Remembering Critic Robert Hughes: A Torrent of Brilliant Words

Robert Hughes's Ozzie similes and extraordinary knowledge on everything are what writer James Fox salutes in his deceased friend.

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I first met him coming back from the sea near Shelter Island—he on his fishing boat after bluefish; me and my friend Michael Austin sailing. He shouted something in friendly greeting about “pommy bastards,” and for the rest of that summer and summers afterward at every other dinner between the houses I and all those around fell under the spell of his torrent of brilliant words. With the exception perhaps of Bruce Chatwin I had never met such an expounder of history, of the best and most racy art criticism, whose range reached into the most obscure crevices of fact and forgotten personality and brought it all into the realm of fascinating storytelling. I loved his fierce Australian punches like his remark on television about some modish painter of the day “not only can he not draw, he can’t even bloody trace.” He was spellbinding—to skim his repertoire—on the great painters—Goya, Velázquez, Ingres—on the city of Barcelona, on the history of Australia, and his responsiveness and energy in relaying his extraordinary knowledge and discovery never faltered, no matter who his audience was.

I admired his daily routine as a writer in the summer weeks—up at 5 a.m. to write, with much loud sucking on Marlboros; very concentrated work, then breaking off mid-morning to do some carpentry or go fishing. There was cooking, and drinking white wine at lunch and quite a bit of drinking in the evening. He was a good cook, old school, using much butter. Rose Gray, I'm told, praised the perfect thinness of his pizza crust. Somehow this routine produced a high production of words—all of them of a very high standard. Once I told him how much I admired his masterful description of Sydney Harbour in his book The Fatal Shore. The observations it contained, he told me, were largely furnished by an acid trip he’d taken sitting on a rock beside it. We fished together—for bluefish in the Long Island sound and for tarpon at Islamorada. His excited fishing talk was laced with hilarious Ozzie similes and metaphors; his description of a slow morning’s writing, for example: “like trying to push a piece of cheese through an old sock,”; a man was pursuing a woman "like a rat up a drainpipe."

He did have a bad weakness for borrowing books without asking. It came, usually, quite simply, from his passion for his literary heroes. He was a huge admirer of Cyril Connolly and borrowed my first edition of The Unquiet Grave with Cyril’s inscription to Jean Bakewell “Ay Puente Genil.” Irresistible. Others followed across the Atlantic, as reading in progress, from when he stayed with me in London. If he loved the stuff, he owned it. And for all those treasured hours in his company, it was a happy exchange.