July 24, 2002



Critic Robert Hughes is due to face court again over his near-fatal car crash in Western Australia. In the strange mix of culture and chaos that is Broome, Eric Ellis gauges the mood of the town.

On August 1, the cultural critic, writer, historian and intellectual Robert Hughes is expected to hobble into a Perth courtroom and answer questions about whether he's a drunk driver, a dangerous driver and, indeed, if he can drive properly at all.

But then again, he might not.

But if Robert Studley Forrest Hughes (the Forrest should go down well in a Perth court, offers one wag) does makes the exhausting journey from his New York home, it will be interpreted that this ­formidable man remains in love with a country he's been estranged from since a near-fatal car accident near Broome three years ago. Despite being one of Australia's most famous expatriates for 30 years, he's paid the country the compliment of never losing its accent. Or its passport.

The irony of the journey is unlikely to be lost on a man who redefined the way Australians looked at their history. In his towering 1989 text The Fatal Shore, Hughes described the convict's plight in the young penal colony, often transported for trifling offences at the order of the British crown. Two hundred years later, this accused law-breaker will likely be transported to Australia via the rarefied carriage of a Boeing 747 first-class cabin.

But a no-show next month, or a conviction, will probably mean the Hughes-Australia divorce will be regarded as final.

The portents aren't promising for reconciliation. "Australia should be towed out to sea and sunk," Hughes told The New York Times last year. "I don't want to be part of that stupid country," he told The Sunday Times in Britain in August 2000.

How did it come to this? Ask the Perth silks prosecuting the case and they'll say no one is above the law. They allege that in the twilight of May 28, 1999, after a big day's fishing, Hughes was driving his hired car on the wrong side of the deserted Great Northern Highway, 110km south of Broome, and collided with three innocent motorists in a near head-on.

Ask Hughes, and he'll suggest that it's Australian parochialism in extremis, big-fish-small-pond officials determined to snare a big, rich name, who reminded this supposed favourite son who made his fame abroad that he was somehow less Australian by making the initial hearing date July 4, Independence Day in his adopted United States.

But ask some people in Broome and you'll get all sorts of answers. Some say the irrepressible Hughes is a "wanker" who can't keep his mouth shut. And that Hughes never thanked the local fire brigade volunteers for saving his life and whom he joked had eaten the fish he'd caught that fateful day. A year after fire captain Kevin Bullen prised Hughes free with the Broome Fire Brigade's "Jaws of Life", the town honoured Bullen by making him citizen of the year and asking him to light its Olympic cauldron. It seems that sensitive little flowers also bloom in the Western Desert.

And then there are those on Hughes' side. Such as Emily Hutchinson, the funky owner of Broome's Short Street Gallery, boasting one of Australia's finest collections of contemporary Aboriginal art. Hutchinson was waiting in Broome that day at the barbecue Hughes never got to. She has zero time for the Hughes bashers.  "What? A bloke who can write and think came to our town and stacked into a couple of our finest dope-smoking rednecks? Shocking!" she mocks. "And he's from Sydney, lives overseas and likes art? Jeez, he must be a poofter too."

Broome's like that – raffish, arresting. In this compelling town, there's the truth, there's gossip and there's "Broomers", local myths that in the telling develop into quasi-facts, particularly when forcefully told over the Sports Bar at that infamous bloodhouse, the Roebuck Bay Hotel, or the Roey as the hairy-chested blokes of the Kimberley know it. Or spun around the trendy tables of Blooms, one of a score of eateries that have sprung up in the 10 years since Broome became the west's Byron Bay-Cairns hybrid.

Directly across Carnarvon St from each other, neither establishment is a place to trifle with.

Waiting for the Roey's bouncer to get my room key, my black-framed Alain Mikli spectacles elicited an unsolicited "don't look at me through those fuckin' nerdy glasses, you c…," from an exercised Sports Bar crawler. (We changed our eyewear to something less metropolitan.) But at Blooms, those same specs got me a "hey, cool glasses!" from a latte-drinker and a thoughtful discourse about how Broome's natural crystals, fault line and 10m tides contribute to the mythic eccentricities of one of Australia's few genuinely multicultural towns, the Timorese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and black and white of it all.

Blooms and the Roey seem as far apart as the socio-economic distance between pie 'n' chips and couscous salad. But when there's a few juicy Broomers about, each side will cross Carnarvon St to hear the latest thrilling twist.

And there's more than a few Broomers swirling around the State of Western Australia v Hughes over that fateful day more than three years ago, some of which will get an airing in Perth from August 1.

Broomer 1: Hughes had been drinking.

Conflicting stories on this; Dan O'Sullivan, Hughes' fishing buddy that day and manager of the Broome Golf Club, says an emphatic no. "We were fly fishin' for threadfin salmon and tuna in rough surf and you can't do that when you're pissed," says O'Sullivan. The Broome police who attended the accident apparently didn't take any alcohol readings.

Broomer 2: Hughes was on the wrong side of the Great Northern Highway.

Near-universal agreement on this one – he was. Hughes says he doesn't remember but photographs of the skidmarks of his rented Nissan certainly don't help his case. And the blokes from the fire brigade who cut his shattered body from the wreck reckon the Pulsar was well over the other side, the "American side", as they put it.

Broomer 3: The blokes in the other car were rednecks, speeding and smoking dope. And members of the Coffin Cheaters bikie gang.

Well, they certainly cheated death. Two of them suffered mild to medium injuries and one walked away into the scrub virtually unscathed. (Another well-aired and uncomfirmed Broomer has it that he was stashing the bong he'd been packing to help with the long, foggy drive to Perth.) The fire brigade's photograph of their speedometer shows the needle snapped off, the remaining stalk pointing at 165km/h. Rednecks? Well, its safe to assume they hadn't read Hughes' magisterial study of modern art, The Shock of the New. But when told who Hughes was, convicted drug dealer Colin Craig Bowe approached Hughes' lawyers for $50,000 in exchange for favourable evidence, an extortion attempt for which he is now doing 18 months inside.

Broomer 4: Hughes will be arrested if he sets foot in Australia.

Not true, and probably never was. Perth prosecutor Alan Sefton withdrew the warrant for Hughes' arrest on July 4, a warrant that was never going to be pursued.

Broomer 5: Hughes will do a 'Christopher Skase' and not return.

Hughes dismisses this, insisting that he will personally front the charges. But his lawyers say he may not appear next month because he's still ailing from the accident. "There is no suggestion of arrest or avoidance," says his barrister, Mark Trowell QC.

Broomer 6: Aboriginal mysticism played a part.

Dave Batty, a Broome film maker who hosted the barbecue to which Hughes was heading, says he spoke to a bloke called Charlie Fish Hook a day or so after the accident. A local community elder, Charlie was the first to the scene and alerted authorities to the accident. Charlie told Batty a "featherfoot" was heard in the scrub. It's not politically correct in "salt-and-pepper" Broome to dismiss the featherfoot as hocus-pocus. He's a spirit man, an untrackable being held responsible for Broome's many bad things: cyclones; car accidents; even wife-bashing.  Yes, Broome has a "salt-and-pepper" street known as The Bronx, a black shanty area that would embarrass Vorster, but the featherfoot is town lore – although local whites put equal store in Broome's beer-and-marijuana consumption that's three times the Australian average.

Broomer 7: Hughes asked to be shot while trapped in the car wreck.

True, but taken out of context. Dan O'Sullivan, the first white man on the scene, says Hughes was screaming in pain and losing it. "I told him like it was ... and it was bad, there was no need to bullshit him about it." He said the semi-conscious Hughes was worried about the smell of trickling petrol and asked O'Sullivan to "shoot me if the thing goes up". O'Sullivan says it was a figure of speech. "I don't have a gun."

Broomer 8: The fire officers ate Hughes' fish.

Nonsense. They sat in the freezer at the fire brigade for a couple of years, waiting for Hughes to collect them. But cyclone-inspired power cuts thawed them too many times to inedibility. The "smokies" buried them – grave unmarked – by the back shed where they keep the gear that saved Hughes' life. They're still waiting for Hughes to thank them and apologise for his crack about the fish.

Broomer 9: Hughes called Western Australia's Indian-descended senior crown prosecutor Lloyd Rayney a 'curry muncher'.

Hughes strongly denies it. Hughes admits he made an off-colour joke that Broome's magistrate had "given Rayney curry" in court – this from a man who wrote The Culture of Complaint, his acerbic 1993 tilt at the intellectual vacuity of political correctness.

Broomer 10: Hughes was offensive when he was in Broome.

The town seems divided on this. One guesthouse owner says that if Hughes called up for rooms, "I'd tell him we were booked for the next 50 years", while bookshop owner Wendy Albert says he was "rushing around, being all self-important".

Fishing buddy O'Sullivan says: "Bob can be arrogant but he's got a lot to be arrogant about." Pearlmaster Bill Reed says: "Bob was enormously funny – it's just that not many people got his jokes."

When they're not telling Broomers, locals seem to relish the notoriety the accident has brought the town. "If it had happened outside Whyalla or Geelong or Gladstone or Newcastle, no one would care that much," says Reed, Hughes' great mate in the town, who runs the fashionable Linneys jewellery store on Dampier Terrace.

Reed's right. Yes, Broome still smarts from the treatment of Broometime, Susan Varga and Anne Coombs' 2001 kiss-and-tell book about the town's luminaries, but Broome likes to regard itself as generating contemporary energy.

True, "Young Kim" Male (he's in his 60s, the wealthy heir of the late, towering Kimberley identity Sam Male) still manages his family's century-old agency business in the immaculate whites of a colonial pearlmaster and an air of noblesse oblige, from an office where visitors pass under portraits of Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip circa 1960. Ruddy-faced Male has been a Broome councillor for 29 years and is married to Magda, a Hungarian-born former Roey barmaid.

But the modern momentum is with thrusting republicans such as Kevin Fong, a Chinese-Aboriginal who runs a media company, Goolarri, and is Broome shire president. Fong might be a high-flyer but he's still a Broome bloke at heart. On June 14, Broome hosted the men of the frigate USS Sides, in port on a break from the War on Terror an Indian Ocean away. On a red carpet laid across the jetty, the town's great and good gathered over kegs of Emu Bitter and burgers barbecued by the Americans. "It was pure glamour and glitz," gushed the Broome Advertiser, "… an atmosphere straight out of a movie."

In his welcoming speech, "President Fongie" reminded the Broomerati about the definition of confusion: Father's Day in Broome. Fong invited Commander Octavio Manduley and his crew to uphold that great tradition while in town. The outrage bubbled around Broome for the next week, prompting one of the better press statements from an elected Australian official. "We're women, not objects," railed state MP Carol Martin. "It's not appropriate to be telling sailors to go off and root," she complained.

For his sins, Fongie was still copping it a week later at the Broome races, where, amid more Emu Bitter and "Kimberley Canefire" (local rum and Coke), he made the opening spins of the two-up session after the seven-race card – and lost.

Old habits might die hard in Broome but thanks to the mid-1980s millions of former British Conservative Party treasurer Lord Alistair McAlpine, who built the huge Cable Beach Club on the outskirts of town, the hard edge and, some say, its charm is being blunted.

Today, there's ballet by Cable Beach and arthouse movies playing at the 85-year-old Sun Picture Gardens, where patrons can also watch Qantas jets scream overhead on some of the world's most expensive flights ($700 return to Perth).

In today's pastelised Broome, planeloads of dinkies can get their tiramisu and latte fix at big-city prices. The Aussie rules-mad Roey even put the World Cup soccer final up on its big-screen television, complete with a shit-stirring commentary from locals at the bar.

Broome also has a thriving arts community, inspired by the incredible light and the stunning iron-red Kimberley earth, the pindan. Robert Hughes, Time magazine's famously hard-to-please art critic, was deeply impressed, says Reed.

Despite its yuppie makeover, Broome still throws up larger-than-life characters. Such as Antoine Bloemen, the much-loved magistrate who emigrated to Australia in the 1970s from the United States, to which he had emigrated from his native Belgium in the 1960s.

The Hughes case came before Bloemen's court in 2000 and he unceremoniously threw it out. The local news­papers described a triumphant Hughes waving his walking sticks about on the courthouse's gracious verandahs. But Rayney, who lives in faraway Perth, appealed on a point of law, and won. Bloemen wasn't too impressed but wisely kept his counsel.

A one-time US army paratrooper, Bloemen dispenses "whitefella" justice in the world's biggest jurisdiction, with a population less than that of Bowral, NSW, in an area that is half the size of western Europe. Bloeman is much loved for his imaginative – and sometimes eccentric – rulings.

In one case at Fitzroy Crossing, he impressed upon a local Aborigine up on a summary charge the importance of appearing in court on time to hear the charge. Failure to do so, warned Bloemen, would be viewed very gravely.

Problem was that come the appointed date, it had been raining. And when it rains in the Kimberley, a flooded Fitzroy River can reach 15km wide. On the day, the felon staggered into Bloemen's court, sodden from swimming the Fitzroy, the magistrate's words ringing in his ears as he made the perilous all-night crossing.

"I was so impressed, I let him off then and there," Bloemen says. "I gave him a little lecture too – it was all that was needed."

The Hughes case is compelling for a number of reasons. It's petty, colourful, fascinating. And perhaps in minds such as Hughes, even a metaphor for contemporary Australia.

But then, again as Hughes might see it, it's probably nothing of the sort.

A Hughes trademark is to sprinkle his heavily researched work with disarming post-scripts that might as well read, "That's all very well, but it's really just bullshit anyway", reminding the reader that the writer, for all his global sophistication, remains very much an Australian who cuts through the crap.

And as Hughes will probably tell it in yet another book, after he's placed his Broometime experience in all its context, at the end of the day, it's just a bloody car accident.