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November 2, 2023

New bar Ern Malley is anything but a hoax

A new bar on Magill Road at Stepney dates back to the 1940s - or so the founder would have you believe about the establishment named after a famous Adelaide literary hoax.

  • Words: David Simmons
  • Photos: Kieran Hookway

A mysterious media release landed in the CityMag inbox earlier this month for the consideration of ‘Adelaide Society, the press, et cetera’.


Ern Malley
137 Magill Road, Stepney
Wed-Fri 4pm til late, Sat 8am til late

‘Five contradictory propositions’ were put forth; the first presented as a statement of fact: “The literary salon et bistrot ERN MALLEY will celebrate 80 years of uninterrupted operation.”

It piqued our interest instantly. First, because CityMag was confused as to how a bar in the inner suburbs of Adelaide had gone unnoticed for 80 years. Second, because the name rang a bell.

As well-read Adeladians, Ern Malley was a name we’d heard on the wind. For those who don’t know, Malley was a poet – albeit a fake one – behind one of the world’s most scintillating literary hoaxes.

Via State Library of South Australia.

In the 1940s, the co-editors of modernist literary journal Angry Penguins published a special edition of the publication featuring the poems of Ern Malley, whom they believed to be someone pretty special.

Except Ern Malley didn’t exist. He was a fabrication created by conservative Melbourne writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart in order to fool Angry Penguins. They sent what they believed to be bad poetry to Adelaide’s Max Harris who, at the time, was a wunderkind of the Australian progressive literary scene.

Harris fell for the hoax, which was eventually revealed by the two trolls. This humiliated Harris who was put on trial for publishing ‘immoral or indecent publications’. He was found guilty and fined £5.

The hoax was even turned into an Adelaide Cabaret Festival show in 2021. Harris’ daughter, Samela, also penned a piece for InReview about the impact of the literary drama on her family.

It is this piece of “dank Adelaide lore” that inspired the creation of the Ern Malley bar in Stepney. Like the infamous moment in literary history, the media release sent to CityMag about the bar’s 80th anniversary was filled with lies and contradictions.

Thankfully, we didn’t fall for the hoax a second time around.

Ern Malley – the bar – is a passion project for documentary filmmaker Paul Gallasch who recently moved back to Adelaide from the US to make a life here with his wife and three young children.

The bar opened last weekend and slings beverages and good times. A piano sits in the front bar while a narrow hallway connects the main room to a spacious outdoor beer garden and smoking area. It’s been painted and supplied with vintage furniture to look as if it has indeed been there for 80 years.

“I’d seen this place before, I’d walked past and knew it was beautiful – such a European, Mediterranean kind of feel to it,” said Paul about the bar’s digs at 137 Magill Road.

“I used to work at bars in university, but I’ve been in film for the last 10 years and I’ve somewhat become disillusioned with that world and also now with three kids I needed a little bit more financial security.

“Not that this will be particularly a windfall, but at least there will be more consistent cashflow.”

Paul Gallasch in “1943”

Paul said Ern Malley will be a mishmash of different ideas. He hopes it will be a place for anyone to come and sit down with a good read and a glass of wine, as well as a place to just converse. Books line the walls and are for sale – name your own price – and Paul said the bar was “an excuse for us to get together and have a conversation”.

“The hoax itself…obviously it affected Max Harris and was seriously difficult for him and his family, but I think ultimately it was quite a fun thing – really it was poking fun at that modernist movement,” Paul said.

“I think the idea is having a place that isn’t taking itself too seriously and is a place where people can just come in.”

Paul has tapped the shoulders of his Adelaide mates to get the bar off the ground, including Stan Mahoney – the former managing director of now-defunct artist-run gallery and venue Format. Stan said naming the bar after the literary hoax was peak Adelaide.

“Rather than wallow in the sort of parochialness, the provincial sort of cultural cringe of Adelaide, turn it into a strength,” Stan said.

“But it’s hard to express that sentiment in a short sentence. Whereas, Ern Malley… oh! You mean dank Adelaide lore that everybody has their own nuanced opinion about? That’s immediately expressed by the name.

“People are so baffled by the idea – delighted and baffled – I think it definitely has legs.”

Commit to the bit

Paul told CityMag that his late sister came up with the idea of naming a bar Ern Malley, and he wanted to see it through “because she had this vision of what could happen to Adelaide”.

“I have to give her credit. She passed away a couple of years ago now, but she came up with this idea about five or six years ago,” Paul said.

“Another friend of ours was going to run it in the old Coffee Pot and he got that space through Renew Adelaide and it was all set to go, and he just never pulled the trigger; he couldn’t quite bring himself to do such a crazy harebrained scheme as this and ended up getting a much more sensible job.

“My sister always kind of hated Adelaide. She spent her whole life travelling and living in Paris and all these different places, but obviously her family is from here and she got sick here so she was stuck here. I think that when she discovered the Ern Malley story that was something about Adelaide that she could fall in love with.

“If I could spend my life behind the bar of a place where interesting people want to come by and see who’s there to have a conversation with, I think I’d be very happy.”

The best spot in Stepney to flick through pages

Back on the bar’s name, Stan said he didn’t want to “paint ourselves as provocateurs”.

“But I do want to enjoy the fact that modernism happened, and now we’re stuck with this post-modernist condition but it doesn’t have to be the hellscape – we don’t have to be cynical about it,” said Stan.

“We can at least have some solidarity and enjoy the fact that contradictions happen in the world and you can make art and community out of those contradictions rather than rage against them.”

Ern Malley is now open at 137 Magill Road, Stepney. Hours are Wednesday-Friday from 4pm-late and Saturday 8am-late.

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