Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sweet mystery of history


What a strange position. Quite wonderful, but oddly unnerving. The National Library of Australia is touring an exhibition of Australian Treasures held in library collections - symbolising the way in which libraries are curators of the national heritage. I'd had an email from a State Library archivist alerting me to the arrival of an anonymously-donated scrap book containing clippings about the Ern Malley saga of the early 1940s - the famous literary hoax perpetrated against my father, Max Harris. The archivist invited me to have a look at the book, to see if I could help to shed light on it. As it happened, I had also been invited to the media preview of the Treasures exhibition so I liaised to see the scrapbook between the official Treasures speeches and the VIP lunch.

And so it came to pass that, while celebrating the way in which significant pieces of history survive the often inauspicious happenstances of time, I found myself with one such piece of history in my hands. A piece of Australian cultural history which also was celebrated within the context of the Treasures exhibition. Indeed, Ern Malley is even on the cover of the exhibition's big, glossy catalogue. And there I was, upstairs with the archivist, handling the fragile, browning pages of a 1941 clippings book, seeing reports that I had never seen before on that piece of history and, with Neil Thomas, the archivist, puzzling over where this thing has been for all these years, how it ended up in Angelsea, Victoria, why it was sent to the library anonymously and who on earth had compiled it.

This was a profoundly thrilling experience. With a rush, it made me realise that archivists have the most fascinating jobs. And for me, as the connected person called in to throw light on the find, there was a sense of love, sorrow, wonderment as I leafed very carefully through those fraying old pages which revealed, in unprecented detail, the dramas of my father's life. How painful they must have been for that very young man - all those screaming headlines, all those excoriating reviews.

At the same time, there was a sense of relief because so much of this history had been lost or in fragments here and there. My father kept nothing. He was a dedicated discarder. A biographer's nightmare. Yet here was a collection of clippings which encompassed media coverage in journals large and small, from all over the world. Beautifully collected and collated.

The tiny handwriting identifying sources was another mystery. It looked vaguely like Max's script, but not quite. So whose was it?

I phoned my mother and asked if there was any chance Max had ever made a clippings scrapbook. She replied that this would have been atypical. In all the years she knew him, he had never scrapbooked anything. She had known him from school days - so this, one could accept as fairly definitive. It was not he.

Puzzling at night with my mother, it was not until I had described the scrapbook's cardboard binding that some sort of penny dropped. "Mary did it," she said. Aaah. Mary Martin, my father's long-time friend and business partner, she who stayed in Adelaide and managed the Angry Penguins journal office while Max was in Melbourne producing it with John Reed.

And so the bits of jigsaw slip into place.

There is so much more to know.

How did this book get to Victoria? Was it among Mary's possessions, dispersed in her family after her death over 30 years ago? If so, why did the family keep it and now, why give it to history? And why do so anonymously?

Such are the mysteries we may never solve.

But at least the treasure is now in the right place - under the protective wing of librarians, the wonderful keepers of the cultural history.

3 comments:

meeyauw said...

Fascinating. I am slowly making my way through the material and learning a lot. You have a fascinating blog that I will be returning to often.

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Mortart said...

Thanks for such a fascinating story. And belated thanks, too, for your comment several months on my blog posting about the Jewish love for Chinese food.
Incidentally, I have an Australian link: my cousin Gary Fox and his family in Lennox Head. I can't find that on a map of Australia, but that's the residence his brother here in the U.S. has given me.