Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir by Robert Hughes Alfred A. Knopf, HK$218 'Sometimes, leaning over my tiny iron balcony on Viale Caravaggio, I would watch the smaller sardine boats heading out of the harbour, on the way to the waters north of Elba: they still carry hooded carbide lamps on gooseneck stanchions mounted on their sterns, and when the lamps were lit the sardines would come swarming to the light, to be gathered up in nets. If the fishing had been good, small fires would be lit on the shore early in the morning as the boats came back. And fresh (almost live) sardines, anointed with oil and clamped into a twin-leaved wire grill between sprigs of rosemary, would be cooked over them for breakfast, washed down with milky coffee from the Bar Centrale and tumblers of the harsh wine of the Argentario.' Thus writes Robert Hughes of life circa 1966 in Porto Ercole, where the painter, Carvaggio, died in 1610, in his memoir Things I Didn't Know, which was borne out of a near-fatal car crash on a stretch of highway near Broome in Western Australia on May 30, 1999, before his 61st birthday. The crash, which killed the driver and injured two passengers in the other car, became a media frenzy. It led Hughes, art and culture critic of Time magazine for 30 years, to question whether it was time to shed his nationality as he did his Catholicism in favour of a more positive atheism, and as he did his views on art when he learned to discern magnificent trees in the forests of bad art. Things I Didn't Know is about asking questions and trying to find answers. At the end of this first volume of memoirs spanning his birth in Sydney in 1938 to his flight in 1970 for a life in New York, readers will find they know more about art and themselves than when they started. It is not only a fine memoir but also a story about art and how paintings, both the famous and the not so famous, can affect our lives. Hughes is splendid company, a wonderful storyteller - he discovers, for instance, that the Kipling books he found fascinating as a child 'were a halfway house on the road to surrealism'. What adds real weight is his questioning. 'What benefits might have accrued to American society if the stupendous, incomprehensible sums squandered on those two defining boondoggles of the 1960s, the Vietnam war and the space programme, had been turned to worthier aims? Perhaps it is pointless to ask. It seems bizarre, but it is nonetheless true, that history has repeated itself forty years on,' Hughes says. 'Crikey' is not in his vocabulary. One does not laugh when he describes the plaster casts of those buried in the volcanic ash of Mount Etna at Pompei, 'their limbs splayed starkly out like the blackened corpses of wallabies in the wake of an Australian bushfire'. Hughes has a dry, wry humour. His brief excursion to a little church 40km north of Rome 'to view one of the three rival foreskins of Jesus Christ' is a delight, as is his commentary on the 'miraculous' physical attributes of multiheaded saints. His dedication is undeniable, as illustrated by his race along with a crew from the BBC and borrowed salmon-fishing waders to Florence when the Arno River engulfed the city in 1967, drowning 27 people and centuries of art. For Hughes, art is life, though mass tourism means: 'The days when you could have great works of art more or less to yourself are over.' The flaw in this magnificent memoir is that there is no index. Hughes writes about so many paintings and so many artists outside the context of formal review that Things I Didn't Know is a valuable resource for those interested in why a particular painting or sculpture is good art and others just plain bad. Hughes concludes that while Rome was the centre of art in the 17th century, and Paris fulfilled that role in the 19th and early 20th centuries, New York for all its pretence was not - there is no centre anymore, nor is there provincial art. 'I am ... a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more [perhaps] than it ever has ... I am no democrat in the field of arts, the only area - other than sports - in which human inequality can be displayed and celebrated without doing social harm.'