Wizards of Oz

<strong>Things I Didn’t Know</strong>

Robert Hughes <em>Harvill Secker, 395pp, £25</em>

ISBN 184

Things I Didn't Know - it's an unexpected title for a memoir by Robert Hughes, a man who has long seemed to have a handle on pretty much everything. You want to understand the links between post-Einsteinian physics and cubism, between the dream of socialism and the dread of tower blocks? Read The Shock of the New. Need a socio-cultural history of the US? Read American Visions and Culture of Complaint. In his latest book, Hughes is hard on his first - though, four decades since The Art of Australia was published, it remains obstinately in print. So, too, The Fatal Shore, Hughes's unimpeachable 20-year-old history of Britain's transportation of convicts to his home country. Add to the list his near- encyclopaedic books on Barcelona, Goya and eschatological iconography (Heaven and Hell in Western Art), as well as his primer on marine ecology (A Jerk on One End), and you are left with a short list of things that this Argus-eyed Aussie might not know.

Not that Hughes's advice would be to write about what you are already familiar with. "My main impulse for writing a book", he admits in a section on one of his rare uncompleted projects (a biography of Leonardo da Vinci), is "to force myself to find out about things I didn't know". Hence this memoir, which exists "to excavate and bring into the light things I had forgotten or repressed". Certain of the excavations one would have forgiven Hughes for leaving interred. Things I Didn't Know is bracingly candid. Alongside characteristically glittering parsings of this painting or that church, we are treated to passages on the great critic's masturbatory habits, the time he caught the clap off Jimi Hendrix and the suspiciously crusty patch he, ahem, came across while stroking his faithless first wife's hair.

Truth be told, Hughes had a sticky time of it all through London's Swinging Sixties. After several years as what the Sydney Morning Herald once called "the brilliant enfant terrible of Australian art and letters", he fetched up here in 1964, a 26-year-old "provincial Australian in a place that still tended to look down on Australians". A letter from the historian and journalist Alan Moorehead got him through the door at Hamish Hamilton, but the book he was then signed up to write, a history of Dada and surrealism, turned out to be another no-show. Head in hands, the "boy who had despatched himself to do a man's job" fled for Italy and the bolt-hole that Moorehead had told him would be available.

It turned out to be the making of him. From Moorehead's base in Porto Ercole (the scene, 350-odd years earlier, of Caravaggio's miserable demise), Hughes learned far more art history than he would have done in London. "Perhaps I would have done better to learn about the 15th century by listening to a professor and looking at slides in a classroom. But instead I was looking at the originals: out of sequence, certainly, but an immeasurably richer experience." By the time he arrived back in London some while later (for all the detail of Hughes's big historical books, the chronology of this one is all over the place), he felt a lot more confident. When George Weidenfeld suggested he write Heaven and Hell in Western Art, Hughes - thanks to his not quite grand tour - had no doubt he could handle the task.

So he did, and though the book didn't sell well, it did take him to America. Impressed by it, the literary editor at Time magazine passed it on to the managing editor, Henry Grunwald, who was looking for an art critic. Grunwald, impressed in turn, despatched his minions to make contact. But Hughes, more than usually broke for a freelance writer and abandoned by his then wife, Danne, had gone to ground in a dopey fug. Bills went unpaid. The phone was cut off. Not even the editors he worked for could get in touch. Time had every reason to give up on him. When it did finally get through, on his neighbour's phone, Hughes was so paranoiacally bombed that he got it into his head the call was from the CIA and told it where to stuff its job. Luckily for him, the magazine called back and a golden career was assured. "Time," as he quipped a few years ago, "has been good to me."

Four decades on, Hughes turns his reefer years into high comedy. Even then, however, drug-sodden and stumbling through the sagging rear end of the 1960s, he was far too level-headed to swallow the long-haired line. "The depths of tedium that can be plumbed by sitting around half stoned, listening to people chatter moonily about reuniting humankind and erasing its aggressive instincts through Love and Dope, are scarcely imaginable to those who have not suffered them." Though he and Danne christened their son Danton, he never fell for the "loony egotism" of the age's would-be revolutionaries. While he put the odd piece the way of Richard Neville's Oz, he had no time for that magazine's "gormless values . . . three-quarters shapeless hippie optimism and one-quarter dimly anarchist or luridly apocalyptic blather".

On the other hand, he did allow Neville to publish his generous review of Theodore Roszak's similarly generous book about the drop-outs and druggies and dreamers, The Making of a Counter Culture. The piece had originally been commissioned by the Spectator, but its then editor, Nigel Lawson, refused to print it on the grounds that it "consisted of nothing but mindless ranting". Cue fiery exchange of letters - letters it would have been nice to read the older Hughes on. Alas, the incident doesn't get a mention. It's a pity, because an angry Hughes - the Hughes who calls the modern Venice Biennale "one vulgar trade fair among many" and describes the recent Australian court case in which he was charged with dangerous driving as "this bleary fiesta of humbug and abuse" - is an amusing Hughes.

Clive James, who was Hughes's "brilliant and omnivorous" fellow student at Sydney University in the 1950s, is never not amusing, though his humour derives more from sorrow than from anger. North Face of Soho, James's fourth unreliable memoir, which documents his adventures from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, opens "in a trough of uncertainty" and never really climbs out of it, because "the troughs join up in a long line which has always been there and will continue to the end". There is no gainsaying another man's sadness, but James's now familiar disparagement of his younger self is rather more open to question. The cock-ups catalogued in North Face of Soho don't quite stack up. All modesty, as Alan Bennett once said, is false.

In his first three volumes of autobiography, James had failure on his side. School, college, girls - he flunked them all. When he left Australia and came to London, "to be a brilliant young poet", he flunked big time and ended up working in a steelyard and sleeping in a brown-paper bag. After enrolling at Cambridge in the mid-1960s, however, things started to come good. He was president of the comedy club Footlights, a regular in these pages, and soon enough was appointed TV critic of the Observer - a gig he performed so well that, when he quit, the paper's hitherto rock-solid million-plus circulation went into free fall. On top of that, throughout the Seventies he was making regular appearances on the wireless and box. To hear him tell it, this star of stage, screen and radio was still a stumblebum screw-up. In fact, James's only real failure during these years was the non-materialisation of the Louis MacNeice biography he had promised Faber & Faber. And even here he got lucky, parlaying his contract into one for every writer's dream - a collection of what we like to call fugitive pieces.

Such fugitives are not trapped between hard covers unless they deserve to be. Were it not for Hughes's existence, James would be a shoo-in for critical stylist of the age. As it is, I can never decide whether his coiling, Chandleresque rhythm or Hughes's Augustan jive wins the day. Which is a way of saying that there isn't a phrase in either of these books that doesn't reward immediate rereading - though a sharper editor might have seen to it that we didn't have to read the sentence "The slate is wiped clean, as by a damp rag" twice within the opening chapter of Things I Didn't Know. But who worries about one wicked glitch when the wizards of Oz are on such magical form?

Christopher Bray's "Michael Caine: a class act" is published by Faber & Faber