Things I Didnt Know: A Memoir
Knopf, $55 hb, 513 pp, 1741664691
North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs, Volume IV
Picador, $32.95 pb, 264 pp, 0330444352
the early 1980s Clive James met William Shawn at the Algonquin,
of course. Shawn, the long-time editor of the New Yorker,
invited James to become the magazines television critic.
James, though awed by the offer, quickly said no, perhaps the
first time this had happened to Shawn since World War II, he speculates
in North Face of Soho, the fourth volume of his Unreliable
Memoirs. Had James accepted, his life would have been very
different, and this brilliant bunch of guys (as the
magazine later dubbed him) might still be in New York. But his
wifes work was in Cambridge, and he knew America wouldnt
suit him, or rather, might suit him too well. (America appealed
too much to my sweet tooth.)
A decade earlier, Robert Hughes was also lured to New York, on
this occasion by the people at Time magazine. Hughes was
living at the time in London, but Heaven and Hell in Western
Art (1969) had just been published in the United States. The
book itself was a flop destime, but it caught
someones eye and before long Time was endeavouring
to track the author down in his London digs. Hughes, in his memoirs,
Things I Didnt Know, recalls the day in almost pantomimic
detail, with bailiffs at the door and a long-suffering neighbour
clambering over rooftops to bring him the news. Things I Didnt
Know ends in 1970, just as Hughes flies to America and to
a bolshie reputation, one that would be entrenched in later years
by books such as The Shock of the New (1980) and Nothing
If Not Critical (1990). Given Hughess situation at the
time, this sudden recruitment seems close to miraculous. He was
depressed, utterly sick of matrimony, and almost of human
company. But Hughes (only thirty-two when he left London)
hadnt been idle since leaving Australia in 1964. This was
the man whom Allen Lane, founder and chairman of Penguin Books,
had commissioned to write the Pelican history of Australian art
when he was twenty-three. Hughes never lacked admirers or mentors.
Donald Friend was one of them; Hughes wrote a book about the artist
in 1965. Hughess own graphic skills led to other things.
He was being paid quite nicely for newspaper cartoons until Rupert
Murdoch came along. Then Donald Horne, editor of the Sydney
Observer, promoted him. (Youre the cartoonist,
he snapped. You ought to know something about art. Good.
Well, now youre the fucking art critic.)
Most seminal of these was Hughess association with Alan
Moorehead. Hughes père having died when Robert was twelve,
the author of Coopers Creek and The Fatal Impact became
profoundly important to Hughes. Moorehead urged the young writer
to leave Australia, saying that if he stayed for another ten years
he would become a bore, a village explainer. Hughes
went to live with the Mooreheads at Porto Ercole, north of Rome,
and may have outstayed his welcome. Finally, Moorehead warned
him that he was in danger of slipping into an epicurean
existence, and Hughes pushed off to London. There he began
writing for the most desirable newspapers and magazines. Peter
Porter, an admirer, has spoken of the envy that Hughes excited
as his career blossomed. Hughes also worked for the BBC2 during
its glory days and never heard the word ratings mentioned.
In 1966, when Florence was flooded, Hughes decided to take a film
crew there to record the destruction. Outside the Baptistery,
Hughes noticed a panel from Ghibertis Doors of Paradise
poking out of the mud. Clearly, the stupendous losses and the
reverent labours of the angeli del fango (the mud-angels) had
a profound effect on him. What the Florence flood drowned
in me was a belief in the potency of the avant-garde. I have never
This suspicion of much contemporary art
was to colour his critical writings and to make him a controversial
figure in New York.
Jamess phenomenal industry has never been in doubt. Despite
his inveterate self-deprecation, he is clearly one of our most
prodigious writers and entertainers. James, even drunk or stoned
(which he was quite a bit of the time in his twenties and thirties),
was always thinking about the next piece of writing. North
Face of Soho is something of a paean to artistic persistence,
and a moving one at that. Although James, now in his late sixties,
speaks of future volumes, this feels like a summing-up; a proud
defence of literary values and sheer assiduity.
Sixteen years have passed since the publication of the third book
of memoirs, May Week Was in June. In the fourth, James,
newly married, is about to leave Cambridge and the Footlights.
Our memoirist remains cagily illiberal with dates, but it feels
like 1968. Jamess PhD on Shelley will never be finished,
nor the biography of Louis MacNeice that Faber commissions him
to write; but he has so many irons in the fire this is not surprising.
Television is soon added to Jamess résumé
no sacrifice, for his love of the spotlight is undiminished
(I feel most at ease when I go on stage). Jamess
account of the early programme Cinema includes funny encounters
with a sodden Richard Burton, a preposterously vain Burt Lancaster,
and Peter Sellers, mad as a cut snake.
Meanwhile, he was writing round the clock for the stellar literary
editors of the day. Ian Hamilton presides at the legendary Pillars
of Hercules in Soho, ruthlessly editing in full view of other
writers. James gets a rare nod from Terence Kilmartin, arts editor
of the Observer, who gives the precocious metropolitan critic
some crucial advice: It was my conversational tone
that he was after: there was no need to get up on stilts.
Unlike Things I Didnt Know, Jamess book teems
with incident and aphorisms. The spring in the prose is undiminished.
We go on reading James for the sentences, to see what he will
do with that old tart, syntax. He is much less astringent than
Hughes, but when he does bite the effect is lethal. F.R. Leavis,
memorably excoriated in May Week Was in June, gets another drubbing
(John Calvin in another cloak). James is mordant about
writers who have nothing to say but plenty of grievances. He tells
us that everything he writes even the poetry, which seems
to mean more to him than anything is predicated on pleasing
an audience of some kind.
James and Robert Hughess friendship dates back to Sydney
University, but their styles, like their politics, are profoundly
different. So too are the accounts of their marriages (the first
of three, in Hughess case). Apart from a few cautious references,
James draws a veil over his marriage to Prue Shaw, a Cambridge
don, saying: I owe my wife the courtesy of leaving her a
background figure in this book, along with my daughters, who would
combine to lynch me if I went into detail about their virtues.
But what does he owe his readers, and will they accept this discretion?
There are no such compromises in Things I Didnt Know.
Not long after his arrival in London, Hughes met Danne Emerson.
They married at warp speed a misalliance
between two emotionally hypercharged and wolfishly immature people.
Soon after, things began to go radically wrong, as Danne sought
sexual and every other kind of fulfilment elsewhere. Eventually,
she graduated to hard drugs (Hughes suspects Brett Whiteley of
getting her on the needle). He is frank about the
moping spiral of helpless, unassuageable jealousy
and describes himself as a cuckold, going cuckoo.
Three years after Dannes pathetic death, Hughes still writes
about her with a kind of horror.
Missing in all this disquietingly missing is Danton
Hughes, the sole child born in 1967. The references to Danton
are few, and strangely impersonal. He seems to have been absent
much of the time, presumably looked after by others as his parents
tormented each other and pursued their adventures. We know by
now that Danton, just three when this book ends, and long estranged
from his father in adulthood, would commit suicide in 2002.
Things I Didnt Know is clearly written for Americans,
which can make for tedious reading (Uluru is that huge red
rock in the middle of the continent). America, Hughes told
an interviewer in 1981, made him free. Running through the book
is a kind of relief, not always tactfully conveyed, at having
escaped from Australia. [S]o little happened there then,
or, for that matter, does today
Hughes believes he
could never have worked as a critic if he hadnt left Australia
(you must see something new and greater). This culminates
in perhaps the most odious passage in the book. Reflecting on
the Time option, he shudders to think what
would have become of him otherwise:
to Australia? An inglorious end as the art critic of the local
paper in Albury, New South Wales, sometimes being given a second-class
return ticket to Sydney and a couple of nights at the Rex in Kings
Cross as a special treat, so that I could do an article on that
years Archibald Prize for portraiture?
all his contemptuousness is on show: his disdain for modest lives,
for rural journalism, for unsung careers. (His attitude towards
the egregious Archibald we will overlook.) It is a cheap line
in a book that groans with them; like the ones about Hollywood
Jews and his great-aunts who were so pious or so ugly
as to be unmarriageable. We learn that Hughes despised Australian
galleries. He regrets the want of old masters and the narrow-mindedness
of the people who ran the state galleries. There is no acknowledgment
of any cultivation or record of philanthropy. Did he ever visit
the gallery in Melbourne? Has he heard of Alfred Felton? Has he
looked at the Rembrandt, Poussin or Tiepolo?
At times the banality of the writing and the poorness of the editing
are stupefying. Just one example: I have mentioned it usually
seems to happen that I cannot remember just where or how I met
the most significant people in my life
after a few hundred pages, is wearing. The reader trudges along
like a foot soldier in a phoney war, longing for a tactic, a compass,
a skirmish anything.
The book opens with the car accident that wrecked his health and
that led to untold operations and legal machinations. Hughes is
bitter about the notorious low-life scum that tried
to set him up and about the vengefulness of the Australian Meejah,
a term he punishes to death. Then we get bogged down in endless
Hughes family lore. There is little of the old verbal flair: the
epigrammatic bent that once dazzled and amused. So little happens
in this strangely unpeopled life that Hughes resorts to recipes.
Hughes informs us that fried brains are his madeleine, and that
[w]hen pecorino is young it is soft and unctuous, almost
as much so as mozzarella. We learn that his sister disliked
thick, machine-sliced bread, whereas Aunt Mims toast was
real toast, not made in an electric toaster. Sometimes a
vivid memory can be a curse for a memoirist: it stops him from
making things up.
Now and then Hughes trots out one of his exotic adjectives, but
the effect is rather like Pollock sloshing paint on a canvas from
six feet away. His mothers pasta is a schlumpy farinaceous
Gordian knot. Often withering when talking about other people,
Hughes is oddly trite on the subject of art: Not all masterpieces
are necessarily masterpieces for everyone, and if they were, taste
would remain static down the centuries, which fortunately it does
not. The books mistakes are legion.
Edmund Wilson once said, apropos Somerset Maugham, that he found
it extremely difficult to get through books that were not written.
This brace of books by two formidable Australians offers a stark
contrast in realisation, invigoration and sheer writerliness.
Rose is Editor of ABR.
Turner on Chris Masters's Jonestown
'Despite Masters's principled attempts to be fair and to endow
the story with its own sense of proportion, Jones is not an attractive
figure. Jonestown, though, is a pretty riveting read.' Read
Rose on Clive James and Robert Hughes
phenomenal industry has never been in doubt. Despite his inveterate
self-deprecation, he is clearly one of our most prodigous writers
and entertainers. James, even drunk or stoned (which he was
quite a bit of the time in his twenties and thirties), was always
thinking about the next piece of writing.' Read
Barry Jones's A Thinking Reed
'Gough Whitlam is idolised, Bob Hawke respected and Paul Keating
admired, but Barry Jones is undoubtedly the most loved by the
Labor party rank and file, a lovability that puzzled many of
his colleagues in the Hawke government.' Read
Dhara on Adrian
Hyland's Diamond Dove and
Sandy McCutcheon's The Cobbler's
'Adrian Hyland spent many years living
and working among indigenous people in the Northen Territory
... But whatever possessed him, in his first novel, to write
in the voice of a young, half-Aboriginal woman? It is a testament
ot his skill and finely balanced writing that more has not been
made of this fact.' Read