As I indicated in my immediately preceding post, I am currently reading Clive James's 'The Revolt Of The Pendulum'. While for the most part very enjoyable, readers of this book should be clear that it is not only the pendulum that has the capacity to revolt.
One is surprised to see a man so civilised, and such a dedicated movie buff, as Mr. James make such an elementary mistake as thinking that Sam Spiegel produced David Lean's film 'Doctor Zhivago', when even a lowly clod like me knows that the task fell to Carlo Ponti. I know this because I spent my third year at the ruinously expensive Jesuit secondary school I attended learning such factoids.
Speaking of which, it would be interesting to know in just which 'cafeteria across the street from the Glasgow School of Art' Mr. James was sitting in when he started drafting his essay 'Robert Hughes Remembers', a work I'll return to shortly. While perhaps trifling to the reader whose attention must be hooked within the first three paragraphs, it is of great interest personal interest to this author, if only because the said ruinously expensive Jesuit secondary school sits right next to door to the Glasgow School of Art. Time makes a fool of all our memories, but having gone up Hill Street and down Scott Street for the past 29 years, to the best of my knowledge and belief the GSA straddles both sides of Renfrew Street, with the nearest cafe being on the ground floor of Fleming House, a good 100 yards away. For Mr. James to have mistaken the side wall of the Glasgow Film Theatre for the front door of the Glasgow School of Art would be emblematic of the depth of perception and sense of perspective that, in my opinion, he sometimes displays in this book.
The suspicion that the shadow of intellectual inconsistency sometimes looms heavily over Mr. James is not easily allayed. For example, in his essay 'A Question for Diamond Jim', concerning the late Australian Labor politician James McClelland, he thinks nothing of telling how funny he found a story of McClelland's concerning Rupert Murdoch's alleged tight-fistedness, while in 'Gateway To Infinity', he acknowledges the support he has received for his website from 'Times Online'; support that apparently gives him absolute editorial control.
His essay 'Robert Hughes Remembers', a review of Mr. Hughes's memoir 'Things I Didn't Know', is, in my opinion, one of the nastiest pieces of ad hominem writing that I can ever recall reading. While he acknowledges the genuine greatness of Mr. Hughes's intellect, and the breadth of his achievement, he makes at least two inappropriate references to the physical consequences of the near-fatal car accident he suffered in 1999, specifically how the metal in his body must now light up airport scanners. As far as I can see, there can be only one root for Mr. James's apparent surprise at the bewilderment Mr. Hughes feels following his son's suicide, which is that none of his own loved ones have ever taken their life. Having once been on the fringes of such a situation, the bewilderment of suicides' survivors seems to be a universal constant. If Mr. Hughes should be bewildered by his family's tragedy, it shows that he is in the mainstream. In these matters, perhaps it is Mr. James who is in the avant-garde.
While trying to discern a career path for myself at my ruinously expensive Jesuit secondary school, I read the story of the trial of Oscar Wilde, and of how Wilde had complained that Edward Carson had pursued him with all the venom of an old friend. However, at that age what Wilde meant by that was a mystery. After reading Clive James on Robert Hughes, I know his meaning now.
Yet immediately after this quite unpleasant piece, Mr. James, in his lecture 'Modern Australian Painting', narrates that he used to play with Mr. Hughes in the latter's garden, with Mr. James once even accidentally shooting one of Mr. Hughes's paintings with an air-pistol. As I read that, a little piece of music came to my mind. I have to say I sat bolt upright, and that's not as easy as it sounds. It goes 'Two little boys had two little toys/Each had a wooden horse/Gaily they played each summer's day/Warriors both of course...'
That Robert Hughes is an outstanding Australian polymath is beyond question. He seems like the sort of guy you'd never want to get into an argument with, if only because, no matter the subject, he'd know more about it than you would, without resort to the bulldog tenacity that seems to have got him through life's ups and downs. Yet while as a critic, historian and broadcaster he has helped Clive James and many others, including me, appreciate art, I can think of another outstanding Australian polymath who may have done more than he has not merely to advance appreciation of art, but to get children to pick up the brush; certainly in the UK. He's been doing it for more than half a century. His name is missing from Mr. James's essay on modern Australian painting, yet at the age of 80 he's painted a portrait of the Queen, while also having done such various other things as introducing the British public to Aboriginal art and music, promoting animal welfare and taking his cover of a Led Zeppelin track into the UK Top 10 at the age of 63. He was the opening act at the Sydney Opera House, and has had a retrospective at the National Gallery. If memory serves, I have even heard a poem written about his abilities as a swimmer, something which hopefully the poet in Mr. James would be able to appreciate. He has been the UK's Art Teacher General for as long as I can remember, and he's still on the job, and still on television (unlike Mr. James, a state of affairs he seems to mention so often I think it rankles), still madly enthusiastic about teaching children not merely to appreciate art, but to make art.
And for what my opinion's worth, at this stage in his career he could be doing with some seriously overdue critical praise for his achievements in art from some of his more ostentatiously intellectual compatriots, some of whose names are inexplicably taken more seriously than his own; and when I say that, I'm not thinking of Robert Hughes.