September 2012

The Nation Reviewed

The Naked Critic

By Tim Flannery
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Memories of Robert Hughes

At the age of 12 Robert Hughes lost his father, but in his twenties he found a father figure in the war correspondent and author Alan Moorehead. Moorehead, among the finest writers of non-fiction Australia has produced, told Hughes that the great unacknowledged story of Australia lay in its convict past, leading Hughes decades later to pen his breathtaking book The Fatal Shore. Subsequently, Hughes always understood the importance of mentorship.

While I was living in the United States in 1998, I met him at that extraordinary pseudo-colonial relic, the Explorers Club, in New York. I was there to give a talk about my time in Papua New Guinea, which I’d written about in Throwim Way Leg. Hughes sat in a room bedecked with elephant tusks, armaments of diverse calibres, tattered flags and other memorabilia, looking not unlike an antipodean Hemingway. When the questions ceased he suggested we go to dinner. I was delighted, despite needing an early night ahead of a challenging talk I was to give the next morning at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

We went to a bar around 42nd Street, and began to discuss the human colonisation of the Pacific. What a fabulous television series it would make, Hughes opined. Indeed it was the perfect subject for him: grand, heroic, encompassing half the globe, and following on from Moorehead’s classic The Fatal Impact. As we sketched out a possible storyline, it was already past midnight. Our discussion was well lubricated, and dinner had yet to be ordered. Mindful of my morning train, I told Hughes I’d best be off. “Come and stay with me!” he boomed, explaining that he lived not far from Penn Station. We got to his apartment around 5 am, still unfed. I crashed onto a sofa, hoping for an hour’s sleep, but Hughes waltzed in, stark naked and bearing two shot glasses and a bottle of whisky. Hospitality forbade refusal, so I downed a slug before getting the train. The lecture did not go well.

We continued to meet occasionally in Australia, both before and after his near-fatal car accident in 1999. Once, I visited him at his niece Lucy Turnbull’s residence in Sydney. My old Ford was falling apart, so I was a trifle embarrassed when Hughes asked if I’d give him and an American friend a lift into the city. On William Street, a taxi pulled up beside us and the driver wound down his window. “Mate,” he said, staring in disdain. “Your number plate’s hanging on by a pubic hair!” Hughes burst into gleeful laughter, quipping to his American friend that the Australian idiom was alive and well.

Hughes was famous for his wit and biting criticism, but an unexpected and delightful quality was his generosity in reading manuscripts and giving encouragement to young writers. Perhaps his greatest gift was his compulsion to say what he felt. It made him riveting company and a brilliant art critic, but sometimes when he spoke, including in public, he seemed to be baring his soul – exposing a vulnerability and fragility unexpected in such a man’s man.

Even in his last years, when his face was about as pretty as the dark side of the moon, women loved him. Many were doubtless smitten with his sheer genius, but there was more to it than that. Maybe it was the mix of machismo and tender bruise-ability that appealed. Not that women always brought him happiness. When the surgeon treating him after the car crash called the family to explain that he might have to amputate Hughes’s legs, a relative affectionately enquired whether, as an act of kindness, he might remove the battered culture-warrior’s balls as well.

I never really understood the source of Hughes’s vulnerability. Perhaps it was that, as Clive James said, “Sooner or later a man as smart as that will end up believing that the whole world has failed him.” Hughes once told me how an operation on Alan Moorehead after a stroke had gone terribly wrong, leaving him confined to a wheelchair and virtually unable to speak. In 1979, Moorehead’s wife, Lucy, took him on a holiday in the Italian Alps, where their car ran into a truck. Moorehead was unharmed, but Lucy died. Thereafter Hughes visited Moorehead frequently, usually taking him to Hyde Park. One day, they stopped beside a pond where a pair of ducks was copulating. To Hughes’s astonishment, Moorehead, who had barely spoken in years, said, “You’ve no idea how bloody boring it is in here, Robert.”

By the time Hughes told me this, the great Moorehead had all but been forgotten. A man as smart and sensitive as Hughes knew that we’re all leaves in the wind. Some deserve so much better.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

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