Having recently defended Robert Hughes from the onslaughts of Clive James
, possibly launched from the back of a van on the M6 while en route
to his next gig, resulting from the publication of Mr. Hughes's memoir 'Things I Didn't Know', I thought it might be a good idea to read the book myself.
By so doing, I learned far more about Mr. Hughes than I, and perhaps anyone else, could possibly want to know.
In no particular order, his speculation that he was conceived as the result of leakage from a defective condom made one wish to tell him to put in a sock in it; in this case, the material from which it had been fabricated would be irrelevant. His recounting of the homosexual proclivities and consequent, and presumably also predatory, exploits of Donald Friend
, the type of gentleman perhaps best described as a chopperholic, are, to my mind, both tasteless and unnecessary.
For one so closely tied to the Australian establishment, whether he likes it or not, Mr. Hughes seems to have the same kind of attitude towards Australia that one used to see displayed by British expats towards Britain in the comboxes of the 'Daily Telegraph' (they may still be there for all I know, for I gave up reading that publication years ago). Broadly, it can best be described as, 'We got out, you didn't, yah boo sucks'. Emitting it suggests immaturity, and reading it is unpleasant.
One can only marvel at the degree to which coincidence has played a role in Mr. Hughes's career. In the '60's, he got on to BBC2 because finding an Australian in London who knew something about art suddenly became somebody's pressing management priority. Thus was Mr. Hughes dug either up or out in a hurry, and launched on his broadcasting career. Hey, Bob from Sydney! Want to be on TV? It seems to have been as simple as that. With the same luck, he got his shot at his ur-gig of art critic at 'Time' magazine after a copy of his book 'Heaven and Hell in Western Art' was sent to New York for possible reviewing, and dug out from the archives entirely at random. Mr. Hughes has clearly met those tides in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune, and surfed them right up to the beach, and fair play to him. Lesser mortals, adhering to those Catholic superstitions which Mr. Hughes has so cerebrally cast aside, might call these wonderful coincidences acts of providence, but one would not wish to patronise him.
Not that he's above saying what he thinks about either Catholicism or the Catholic Church. For a self-described ex-Catholic, he doesn't half go on about Catholicism. Almost at the start of the book, he describes the consumption of the Eucharist as 'sacred cannibalism', the type of trash talk one would expect from Richard Dawkins. After that, I'm afraid my heart rather hardened towards Bob Hughes, and accordingly it became rather easier to pick up on his mistakes.
His biggest one is getting the start date for World War Two wrong, putting it at February 1939, rather than September. While writing that passage, he may have been gagging to say something about the inability of his father, Group Captain G.E.F. Hughes, to wear his regalia at the Vatican, He does have an awful lot to say about that regalia.
Similarly, while having a good laugh at himself for singing 'Soul of my Saviour' at his Jesuit boarding school, St. Ignatius College, Riverview, he ascribes it to St. Ignatius Loyola, rather than Pope John XXII. While noting that the visionaries of Fatima were illiterate peasants, he might also have noted that there were three of them, not two. He has nothing to say about their numeracy.
But his most grievous mistake, by far, is lashing out at Rolf Harris, for no real reason that I can determine, by describing him as an 'Australian washboard virtuoso'. Reading that made one realise that while Mr. Hughes probably knows his ass from his elbow, and certainly does when it comes to art, in other respects he doesn't know a washboard from a wobble board
Here, I will admit that I am not an unprejudiced commentator. My admiration for Rolf Harris is boundless. He has been part of the background of my culture for as long as I can remember, and may he go on being so for many years to come. Seeing the author of 'The Shock Of The New' get stuck into someone who's still ready to get stuck into the business of popularising art was unseemly; almost like shooting a kookaburra, an act that Mr. Hughes was discouraged from committing as a child. Yet while reading that sentence, a thought, perhaps a nasty one, came to mind.
I will freely admit that when the chips are down, I don't really care much for the visual arts. I cannot produce recognisable images by any means other than words. I believe that the visual arts should be preserved and encouraged, in the same way I believe that double-glazing and the trade of welding should also be preserved and encouraged. They are all social goods from which good can come. Mr. Hughes seems to have a genuinely privileged existence, in that he makes an income from talking about something he loves (he has no formal qualifications in art history, indeed sometimes seems to have stretched the knack of turning your hobby into your job to an almost ludicrous degree of elasticity). Listening to him tell me about art via the television makes me feel worthy and intellectual. In turn, this is a win-win for both parties; Mr. Hughes gets paid to talk about art, and I get to learn a little about it.
However, has watching Bob Hughes ever encouraged me to pick up a paintbrush? No. Did watching Rolf Harris ever encourage me to do that when I was a child? You betcha, me and lots of others. Though they might be unwilling to admit it, there might be one or two painters of distinction out there whose enthusiasm for their vocation was stirred by a goateed Australian saying 'Can you tell what it is yet?'
And just as surely as one nasty thought follows another, up popped a companion for the first.
Bob Hughes has an awful lot to say about Australia - but how many people have ever been encouraged to go there by reading him?
It would be interesting to know how, as an Australian who had lived in New York for many years by that point, Mr. Hughes reacted to the release of the movie 'Crocodile Dundee'. One can almost imagine the thin-lipped, gritted-teeth politesse with which he might have received the unwelcome greeting of 'G'day, mate!' from complete strangers.
Yet who has encouraged more people to actually go to Australia; Bob Hughes, or the Antibobhughes who is Paul Hogan? My money would be on Hoags, and if any of those tourist revenues made their way into the making and distribution of art in Australia, the irony would be all the sweeter.
For all the failings of his book, Mr. Hughes remains a wonderful prose stylist, one of the very best writing in English. Some parts of this book are eye-wateringly funny; his recollections of the gathering of artists in a Melbourne pub during which a local artist drew a line on the floor and demanded that their brethren from Sydney walk across it, for example, and his recollection of how an eccentric collector accused him of killing one of his pet birds, are classics of comic writing. His description of the art of Albert Tucker had me falling off the couch laughing. Sometimes, Mr. Hughes has even got his feet wet in history himself; his encounter with Hakim Jamal reminded one of the horror story that was the life and death of Michael X
, one told much more objectively, and at much greater length, by VS Naipaul in his anthology 'The Writer and The World'. His recollection of personally conducting a salary negotiation with Rupert Murdoch, at the start of both their careers, makes one hope that age and riches have sanded the edges off Murdoch's youthful boorishness.
Yet, personally, the most striking part of this book was his description of the education he received at the hand of the Jesuits. A little recounting of my own is in order.
A great deal of it seemed to be devoted to the playing of rugby. I have only ever attended one rugby match as a spectator, Scotland's Six Nations game against Ireland at Murrayfield in 2009 (my wife is Irish, and in recent years has become a rugby nut, the Six Nations being just about the only event in which she can see Irish sportspeople on TV on a regular basis). Now, Scotland lost - no great surprise there - but it was still a relief to attend, for while the match was being played, I had an epiphany. I will not say that the clouds parted, or that angelic voices sang to me with voices like flutes and dulcimers, but while watching that match I at last achieved a realisation that had eluded me for nearly 30 years - I knew, at last, how the game should be played!
I played rugby for four years, between the ages of twelve and sixteen, and have no recollection of being told how it should be done. I may have been told, but have no memory of the teaching. I was the same height at twelve as I am now, and was immediately told that I was a second-row forward. However, and as ironic as it seems now that I am mobility impaired, I was also blessed with pace, and could not understand why second-row forwards should not try to get the ball and run to the opponents' try line. It just couldn't sink in. This lack of understanding of the game, of its rules and basic strategies, sometimes produced quasi-comical results, such as my involvement in what I believe is still the heaviest defeat ever suffered by any side put out by my school.
It was a lovely, sunny late autumn Saturday morning in Edinburgh, and the air was beautifully crisp and clear. The only other person I remember being on that side with me was a large, well-built turbanned Sikh, playing, if I recall, at number eight. Now, turbans are strictly scrum-unfriendly, so in order to keep himself culturally compliant while on the field of play he wore a piece of headgear that, while eminently practical for the job at hand, had a coolness factor of zero; a jockstrap for topknots that gave him the look of a large, unfriendly Smurf.
On and on and on they scored against us, remorselessly, relentlessly, true Terminators of the turf. At one point, my team-mate asked wearily if we had no pride. I would like to think that I would have been able to shoot back that pride was a sin, and thus should be discouraged, but in truth I was just baffled, as I usually was whenever I stepped over the touchline. Eventually, the agony was over; we had gone down by ninety-six points to zero. It really is quite difficult to lose ninety-six points in a rugby match played at any level, but somehow we managed it.
As we got older and the rest of the scrum outgrew me, I was posted as a winger. Of course, I had no idea what a winger should do, other than get the ball and run with it; my own idea of how this should be done was later exactly portrayed in the context of American football in the movie 'Forrest Gump'. The idea that I should try to tackle the players who were running towards me with the ball never entered my head. This style of play isn't very successful, and during one home game, the home referee, a bearded man I'd never seen before and have never seen since, came up to us at half-time (we were, predictably, losing), and asked 'Who's that poofter on the wing?'
I would have been fourteen at the time. The twisted anger on that person's face remains vivid in my memory to this day, as also is the grossly inappropriate manner in which he addressed me. If a group of bad boys from Barlanark were ever to give him a kicking up a lane one night, then, as terrible as it is to say, I might find it difficult to shed a tear. Such horrible anger, and all over a game for children.
Strange as it might seem, I must have had some native talent for the game, if only because those in charge kept selecting me, until The Moment, the end of my interest in rugby, came; The Dunkirk Moment.
A little mise en scene is in order. It's the East End of Glasgow in December, and it's two o' clock on a Saturday afternoon. The sun is already going down, and the sky is dark with cloud. Although the rain has now stopped, it's been coming down all morning. It is bitterly cold, and the wind is biting. Two minutes into the game, and the mud that started around your studs is now around your ankles. We go down, and heavily.
While we are sitting in the dressing room, dejected and unshowered, an authority figure bursts in and starts screaming at us. The harangue goes on for five minutes, until they utter The Phrase - 'Where's your Dunkirk spirit?'
Even at that age, fourteen or fifteen, I knew enough about the story of the Small Boats, and of those who sailed them, to know that to equate that event with another so trivial as a game of schoolboy rugby was a display of gross disrespect to those involved in the events of the summer of 1940, however unintentional that disrespect might be. James Joyce claimed to lose his faith while listening to a sermon at Clongowes. The Dunkirk Harangue was the nearest I have ever come to a Clongowes moment, for it caused me to lose all interest, immediately and irrevocably, in any word uttered by the person pronouncing it.
Robert Hughes didn't seem to have such problems at his Jesuit school. He got to read books.
Mr. Hughes recounts how, because he was Very Good at English, his headmaster gave him access to his private library. He read Gibbon, Chesterton, and many others, delights presumably denied to his peers. One of the greatest lessons I drew from Gibbon was, perhaps not unsurprisingly, that he might have been revolted by rugby, and rightly so. Gibbon recounts how the Romans were disgusted by the sight of Commodus battling with gladiators in the arena, and appalled at the idea of those at the top of society engaged in entertaining the mob. Watching Dollar Academy FP's battling it out with the Presentation Brothers' old boys at Murrayfield, it was difficult not to reach the same conclusion.
Yet Mr. Hughes's recounting of what seemed to be this most privileged and exclusive access to the stuff of learning rang another bell, and one with a very different chime; an essay by Andrew O' Hagan, the Clyde coast's doughty documentor of dirt and divas, entitled 'Brothers', contained within his collection, 'The Atlantic Ocean'.
'Brothers' is the story of two coalition personnel killed in Iraq on the same day. One is a US Marine pilot, a golden child, the other a Geordie squaddie from a broken home. While going over their lives, Mr. O' Hagan met the pilot's old sports teacher at his Jesuit school, who tells him that the pilot was one of that sort of boy of whom he saw two or three a year, the ones he could tell would go on to be something very big.
As a product of that system who hasn't, and whose only privileged access under it was to mud and inappropriate harangues, it really does make you wonder whether it's the two or three stars a year that the Jesuits are really interested in, with the rest making up the numbers and helping to pay the bills. One wonders what Mr. Hughes's peers might have done, and gone on to be, if they'd had access to the headmaster's library. That might just be bitterness on my part, but it's maybe something to bear in mind, should you be planning to give your children a Jesuit education.
In sum, 'Things I Didn't Know' is a book which is funny and unpleasant, erudite and coarse, by whichever turns take its author's fancy. You will certainly learn far more about one of the world's greatest art critics than you will ever want to know. Yet if there is one subject that seems to fixate Mr. Hughes even more than art, it is religion, and specifically the Catholic faith, and specifically his antagonism to it; it is striking that Mr. Hughes has nothing to say about his views on Christianity as an ethical system by which one can lead one's life, or whether he has any such views at all. His ex cathedra ex-Catholicism is all really quite bog-standard, routine stuff, so much so that one cannot help but wonder whether this seed of the Mustard King of Australia still has a little mustard seed of his own in there, the presence of which he will do anything not to admit, perhaps for a reason so dumb as not wanting to be thought of as losing face. That he doth protest too much means that this reader certainly drew his own conclusions.
But like so much else in this book, that's really none of my business.
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