This is volume one of Hughes’ autobiography, and takes the reader up to 1970, when the Australian art critic’s life was in complete disarray. Good luck came in the form of some people at Time magazine discovering Hughes’ book Heaven and Hell in Western Art.
On the strength of that book and his published reviews, he was offered a job as the magazine’s art critic. This came at a time when Hughes had no steady work, owed heaps of money, and had a marriage that was a pitiful mess. He comments that if he hadn’t gotten this gig, god knows where he would have ended up – most likely as a backwater Australian art critic.
Things I Didn’t Know pretty much follows your regular autobiography in its chronological order. Parents, childhood, schooling, first love (Nolene Brown was one of his early girlfriends). Oddly enough, the first chapter details his 1999 car crash, in which he gives the Australian media a good serve.
I found the early chapters about growing up in 1950s Australia the most interesting. What a dry, odd place it seems. One thing I’d never heard of was a chocolate bar called a White Australia – it was white chocolate, moulded in the shape of Australia. Has anyone ever heard of a (now) ill famed racial policy having its very own sweet?
Hughes came from a very conservative background (his elder brother was an attorney-general in a Liberal government - Harold Holt's I think.) In the book he describes how he was the odd man out in his conservative family, being an art lover and self-confessed voluptuary. But Hughes comes across as being fairly conservative himself. By this I mean his disdain for such cultural fads as conceptual art, hippies and the so-called swinging sixties. His politics he describes as mildly left, yet he’s quite close to at least one member of the Howard government. I’m here talking about Malcolm Turnball, who kindly looked after Hughes during his 1999 car crash.
For some reason, as I got to the end of the book, I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Hughes’ father, who died when he was very young. Papa Hughes’ is described as a quite distant, hard, authority figure. And of course now Hughes’ is himself a powerful authority figure, ruthless when dispensing opinions and displeasure.
Having said that, I quite liked Hughes’ autobiography of himself. He comes across essentially as a romantic, a lover of art, sensibly avoiding at all costs life’s social and aesthetic trash, as there is so little time in life. Best to seek quality and the keenest of pleasures, in all that you do.
I'm looking forward to volume two.