Robert Hughes: A prince among republicans

Australia's starriest intellectual has been making front-page news with his anti-monarchist contribution to the official Olympics programme. In an outspoken interview, he explains himself to David Usborne
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Robert Hughes has got himself into hot water again, this time over an article he wrote about his native Australia in the official programme to the Sydney Olympic Games. In it, he rehearses the case for ejecting the Queen as the Australian head of state. He is not about to apologise - that isn't his style - but he wants us to know one thing: he means absolutely no insult to Her Majesty or to any member of the Royal Family.

Robert Hughes has got himself into hot water again, this time over an article he wrote about his native Australia in the official programme to the Sydney Olympic Games. In it, he rehearses the case for ejecting the Queen as the Australian head of state. He is not about to apologise - that isn't his style - but he wants us to know one thing: he means absolutely no insult to Her Majesty or to any member of the Royal Family.

"That would be vulgar. Insulting is the sort of thing that assholes do, and we are not assholes," he notes bluntly. ("We" refers to all those who campaigned, unsuccessfully, for an Australian republic in last November's constitutional referendum.) Standing in the kitchen of his summer hideaway on Shelter Island - a bucolic jewel that lies off the eastern tip of New York's Long Island - he has just hung up on one of the many reporters who have been calling all morning from London to quiz him on the brouhaha.

Hughes, 62, a hugely respected art historian who for 30 years has been art critic at Time magazine, was due to be in the news right about now, but not for this reason. He has made a documentary series about Australia that will begin airing in Britain on BBC2 this Sunday. Called Australia - Beyond the Fatal Shore, the series examines those issues Hughes considers most crucial to understanding Australia. (Topics include: the impact of the new waves of immigration; the return of a measure of dignity to the Aboriginal people; the reality of class stratification in Australia; the national fixation of sport; and abnegation, in every other context, of any form of élitism.)

But this monarchy business has, not surprisingly, served to divert attention from the series, itself a follow-up to his first treatise on the emergence of modern Australia from its roots as a British penal colony, The Fatal Shore, published in 1987. Fueling the furore is the monarchist movement in Australia, which has been in high dudgeon ever since first copies of the Olympics programme leaked out earlier this month.

And there is one other distraction with which the promoters of the series must contend. This, too, has been provided by Hughes, although hardly willingly. Just as filming was getting underway in May last year, he got into a catastrophic head-on car accident that came within a whisker of taking his life. He remained in a coma for five weeks and underwent months of grueling surgery and therapy. Today Hughes, who has always had the physique of a bull, still limps severely with the help of a single crutch.

But despite his injuries, the eminent art histroian - whose other works include The Shock of the New (1980), an examination of the rise and fall of modernism in art, and American Visions (1997) - remains as expansive and gripping an individual as ever. The crash diminished neither his intellect nor his bonhomie. But even a man this large could not have gone through such an ordeal without having to do some resetting of his internal compasses. Aside from the coma itself, there were the multiple fractures to most of the bones in his right arm and leg - doctors were at one point discussing amputation of both limbs - as well as punctures in his lungs.

"I nearly died - not once but perhaps two or three times - and under those circumstances you can't help but think about what it is you want to do with the rest of your life. You think about what is irrelevant in the way you have been living, and act accordingly. And it makes you realise that your life is indeed finite.

"I didn't wake up and think 'I must finish that book on Goya' or 'I must trim that hedge by Tuesday'," he adds, as we sit at his handsome dining-room table. "But I am trying to endow things that I do with more meaning."

It also gave him a lesson on humility and on love - love that, in his moment of direst need, flowed upon him from friends, from family and from his girlfriend of the last two years, Doris Downes, a website designer. Doris flew out to Australia to be by his side in intensive care. Once released from hospital, he was for months a guest in Sydney of his niece, Lucy Hughes, and her husband, Malcolm Turnbull, one of the dragons of Australia's republican movement. "Through this I discovered what family love really can be, and I didn't really know it before. It also made me realise what are the roots of humility."

Not that Hughes feels, even now, able to describe himself honestly as a "humble man". Indeed, his new commitment to finding meaning and disowning irrelevancy has convinced him more than ever that the niceties of life can often be dispensed with. "It teaches you not to make concessions with people," he suggests, with what looks like a happy smile. "You have to be prepared to be rude, so long as you don't do it arbitrarily."

It is a stance that will inevitably bring trouble. There was the recent occasion when, in his own words, Hughes "got it up the ass" from the Australian press for some remarks he made in a courthouse after being acquitted of all dangerous-driving charges filed against him after the crash. Unimpressed by the attitude of the two men in the other car, Hughes told reporters that it was "amazing what scum you run into on the roads of Australia".

"The papers down there took the line that first of all I ran them over, and then I called them scum. Ah, well."

It is not hard to grasp, therefore, why Hughes is not especially bothered by the current squall over his Olympics essay. All those Australian royalists, as far as he is concerned, can exercise their outrage upon him all they want. "I don't give a shit," he informs me. "As far as I am concerned they are a bunch of premature fossils, sentimentalists and quite often liars. That they are attacking me is a modest badge of honour." Nor is he impressed with those who argue that including his piece in the programme has somehow polluted the upcoming games with politics. "The idea that the Olympic Games are, or ever have been, politics-free is basically a bunch of sanctimonious cock. I mean, tell that to Hitler in 1936."

Clearly, however, Hughes is still smarting over the fairly narrow loss suffered by the republican camp in last year's referendum. In so far as he could, he campaigned alongside Turnbull and others to persuade Australians that it had become anachronistic to have a British monarch as their country's head of state. "It just seems to me a peculiar kind of post-colonial glitch that you still have an automatic succession for head of state made up of people who are not citizens of the country concerned. I think that if you are a country, the least you can do is make one of your own citoyens head of state".

We establish early in our talk that Britain is not a land Hughes would like to inhabit. (Although he did live in London for a couple of years in the late Sixties. His mother was born and raised in Barnsley, while his father's ancestors emigrated to Australia from Ireland in 1837.) And while anyone who sees the upcoming series will quickly sense his deep love for Australia, America has long been the place Hughes best likes to call home. "I love the physical expansiveness of America. I love that feeling of an unconstrained, class-free place you get here. And I love that thing of being able to hop in a little boat and catch bluefish, which I can't do in London." Indeed.

Fans of Hughes might hope that his next project will be on America - unsurprisingly, a subject on which he also has much to say. He concedes that his earlier "classless" observation about the US was hardly all the truth. After all, The Hamptons, where the American version of upper-class - unbridled wealth and an inability even to discuss the gap between rich and poor ("even talking about it is like farting in church," says Hughes) - is now on summer display, lies just across the water from where we are sitting.

Finally, we fall into discussing American politics. The Gore-Bush show does not exactly grip him. "They're the same parties and the same people. They went to the same schools. Anybody, who has oil money, who is a reasonably personable young man, who has not too high an IQ and who has a capacity to sustain endless boredom, can run for President," he notes. "It's just terrible".

But for now it's his views on our ruling classes which hold centre-stage. Still, Hughes insists that he has nothing personal against our royalty. It's a point which he might have furthur underscored by directing the interviewer's attention to some old Christmas cards lying about in his sitting room, sent to him by Prince Charles. (He didn't.) "I don't think that what I wrote [in the programme] constituted any kind of insult to the Queen. I have nothing whatsoever against the House of Windsor. I think Charles will make a terrific King - for the English. It's just that I think that Australia shouldn't have an English monarch".

'Australia - Beyond The Fatal Shore', 9pm, Sunday, BBC2