The teenage literary hero who could not live a lie

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The Independent Online
For the past 10 days, Adelaide has been festooned with Hill's Hoists - a celebration of a quintessential Australian invention designed to solve the suburban dilemma of how to dry your washing.

It is 50 years ago that Lancelot Hill, a soldier returning from the Second World War, designed the rotary clothes line that now bears his name and which is an emblem of millions of Antipodean households, in response to his wife's complaints that her washing kept snagging on lemon trees.

The other night, I wandered through an avenue of Hill's Hoists in an Adelaide park leading to Red Square. The spokes twinkled with coloured lights and the central spines were topped by flaming torches. At Red Square, a giant, makeshift amphitheatre built from rust-coloured ship containers, the Whirling Dervishes, a Turkish dance ensemble, were moving into action.

This is the Adelaide Festival, a biennial event which began in 1960 and which has now grown to be one of the world's most noted cultural gatherings. Perched at the bottom of South Australia, Adelaide (population 1 million) has always enjoyed showing the bigger state capitals how to put together a world-class cultural event.

"Small cities such as Adelaide and Edinburgh produce great arts festivals," Barry Kosky, artistic director of this year's Adelaide Festival told me. It was his idea to erect 400 Hill's Hoists around the city to liberate an Australian symbol from its drab origins and place it at the centre of a milieu containing some of the world's top performers and writers.

Adelaide still bears the compact, human scale with which Colonel William Light, its designer, blessed it when he laid it out 160 years ago. This week, you can wander through its Edwardian streets and parks and spot performers from the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel and writers such as Annie Proulx, Josephine Hart, Malcolm Bradbury, James Ellroy and Rupert Thomson.

The authors had come for Writers' Week, a talkfest held under canvas in a park by the Torrens River. This year, though, their thunder was almost stolen by a literary scandal which broke just as the festival was getting under way. The talk of the town has not been Annie Proulx's latest novel, but of how Paul Radley, an obscure Australian "writer", has finally confessed that the novel which won him one of the country's most coveted literary awards 15 years ago was actually written by his uncle.

Australia is only just recovering from last year's literary scandal involving Helen Darville, another young star whose cover was blown. Writing under the name Helen Demidenko, she produced The Hand That Signed the Paper, a controversial novel about the Nazi occupation of Ukraine which she claimed was based on first-hand knowledge from her Ukrainian family. In fact, her parents are British immigrants, with no Ukrainian roots. Darville's deception fooled the Australian literary establishment which gave her the 1993 Vogel Award, the leading prize for young writers.

Paul Radley, too, won the Vogel Award in 1980, when he was 18. Critics hailed his prize-winning book, Jack Rivers and Me, as "an Australian Under Milk Wood". He won A$10,000 (pounds 5,000) which he spent on a trip around the world with his uncle, Jack Radley. The following year, he was named Young Australian of the Year. In 1993, he received an Australian grant to become writer-in-residence at Stirling University.

Last week, as the cream of the literary world gathered in Adelaide, Radley, now 34, went on national television to make a bombshell confession after what he described as16 years of guilt and torment: He had never written Jack Rivers and Me, nor two later novels published under his name.

As Paul told it, Jack Radley had had literary ambitions, but he was too old for the Vogel Award. So he gave his nephew a tape recorder, told him to go around pubs recording bar-room stories and used them as raw material for the prize-winning book. "Uncle Jack said I could do it, that I could take off the part of the author," Radley said. "Unfortunately, I did too good a job."

Uncle Jack, now in his seventies and estranged from his nephew, has gone into hiding. Paul Radley says his life has been ruined, that he has never been able to hold together a job or a relationship as a result of his torment. The Vogel trustees have declined his offer to return the A$10,000 prize. Allen & Unwin, the publishers who undertake to publish each Vogel winner, are facing more damage control.

The writers in Adelaide responded to the affair the only way they could. Malcolm Bradbury explained to an audience the laborious process that the Booker Prize judges go through. "We had to decide if these were really novels and if the authors really did write them - you know, the old Australian problem." His listeners laughed loudly, if somewhat defensively, showing that the literary world can still take a joke.

Robert Milliken