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The Hughes family memoir: Things I Didn't Know

By Len King - posted Friday, 27 January 2012

In early 2007 I had a few hours with a freshly minted loan copy of the Robert Hughes memoir Things I Didn’t Know. I read the whole of the first chapter, and then bird-hopped into various other segments before returning the tome to its owner. Foraging in the local library’s biography section a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon the book, taking it home with a half dozen other possibilities.

The Hughes autobiography is something of a marathon at 513 hardback pages, but this reader had no trouble in skipping sections that deal with, for instance, The Etruscans, and the supposed depressive nature of Leonardo, but quite entertained and informed by pretty much everything else.

The Hughes writing style is immediately accessible, and while the kernel of his recollections is concerned with the visual arts, the artists as observed players, and the milieu in which they play, there is much else crammed, literally, into this wide-ranging memoir by one of the country’s lesser-liked expatriates. Less liked because of his dismissive nature of all things Australian, and especially the frequently expressed antipathy for Australian team sports, particularly rugby. Yet there is no warning on the cover that some readers, especially in the rugby-playing states of NSW and Queensland, may be offended by the anti-Antipodean material within.


It’s possible we find most of the clues to the Hughes character in the book’s opening chapter, where he describes in fervent detail, the immediate aftermath of his 1999 head-on collision on Western Australia’s remote Great Northern Highway, south of Broome. The accident and the unfolding court case were widely reported by what Hughes describes sneeringly as the Meejah, a pejorative which pops up repeatedly throughout the book.

I would have assumed his lengthy experience as a writer and interviewer would have proven him more adept in dealing with the press, but he works long and hard at painting the Australian media in the worst possible light, having spent his formative working years as part of that same circus. If indeed he did describe the Indian-derived court prosecutor as a curry muncher, which he repeatedly denies, he seems incapable of laughing it off. In fact, there are frequent pointers to Hughes’s capacity for lambasting others. Albert Tucker for one gets a particularly stiff dose of the cane, while the author claims a protected status for himself.

The Hughes family history gets a lot of space, and with good reason. The forebears are an entertaining bunch and the author gives us the full monty, it seems. Geoffrey Hughes, Robert’s father, was a WWI flyer, one of the few to survive a full term over the Somme, and his son explores in forensic detail that conflict’s relationship to the pilots from both sides.

His English mother is awarded no more than a half dozen mentions, although one fact to emerge is her founding in 1930 of Jonah’s Restaurant in Whale Beach, which these days can be accessed directly by seaplane from Rose Bay. It was the seaplanes that Robert Hughes watched in the 1950s from the commanding view enjoyed by the inhabitants of the Hughes compound at 26 Cranbrook Road, Rose Bay.

For readers who consider themselves denizens of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, circa 1950 and beyond, there is much to relate to in this freewheeling memoir.

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About the Author

Len King is the author of three novels, numerous articles for obscure magazines, and some occasional journalism. These pursuits have been supported by real jobs paying real money. After being married to the same lady for 54 years hes just starting to get it right by agreeing to everything. He spends most mornings reading the overseas newspapers, and recovers in the afternoons by painting pictures badly and walking with the dog.

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