Barry Hill’s collection of essays from the last four decades is commanding and impressive. Few could match his range of subjects: from Tagore to John Berger, Lucian Freud to Christina Stead – all, for the most part, carried off with aplomb. He catches the ‘raw’ edge of Freud’s studio – ‘worksite’ as Hill calls it – ‘the sea of bare boards that rise into so many paintings, the tatty chair, the piles of used rags on the floor and up the walls, the soiled flotsam of a painter’s toil, tossed aside like offal in an abattoir’. He characterises so well ‘the ambiguous aura of melancholy’ in Freud’s figures, with their paradoxical mixture of ‘implacable vigour’ and ‘their listlessness’, the latter the product of the exhaustion of the models compelled to pose for extended periods.
No less striking is Hill’s contrariness, descending at times into truculence. Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines (1987) is seen off the pitch as ‘that product of late-Empire metropolitan culture’. Hill takes such exception to ‘the enormous weight of Chatwin’s English condescension’ that it reveals a sliver of Australian defensiveness. How dare the Brits comment on our sacred sites?