I may not be the only member of the male sex who wishes that he was built like a brick outhouse and could simultaneously dilate in copper-plate oral and written sentences on subjects such as Francisco Goya and Leonardo da Vinci. To be able to reverse these roles or idioms might also be nice: I once asked Robert Hughes how he was doing and was told that he was busy reworking The Shock of the New in order to take account of recent postmodernism: “It’s only like trying to shift a ton of shit with a shoehorn.”
We have been almost as lucky with our Australian cultural and literary exiles as with our Irish ones, perhaps for the reason that many of them, their forebears originally transported from Ireland to Australia, still wouldn’t stay put. Hughes has written very pungently in the past–as in The Fatal Shore–about the “convict stain” that marred and marked the country of his birth. The effect of this local complex, if I had to summarize it, was almost wholly paradoxical. A young Australian, growing up in a deeply Tory nation after World War II, would feel the urge to depart not in spite of his affection for the classical tradition but because of it. Conservatism down under, that’s to say, represented not high culture but philistinism. Anyone found haunting an art gallery or a library would be suspected, like a crab climbing out of a barrel, of being a snob and an elitist and a deserter, whose own people were not good enough for him. (The same knight’s-move torture is captured in another Hughes anecdote that I treasure: His mates at the University of Sydney became so concerned by his fondness for female company that they formed up and huskily asked him straight out if he was a homosexual.)
The resulting Antipodean diaspora has given us Peter Porter, Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Richard Neville, Bruce Beresford and others, many of whom began to feel partly reconciled to their “old country” (and more radicalized by their connection to it) after the election and subsequent removal of Gough Whitlam’s Labour government in the early 1970s. At last, a prime minister who could actually be glimpsed at the Sydney Opera House! At last, a prime minister who did not regard Australia as a mere “ditto” to British or American foreign policy. In exile terms, this cultural metamorphosis was quite well represented by a beefy and hearty critic for Time magazine, who could be seen enthusiastically discoursing about painting–and making it accessible to the “masses” while holding his own in the atelier–yet could be glimpsed on weekends at Shelter Island, on one occasion slugging a landed shark to death with a baseball bat (if rumor is not a lying jade) and on another tossing his shotgun into the harbor lest its presence coincide with a fit of the blues. Drinks were served, or so it was convincingly said. Restaurants were certainly reviewed, as well. Women were often kind, as they can be to those, however chaotic, who appreciate them.
Thus Hughes’s memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, rightly begins at the moment when a life of appetite and gusto might have been aborted: with a catastrophic car accident in Western Australia after a hot day of tussling with the sort of fish who can fight back. To say that Hughes was lucky to survive the wreck of the vehicle would be banal. There must have been moments, as he surveyed the mangling of his physical frame, when he wondered if he had been fortunate at all. (His improbable survival is just where the brick shit-house factor came in handy; that, and the timely action taken by an Aborigine named Joe Fishhook, whom we have to thank for these ensuing pages.) It’s been said that there’s nothing like the exhilaration provided by a near miss, and I have once or twice found this to be true: The lingering result of a near-death experience that nearly crushes you body and soul is obviously not so cheering. So call this a memoir that is soberly written by a dead man on leave.