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Up on stilts

Peter Rose

Robert Hughes
Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir
Knopf, $55 hb, 513 pp, 1741664691

Clive James
North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs, Volume IV
Picador, $32.95 pb, 264 pp, 0330444352

In 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 magazine’s 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 wife’s work was in Cambridge, and he knew America wouldn’t 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 d’estime’, but it caught someone’s eye and before long Time was endeavouring to track the author down in his London digs. Hughes, in his memoirs, Things I Didn’t 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 Didn’t 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 Hughes’s 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) hadn’t 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. Hughes’s 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. (‘“You’re the cartoonist,” he snapped. “You ought to know something about art. Good. Well, now you’re the fucking art critic.”’)

Most seminal of these was Hughes’s association with Alan Moorehead. Hughes père having died when Robert was twelve, the author of Cooper’s 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 Ghiberti’s ‘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 regained it …’ This suspicion of much contemporary art was to colour his critical writings and to make him a controversial figure in New York.

Clive James’s 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. James’s 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 James’s résumé – no sacrifice, for his love of the spotlight is undiminished (‘I feel most at ease when I go on stage’). James’s 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 Didn’t Know, James’s 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.

Clive James and Robert Hughes’s 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 Hughes’s 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 Didn’t 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 Danne’s 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 Didn’t 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 hadn’t 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:

Back 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 King’s Cross as a special treat, so that I could do an article on that year’s Archibald Prize for portraiture?

Here, 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 …’ The effect, 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 Mim’s 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 mother’s 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 book’s 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.

Peter Rose is Editor of ABR.


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