, like the ribald pamphlet The Call of the Wild, which elicited Conlon’s displeasure for poking fun at the self-important doings of L Block.
      Jim could report to Horne that ‘Harold is pursuing, in his intervals of comparative health, one of his enormous chinoiseries’. And in the same breath add: ‘I hear that the Yanks are better cooks than the Australian soldiers. Their tarts always rise in the middle’. [note 50]
      Apart from poems which eventually found a place in Under Aldebaran, such as ‘The True Discovery of Australia’, McAuley was still composing topical verse like ‘Riding on an AWA’. To be sung to the tune of ‘Riding down to Bangor’, its subject is a ‘beastly’ encounter between two non-combatants on a Melbourne train:

Then in desperation
I rummaged in her drawers
And found a large assortment
Of little crabs with claws.
I drew back in horror
& said: What’s this I find?
Oh, she said, that’s nothing
Just look in my behind.
So I peered up the anus
And saw — God bless my soul —
A great dung beetle rolling
A pellet to his hole.
I lectured her severely
And said: My girl come! come!
You’ve crabs in your front garden
And beetles in your bum.
The beetle answered proudly,
With dignity & phlegm:
Why, crabs are dirty things sir,
We don’t consort with them. [note 51]

Harold found digs in South Melbourne. Jim and Norma, after a stay with the Hopes in Molesworth Street, Kew, moved into a flat at 5 Collins Street, and the old ‘Hope- McAuley-Stewart combine’, as Harold referred to it, was reactivated.
      Their relocation brought to a head a long-simmering resolve to ‘get Maxie’. Harris, the champion of surrealism and artistic experimentation, was supremely confident of his own judgement: ‘Trivial critics have accused this artist [Nolan] of impertinence, merely because their inner experience is so limited that they are completely incapable of extending their hide-bound sensibility to embrace with enthusiasm the unknown message of the future which is revealed to them. It is always so’. [note 52]
      And whereas he had spurned the work appearing in Hermes as being scarcely ‘worth publishing in a mediocre school magazine’, his own compositions were greeted with an uncritical adulation not lost on his rivals: ‘I’ve been looking at the last sheaf of guano dropped by the Angry Pungwungs. Even Harry [Hooton] is not such a bad joke as these people. There is an article on Baudelaire which contrasts his images, (“loose, tawdry ornaments, decorative enough at times, but rarely inspiring”) with those of Max Harris (“deftly clipped and polished”)!’ [note 53]
      Though Stewart, after the Ern Malley hoax, could scoff at the Penguins as being beneath reply and contempt, previously he had shared McAuley’s rage against Harris’s pretensions, many of which they had also shared:

Isn’t it Fun to be a Forward-Looking and a Progressive and a Vital New Poet — you know — alert, sensitive and Aware, and kind of stuff like that!... And then knowing so much about things, having Culture, being up in Picasso and Hieronymus Bosch and Henry Miller and Freud and Rilke and so on till you just about shit yourself wondering how a single brain could hold so much. Jeez you must look in the mirror sometimes and say: How is it I’m so good? [note 54]

Admittedly McAuley has a point about the Penguins’ excesses. A puff in their magazine forThe Vegetative Eye promised that ‘its original and vital form alone is bound to cause the keenest interest and discussion’, combining as it does ‘sensitive and personal prose, with the haunting images and qualities of Kafka and Rilke’. [note 55] But were the Penguins really sillier than Harry, who was subjected to far less damaging ripostes?
      Hooton was equally self-opinionated: ‘My poems are not raggedy, they are meticulously, exactly sculptured lines of grace. They will live not because they were right in 1941 but because they are breaths of indefinable utterance, because they are a new form of poetry’. [note 56] Hooton, however, had the good sense to acknowledge the merits of the combine’s work, even its superiority. He did not vie with them for creative and critical ascendancy.
      The official story of their onslaught in 1944 is well known. Hope struck the first serious blow by turning his one bad eye on Harris’s The Vegetative Eye in the autumn number of Meanjin. Dubbing Harris ‘the well-known Manager of the Educated Womb’, he held up the novelist’s puffery, fashionable borrowings and adolescent self-absorption to vitriolic scorn: ‘Mr. Harris is morally sick and discusses his symptoms with the gusto of an old woman showing the vicar her ulcerated leg’. This is vintage Hope, the ‘lovely man... nice and nasty’ whom Stewart so appreciated:

Had the writer’s ability matched his conception we should have had the picture of a living man. As it is, we have a Zombi [sic], a composite corpse, assembled from the undigested fragments of authors Mr. Harris has swallowed without chewing and animated by psychological Voodoo.
      If, therefore, Mr. Harris should be inclined to be wounded by this article, I can safely assure him that no reference in it is intended to any living person. [note 57]

By a happy coincidence, as Harris no doubt thought, the June issue of Angry Penguins contained an implicit vindication of his breadth of vision in its scoop publication of the complete works of the late and unknown Ern Malley. The first 34 pages are devoted to commemorating him.
      His sixteen poems, which constituted The Darkening Ecliptic, are presented in large type with copious spacing. The cover carries a tantalising surrealist design by Nolan and the introduction gives the sparse details of Ern’s life. He died aged 25 of Graves’ disease, having lived a solitary, precarious existence as a motor mechanic and insurance salesman and was survived by his sister Ethel. She, untutored in literary matters and surprised to discover that her brother wrote, sent his poetry to an eminently competent judge.
      Harris’s verdict was generous to a fault. Describing Malley as ‘one of the most outstanding poets we have produced here’, and asserting ‘the perfection and integrity of his verse’, Harris then offered a sensible discussion of Malley’s verse and of poetry’s role in contemporary society.
      The hoax was exposed on 18 June in the Sydney tabloid Sunday Sun, which meant that it received maximum exposure rather than being restricted to a coterie audience. Stewart had told a former co-worker on Honi Soit and now reporter-in-training with the Sunday Sun, Tess van Sommers, that they planned to play a joke on Harris and she recognised their hand behind the special Malley issue.
      On 25 June the Sunday Sun continued its scoop with the hoaxers’ account of how they composed Ern’s oeuvre. Their stated intention was to expose the ‘critical self-delusion and mutual admiration’ of the Angry Penguins, who repeatedly presented as ‘great poetry’ to the public work which ‘appeared to us to be a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure; as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house’.
      Malley’s works were patent nonsense, or so the story ran, showing categorically that the Harris-Reed set was ‘insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination’.
      The motivation of the diverse protagonists is as fascinating as it is concealed. Harris was swept away by his crusading zeal for modernist productions and by his obsession with death. He affirmed the rigour and creative use of language in Ern’s verse, as well its ‘curious, cool and penetrating way before the personal’, to which he himself aspired. Similarly, he was drawn to Malley as an antipodean version of poetic genius dying young and unappreciated.
      That was part of the hoaxers’ plan, but they could hardly have foreseen the private appeal to Harris of Malley’s story as evidence of individual empowerment, or mortality transcended, through artistic resolve. Though Hope could mockThe Vegetative Eye as ‘a text book on morbid psychology’, the ‘plain fact’ was not simply ‘that Mr. Harris cannot write’, but that his stream of consciousness technique was inevitably a futile response to his fixation with life’s senseless closure, which is dramatised with more detachment in poems like ‘Incident at the Alice’, ‘Mad Jaspar’ and ‘The Coorong’.
      Harris’s reading of Ern’s life-work is an extension of this preoccupation. ‘He prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet... He treated death greatly, and as poetry, while undergoing the most fearful and debilitating nervous strain that a human being could possibly endure’. In short, Malley demonstrates the belief acted upon but inadequately realised in The Vegetative Eye, that ‘there are a thousand and one ways in which a man, bull-like, may charge at the wrought iron of his environment with all his mental and disciplinary powers. But it will do him no good. It is mastery over your own soul, as the boys of bathos tell us, that leads to the real wells of power’. [note 58]
      For the Sydney poets the hoax was a vindication of their long apprenticeship and further evidence of their ‘two hundred proof venom’. By careful trial and error over years, they had ‘discovered what gives the best poetic effects’ and that experience must pass ‘through the selecting and organizing powers of the medium, and... not merely [be] translated in undigested form’. ‘To hell with Art and The Unconscious — ‘ McAuley thundered, ‘you don’t have to invite The Unconscious in on the party, it’s always been there’. [note 59] Harris, they believed, had never grasped this, nor subjected his work to rigorous discipline.
      Hope applauded the success of their stratagem, confessing that he had toyed with a similar idea. Stewart’s only regret was that the news of the hoax had broken before a series of his own collages, ostensibly created by Ern, could be sent to Harris to demolish Angry Penguin’s reputation for informed commentary on contemporary art. Although they decided to maintain a dignified silence, off the record they were jubilant. Harold even had a libidinous photograph of Ern Malley whose arcana he spelt out for Jim’s delight:

What say we send it anon. to Max with an arrow pointing out the head of Lois Lidden in Ern’s crutch while he seems about to lighten her heart with darkie melodies on the banjo? Note, too, the aesthetic cut of the Platesque beard (care Platesque!). His other hand seems to be groping something or one under the dining-room table. A cunningly conceived conceit, very excellent good, is’t not? It hath the true rare metaphysical keeping prick’d out in right merrie [sic] symbols. [note 60]

The sexual innuendos which Detective Vogelsang discerned in Malley’s verse, during the subsequent trial of Harris for publishing obscene works, were quite in keeping with the hoaxers’ habits. So, too, the alleged service done to local taste and commonsense was clearly secondary to the satisfaction of cutting Maxie down to size and proving their own superiority.
      As has been justly observed, ‘Australian literary circles... [are] vicious circles’, where local ‘poets are basically Balkan chieftains, constantly fighting one another... each one believ[ing] that the others are the biggest rogues in the entire universe’. [note 61]
      The Ern Malley affair is no exception. Motivated by the same vindictiveness and self-righteousness which impelled Dulcie Renshaw’s creation, the fictitious mask meant its creators risked little had their plot miscarried, while later by adopting the moral high ground they were able to exact their revenge with public approval.
      At another level, Malley’s poems contain throw-backs to past impulses as well as reflections of current concerns. This was only to be expected once rapid, spontaneous writing brought material already in their minds to the surface, while it was nothing new for members of the Sydney University set to submerge or fuse their poetic identities in works which were ‘freakish and frivolous... parodies of poems by each other, scurrilous lampoons etc’. [note 62] The knowing references to ‘ribald interventions’ and literary shape-changing in ‘Palinode’ are a continuation of this vein:

We have known these declensions,
Have winked when Hyperion
Was transmuted to a troll.
We dubbed it a sideshow.

Also, Jim may have wielded Ern’s pen, but the poems were genuinely collaborative and, as Stewart underlined years later, ‘the standardised error’ concerning the hoax was ‘that while J.P. McA was obviously the front legs and head with the brains, I was merely the hind legs (forgetting that it is between the hind legs that there hangs all the potency of the donkey!).’ [note 63]
      And evidence abounds of his interests in Malley’s oeuvre, whether in a monologue addressed to a star of his literary pantheon, John Keats, in allusions to his life-long preoccupation with Chinese art forms, or in lines that might have been lifted from one of his future haiku: ‘Among the water-lilies / A splash — white foam in the dark!’
      Even the bullet spared Herbert Read is fired by Ern in ‘Culture as Exhibit’, which rounds off the inspired nonsense of its stanzas with ‘Sting them, sting them, my Anopheles’ and ‘Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun’. Through Malley, Stewart and McAuley became briefly ‘the double almond concealed in one shell’, producing works which were the culmination of years of modernist experimentation. Although parodic in intent, verse of this complexity could only have been composed in a few hours if its creators, like the Chinese notables of Harold’s final epic, had entered fully into their subject and been themselves masters of its craft.
      Jim moreover, according to Amy Witting, was not simply putting an apprentice phase of his art behind him, he was burying ‘one side of his nature, he was saying goodbye to it’. [note 64]
      Or at least he was trying to. The initial piece, ‘Durer: Innsbruck, 1495’, was a serious effort intended to lull Harris’s suspicions, and parallels with McAuley’s signed compositions suggest that other Malley poems were inspired by actual emotional and mental states which are obscured, in part, by contrived nonsense or wilful disjunctions. Earlier indications of impairment and self-loathing culminate in Ern’s depiction of himself in ‘Sweet William’ as a ‘Damaged Man’, bound to descend

To where in a shuddering embrace
My toppling opposites commit
The obscene, the unforgivable rape.

Now, too, the arid interim state described in compositions prior to McAuley’s mobilisation is recast with compound interest in ‘Petit Testament’ where, as Witting  remarked, the intrusion of the ‘idiot voice’ into otherwise comprehensible verse is ‘delayed too long’:

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.

The evocation of a funeral of at least one aspect of himself was, however, premature. For far from signalling a mental change, these poems attest to a recurring predicament marked by acute internal divisions and psychic disturbance. These led to the war-time composition of three ‘Nightmare Songs’, which presented as McAuley’s night-time companion ‘a big man in a stove-pipe hat’:

He’s my shadow on the wall
Some say he isn’t there at all
It isn’t true, it isn’t true!
He’s just as real as me or you. [note 65]

Portrayed here, in Witting’s words, was a ‘banished part of himself that he feared’, [note 66] or an alien other split off from the rational self, and capable of committing what Malley imaged as ‘rape’ or an irreversible, defiling deed.
      Its prevention, as well as individual progress, is repeatedly associated with the death of a former self, whether by Glaucon, Malley, or in the final words of ‘Exploit’ from the 1950s, where the speaker is also the monster he must slay: ‘Now grant me, Lady of the Maze / ... / That I may die and live’. Jim evidently recognised in himself the conjoining of hideously conflicting impulses or traits. Ern voiced it directly in ‘Sweet William’, while years later its archetypal enactment is presupposed as the mythic prelude to ‘Exploit’: the ‘shuddering embrace’ between Pasiphae, queen of Crete, and a fierce bull, which produced the minotaur, half-man, half-beast.
      Burdened with such troubling self-knowledge and the spectre of self-violation, it is little wonder that McAuley spoke portentously to Manning Clark in 1943 of being ‘on a quest to find what holds the world together in its numerous parts’ and, by extension, himself. [note 67]
      With the publication of Malley’s oeuvre a year later notoriety was achieved, but what would follow it? It was ‘something’, as Ern concedes, ‘to be at last speaking / Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate / Only to No-Man’s Land’; however, his verse remained ‘the incomplete circle and straight drop / Of a question mark’. By crushing Harris’s pretensions to be the adjudicator of Australian poetry the hoaxers had created a gap which Hope and McAuley would fill in due course.
      Yet, as Anderson remarked to the next generation of Sydney University students, the victory was won by ‘an appeal to popular prejudice’ and by playing on the ‘vulgarity’ of the press which, ‘while professing to uphold moral standards, succeeds in lowering aesthetic standards’.
      Harris, he argued, was a dupe in imagining that such sophisticated verse could be from someone ‘without higher education’. But so, too, were the perpetrators in under-estimating ‘their own effort of creation of the person of Ern Malley and the poems appropriate to his character’. [note 68]
      Moreover, The Darkening Ecliptic was to become what Stewart termed ‘the Unburiable Urn’. The hoax brought them renown, but could they outlive it artistically?
      In 1944 Harold playfully anticipated the problem when, having emended some of Jim’s manuscript verse, he added as a consolation: ‘only Ern Malley could write like a genius all the time’. [note 69]
      And Harris was quick to claim that The Darkening Ecliptic contained better work than had appeared under the hoaxers’ own names.
      Witting thrust the point home at a Sydney party when she asked McAuley how he would feel ‘“if that stuff lasts and you don’t”. . . He just looked sick. He hadn’t thought of that’. Both he and Stewart were between mirages, unsure of where their oases lay. A vital clue came, however, at the end of Anderson’s address. ‘The poet’, he asserted, ‘is a heretic’. That is, he must free himself from social consensus and rebelliously project new perceptions.
      This to him was the true merit of Malley and the Angry Penguins, whereas ‘the element of protest ... is absent from the ordinary work of these two writers’. With time they would prove the heretical adage in forms which neither Anderson nor Ern’s progenitors could have foreseen, but for the moment there was still, as Jim recognised, ‘so much mastery lacking, everywhere’. [note 70]

The complete poems of Ern Malley (without the ‘Preface and Statement’) are published in the Northern Hemisphere in The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry paperback: 474 pages ; Publisher: Dufour Editions; ISBN: 1852243155, via Amazon;
and in Australia in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry ISBN: 0140586490, paperback, 474 pages, Publisher: Penguin Australia, from

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