Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir

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9781400044443: Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir

Robert Hughes has trained his critical eye on many major subjects: from Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Goya) to the city of Barcelona (Barcelona) to the history of his native Australia (The Fatal Shore) to modern American mores and values (The Culture of Complaint). Now he turns that eye on perhaps his most fascinating subject: himself and the world that formed him.

Things I Didn’t Know is a memoir unlike any other because Hughes is a writer unlike any other. He analyzes his experiences the way he might examine a Van Gogh or a Picasso: he describes the surface so we can picture the end result, then he peels away the layers and scratches underneath that surface so we can understand all the beauty and tragedy and passion and history that lie below. So when Hughes describes his relationship with his stern and distant father, an Australian Air Force hero of the First World War, we’re not simply simply told of typical father/son complications, we see the thrilling exploits of a WWI pilot, learn about the nature of heroism, get the history of modern warfare — from the air and from the trenches — and we become aware how all of this relates to the wars we’re fighting today, and we understand how Hughes’s brilliant anti-war diatribe comes from both the heart and an understanding of the horrors of combat. The same high standards apply throughout as Hughes explores, with razor  sharpness and lyrical intensity, his Catholic upbringing and Catholic school years; his development as an artist and writer and the honing of his critical skills; his growing appreciation of art; his exhilaration at leaving Australia to discover a new life in Italy and then in “swinging 60’s” London. In each and every instance, we are not just taken on a tour of Bob Hughes’s life, we are taken on a tour of his mind — and like the perfect tour, it is educational, funny, expansive and genuinely entertaining, never veering into sentimental memories, always looking back with the right sharpness of objectivity and insight to examine a rebellious period in art, politics and sex.

One of the extraordinary aspects of this book is that Hughes allows his observations of the world around him to be its focal point rather than the details of his past. He is able to regale us with anecdotes of unknown talents and eccentrics as well as famous names such as Irwin Shaw, Robert Rauschenberg, Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Tynan, Marcel Duchamp, and many others. He revels in the joys of sensuality and the anguish of broken relationships. He appreciates genius and craft and deplores waste and stupidity. The book can soar with pleasure and vitality as well as drag us into almost unbearable pain.

Perhaps the most startling section of Things I Didn’t Know comes in the very opening, when Hughes describes his near fatal car crash of several years ago. He shows not just how he survived and changed — but also how he refused to soften or weaken when facing mortality. He begins by dealing with what was almost the end of life, and then goes on from there to show us the value of life, in particular the value of exploring and celebrating one specific and extraordinary life.

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About the Author :

Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938. Since 1970 he has lived and worked in the United States, where until 2001 he was chief art critic for Time, to which he still contributes. His books include The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore, Nothing if Not Critical, Barcelona, and Goya. He is the recipient of a number of awards and prizes for his work.
From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

chapter one

A Bloody Expat

The most extreme change in my life occurred, out of a blue sky, on the 30th of May, 1999, a little short of my sixty-first birthday.

I was in Western Australia, where I had been making a TV series about my native country. I had taken a couple of days off, and chosen to spend them fishing off the shore of a resort named Eco Beach with a friend, Danny O’Sullivan, a professional guide. We went after small offshore tuna, with fly rods, in an open skiff. It had been a wonderful day: fish breaking everywhere, fighting fiercely when hooked, and one—a small bluefin, about twenty pounds—kept to be eaten later with the crew in Broome.

Now, after a nap, I was on my way back to the Northern Highway, which parallels the huge flat biscuit of a coast where the desert breaks off into the Indian Ocean.

After about ten kilometers, the red dirt road from Eco Beach ended in a cattle gate. I stopped short of it, got out of the car, unhooked the latching chain, swung the gate open. I got back in the car, drove through, stopped again, got out, and closed the gate behind me. Then I hopped back in the car again and drove out onto the tar and concrete of the Great Northern Highway, cautiously looking both ways in the bright, almost horizontal evening light. No road trains galloping toward me: nothing except emptiness. I turned left, heading north for Broome, on the left side of the road, as people have in Australia ever since 1815, when its colonial governor, an autocratic laird named Lachlan Macquarie, decreed that Australians must henceforth ride and drive on the same side as people did in his native Scotland.

It was still daylight, but only just. I flipped my lights on.

There was no crash, no impact, no pain. It was as though nothing had happened. I just drove off the edge of the world, feeling nothing.

I do not know how fast I was going.

I am not a fast driver, or in any way a daring one. Driving has never been second nature to me. I am pawky, old-maidish, behind the wheel. But I collided, head-on, with another car, a Holden Commodore with two people in the front seat and one in the back. It was dusk, about 6:30 p.m. This was the first auto accident I ever had in my life, and I retain absolutely no memory of it. Try as I may, I can dredge nothing up, not even the memory of fear. The slate is wiped clean, as by a damp rag.

I was probably on the wrong (that is, the right-hand) side of the road, over the yellow line—though not very far over. I say “probably” because, at my trial a year later, the magistrate did not find that there was enough evidence to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that I had been. The Commodore was coming on at some 90 m.p.h., possibly more. I was approaching it at about 50 m.p.h.. Things happen very quickly when two cars have a closing speed of more than 130 m.p.h. It only takes a second for them to get seventy feet closer to one another. No matter how hard you hit the brakes, there isn’t much you can do.

We plowed straight into one another, Commodore registered 7ex 954 into Nissan Pulsar registered 9 yr 650: two red cars in the desert, driver’s side to driver’s side, right headlamp to right headlamp. I have no memory of this. From the moment of impact for weeks to come, I would have no short-term memory of anything. All I know about the actual collision, until after almost a year, when I saw the remains of my rented car in a junkyard in Broome, is what I was told by others.

The other car spun off the highway, skidded down a shallow dirt slope, and ended up half-hidden in the low desert scrub. Its three occupants were injured, two not seriously. Darren William Kelly, thirty-two, the driver, had just come off a stint working on a fishing boat and was heading south to Port Hedland to find any work he could get. He had a broken tibia. Colin Craig Bowe, thirty-six, a builder’s laborer, was riding in the front seat and sustained a broken ankle. Darryn George Bennett, twenty-four, had been working as a deckhand on the same boat as Kelly, the True Blue. Kelly and Bowe were mates; they had known each other for two years. Neither had known Bennett before. He had heard they were driving south to Port Hedland, and he asked for a ride. He was a young itinerant worker in his midtwenties, whose main skill was bricklaying.

Their encounter with the world of writing only added to their misfortunes. All three were addicts and part-time drug dealers. At the moment of the crash, Bennett, in the backseat, was rolling a “cone” of marijuana, a joint. It may or may not have been the first one to be smoked on what was meant to be a thousand-kilometer drive south.

In any case, they had things in common. They had all done jail time. They were young working-class men living now on that side of the law, now on this: sometimes feral, sometimes bewildered, seldom knowing what the next month, let alone the next birthday, would bring.

Not long after he had recovered from the injuries of the collision, Bennett tried to tear the face off an enemy in a bar with a broken bottle. Bowe, as soon as his injuries had healed, attempted an armed robbery, but was arrested, tried, and sentenced to ten years in jail.

Bennett was by far the worst hurt of the three. The impact catapulted him forward against the restraint of the seat belt and gave him a perforated bowel. He had no skeletal damage. All three of them were able to struggle out of the wreck of the Commodore, which had not rolled over. The effort of doing so was agonizing for Bennett, who collapsed on the verge of the road, his guts flooded with pain.

If the Commodore was badly smashed up, my Nissan Pulsar was an inchoate mass of red metal and broken glass, barely recognizable as having once been a car. When at last I saw it in Broome on the eve of my trial, eleven months later, I couldn’t see how a cockroach could have survived that wreck, let alone a human being.

The car had telescoped. The driver’s seat had slammed forward, pinning me against the steering wheel, which was twisted out of shape by the impact of my body, nearly impaling me on the steering column. Much of the driver’s side of the Pulsar’s body had been ripped away, whether by the initial impact or, later, by the hydraulic tools used by the fire brigade and ambulance crew in their long struggle to free me from the wreckage. It looked like a half-car. It was as though the fat, giant foot of God from the old Monty Python graphics had stamped on it and ground it into the concrete. Later, I would make derogatory noises about “that piece of Jap shit” I’d been driving. I was wrong, of course. The damage had saved my life: the gradual collapse and telescoping of the Nissan’s body, compressed into milliseconds, had absorbed and dissipated far more of the impact energy than a more rigid frame could have done.

Now it was folded around me like crude origami. I could scarcely move a finger. Trapped, intermittently conscious, deep in shock and bloodier than Banquo, I had only the vaguest notion of what had happened to me. Whatever it might have been, it was far beyond my experience. I did not recognize my own injuries, and had no idea how bad they were. As it turned out, they were bad enough. Under extreme impact, bones may not break neatly. They can explode into fragments, like a cookie hit by a hammer, and that’s what happened to several of mine.

The catalog of trauma turned out to be long. Most of it was concentrated on the right-hand side of my body—the side that bore the brunt of the collision. As the front of the Nissan collapsed, my right foot was forced through the floor and doubled underneath me; hours later, when my rescuers were at last able to get a partial glimpse of it, they thought the whole foot had been sheared off at the ankle. The chief leg bones below my right knee, the tibia and the fibula, were broken into five pieces. The knee structure was more or less intact, but my right femur, or thigh bone, was broken twice, and the ball joint that connected it to my hip was damaged. Four ribs on my right side had snapped and their sharp ends had driven through the tissue of my lungs, lacerating them and causing pneumothorax, a deflation of the lungs and the dangerous escape of air into the chest cavity. My right collarbone and my sternum were broken. The once rigid frame of my chest had turned wobbly, its structural integrity gone, like a crushed birdcage. My right arm was a wreck—the elbow joint had taken some of the direct impact, and its bones were now a mosaic of breakages. But I am left-handed, and the left arm was in better shape, except for the hand, which had been (in the expressive technical term used by doctors) “de-gloved,” stripped of its skin and much of the muscular structure around the thumb.

But I had been lucky. Almost all the damage was skeletal. The internal soft tissues, liver, spleen, heart, were undamaged, or at worst merely bruised and shocked. My brain was intact—although it wasn’t working very well—and the most important part of my bone structure, the spine, was untouched.

That was a near miracle. Spines go out of service all too easily. The merest hairline crack in the spine can turn a healthy, reasonably athletic man into a paralyzed cripple: this is what happened to poor Christopher Reeve, the former Superman, in a fall from a horse, and it eventually killed him. The idea of being what specialists laconically call a “high quad”—paraplegic from the neck down, unable even to write your own end by loading a shotgun and sticking its muzzle in your mouth—has always appalled me.

But I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to be afraid of that. What I was afraid of, a...

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