In his just-released memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, Robert Hughes, the Australian-born and New York-based author, art critic and perennial stirrer, recalls his near-death in 1999 from a horrific car accident in Western Australia. He once told Sunday’s then host Jana Wendt about the event:

A lot of Australian journalism is fuelled by… schadenfreude, which is that expressive German term, as you know, for taking delight in the misfortune of others. The Australian editors, now more than they used to, feel they have to see blood in the water.

Hughes’s love/hate relationship with Australia – best expressed in his book The Fatal Shore – and a self-described “print a-sehole”, the Times art critic is currently in Australia to launch his new book.

Last night at the palatial Art Gallery of NSW, the pouring rain didn’t dull the sense of occasion for the 130 assembled guests who included Tom Kenneally, Frank Moorhouse, Catharine Lumby, Andrew Denton, Jana Wendt, David Malouf, Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull and Deborah Thomas.

Jennifer Byrne introduced the frail-looking Hughes and gushed like a schoolgirl. She recalled first meeting him in her 20s and being seduced by his wit and worldliness.

Hughes – who memorably told Salon years ago that he was an unashamed child of the 1960s and “when an artist says that I am conservative, it means that I haven’t praised him recently” – had just arrived from Los Angeles a few hours before. He was jetlagged and wobbly on his feet, but he delivered a short, pithy speech.

When somebody writes a memoir, he said, they’d either run out of ideas or suffered narcissism. He seemed unsure which label applied to himself but was proud of the work (the first in a series). The writing process made an author “feel like you’re on the couch of a non-existent psychologist to find details of your life” and sometimes those details were hazy at best. Writing was “both a pain in the ar-e and a pleasure.”

I was struck by the reverential way in which the audience lapped up Hughes, some of whom were too young to really remember his impact on the Australian cultural scene. Not unlike many other expats who escaped Australia in past decades, Hughes’s feeling towards his birth nation remains unresolved. During his speech, a grinning Malcolm Turnbull and buoyant Andrew Denton proved that Hughes still clearly occupies a special place in the hearts of many from across the political spectrum.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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