Chapter 24 – Vignette
Remembering Bernard Hickey
Brian Matthews is Honorary Professor of English at Flinders University where he taught for many years. He was several times visiting lecturer in Australian literature at the University of Venice, and inaugurated Australian literature at the Urbino Summer School for Literatures in English in 1978. He was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Trento (1989), Visiting Professor at the University of Lecce (1999, 2000) and at the University of Bologna (2001). He is presently involved in the establishment of the Centre for Australian Studies in the Mediterranean at Lecce. He was Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the University of Oregon (1986), Professor of Australian Studies at London University (1993–96) and held Flinders University’s first Personal Chair in English. As a writer he has won the Victorian, NSW and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, the Gold Medal of The Australian Literature Society, and, jointly, the John Hetherington Bicentennial Biography Prize.
It all began with a letter – ‘out of the blue’ as we say – liberally plastered with large Italian stamps to speed its international journey away from one of the western world’s more labyrinthine postal systems and hand-written in generous, flowing, characters. The writer was one Bernard Hickey, a lecturer at Ca’ Foscari – the University of Venice. I had never heard of him or Ca’ Foscari, and had it not been for some indefinably attractive quality in the tone of what was otherwise a rather amazing request, I might have dropped the letter in the bin. All I had to do for this B. Hickey was choose, photocopy, and airmail to him articles and essays on a range of Australian poets, novelists and short story writers. My own comments would be welcome, as well as anything I had myself written on any Australian writer. If it was true, as he had heard from his ‘spies’, that I would be publishing a book on Henry Lawson later that year, he would welcome a copy for the small reference library he was accumulating.
The year was 1972. I was a lecturer at Flinders University and had just established Australian literature as one of the course offerings of the English department. It was news of this that apparently had prompted my mysterious correspondent to make contact. He explained in his letter that he was doing the same thing at Ca’ Foscari – setting up a course in Australian literature – but with greater difficulty and not much support from anyone, though he had hopes of some eventual funding from Australian sources. I remember standing in the middle of my office holding this letter, re-reading it, marvelling at its breezy, sassy assumptions, its inspired vagueness, its suggestion of a rather mad underlying narrative being made up on the run by an eccentric Aussie academic in Venice. Venice! The last place on earth, surely, for the campfire voices and broad vernacular of Lawson’s characters, or Furphy’s Nosey Alf, who regarded Italy as one of them old ‘wore-out countries’. Was it a hoax? There were plenty of people around the halls of academe in those days who were not happy to see Australian literature on the cultural and curricular horizon. Was this an elaborate attempt at ridicule?
Haunted by doubts, I nevertheless doggedly gathered together a broad range of material that the distant and faceless B. Hickey might be interested in and would, I hoped, find useful, and dutifully airmailed them to his exotic Venetian address. A couple of weeks later, he replied. This time all the stops were out. The just-beneath-the-surface dynamism and curtailed eccentricity of his first letter was now a burst of ebullience and gratitude so spontaneous that I felt ashamed to have ever doubted him. Our correspondence was born, and for the next two years I regularly sent him the latest critical works, news, gossip and a few actual books. When, in 1974, I embarked on my first-ever study leave based at the University of Exeter in Devon, my pen pal, B. Hickey of Ca’ Foscari, Venice, arranged for me to make an officially funded, six-week teaching visit to his now burgeoning – but still financially fragile – Australian literature class in December of that year. The odd, long-distance prologue to our friendship was about to turn into Chapter One of a long and fruitful story.
When I arrived he was waiting, as promised, at boat stop 14 in the shadow of Santa Maria della Salute: a rotund, slightly gnome-like figure with a shock of just-greying hair, and a huge smile that managed to appear both joyous and mischievous. I was about to meet Bernard Hickey for the first time. The encounter would change my life.
My job was to teach for a term in the Australian literature course he had founded and, to begin with, personally funded at Ca’ Foscari. He presented me with a timetable that would have kept a whole department flat out for months, and we got down to work – although I was disconcerted to find him on edge, tense, a condition that I would soon discover was wholly uncharacteristic of him.
Slowly, over several pleasant dinners at the end of some rigorous classroom days, the truth emerged. The Sirocco – one of the more notorious of Mediterranean winds – had made an unseasonable appearance and was causing him agonising sinusitis. And the Australia Council, which had been providing critical financial support, seemed to be threatening to pull the plug. Since the Council was funding my visit, he told me, I would be required to write a report on the work going on at Ca’ Foscari, and on that report would probably depend the future of the whole enterprise. Such was my first, but not remotely my last, experience of a Hickey bombshell.
But all was well. Within a few days I realised that the Prof, as I ever after called him, long before he attained that distinction, was a brilliant teacher whose students adored him; that the courses were exceptional, especially given the difficulties of language, acquiring texts and finding reference material; that my impossible schedule transformed itself into a demanding but comfortable rhythm by virtue of subtle metamorphoses known only to Italians; and that Hickey himself was a cornucopia of ideas, allusions, amazing erudition, innovation, cheek, daring and sheer old-fashioned pzazz.
In Venice he was an institution. When we walked through the Venetian campi, or along a canal or a rio terra, he would be greeted constantly by passers-by and shopkeepers standing at their doorways. Waiters and chefs would call out from their restaurants and pizzerias, ‘Buongiorno Professore!’ Bar-keepers would wave him in for a drink – a grappa or un’ombra di bianco – and since Hickey almost never refused any of these invitations, the long walk after work from Ca’ Foscari to his apartment in Dorsoduro might begin in sober, end-of-the-day, gravity and end riotously with friends tagging along and a dinner in some favourite trattoria.
Once, when my friend and colleague Syd Harrex and I were travelling with Hickey by train to a conference in Frankfurt, an Irishman who was heading for a conference of ophthalmologists in Basel came into our compartment by mistake. Within minutes Hickey had captivated him with his blarney, his apparent familiarity with the world of ophthalmology and his massive if uncontrollably quixotic range of reference. The Irishman joined us in a few drinks, swapped anecdotes and ideas with Hickey, declared him ‘a scholar and a gentleman’ and then, discovering he had missed his stop and was on his way to Mannheim, settled down happily for more talk and laughter.
Following the Frankfurt conference, we travelled to Venice to give lectures and tutorials for Hickey at Ca’ Foscari. During this visit, Syd and I realised that we would be there for an important event – Bernard Hickey’s 50th birthday. We decided we would take him out for a memorable dinner but, because Hickey knew the ground so well, we suggested that he name the restaurant. Typically, he had another idea. We would take turns to give directions! So, when we emerged from the door of 161 Calle Lanza in the last light of evening, I said, ‘Left’, and we turned to the left. At the next intersection of alley ways, Syd said, ‘Left again’, and we turned left. Then, in his turn, Hickey said, ‘Straight ahead’, and so we proceeded ‘su e zo per i ponti’ – along canals, up and down bridges, this way, that way. Our method, Hickey assured us, would guarantee a complete randomness and bring us into completely new Venetian territory. It certainly did that. Before very long neither Syd nor I had any idea where we were. At a certain point – dictated by me because it was my turn – we chose a canal path at random and agreed that Syd would pick the first trattoria or restaurant that took his fancy. The one he finally fixed on was empty. The proprietor was sitting down the back reading the paper. When we walked in he looked up, paused an instant and then, putting down his paper, shouted with great joy, ‘Ah, Professor Hickey! Where have you been for so long?’
To this day I don’t know where we ended up that night, and a riotous birthday celebration, with the usual excellent meal that Hickey’s presence always ensured in no matter how humble a venue, meant we took little notice of directions as we navigated our way back to Dorsoduro. If nothing else, we had proved Hickey’s legendary ubiquity: everyone knew him and greeted him with pleasure.
If any test were needed to establish Hickey’s uncanny ability to lead, motivate and inspire, it came when his attainment of a Professorship took him to Lecce – about as far away from Venice as he could be and still stay on the peninsula. He conquered Lecce and became as dazzling an institution and cultural hero in that city as ever he had been in Venice. He died there, at the end of July 2007, aged 76, within months of having realised another of his dreams – the establishment of a Centre for Australian Studies in the Mediterranean, to which he donated his library of 7000 books.
Bernard Hickey devoted his life to the cause of Australian literature and Australian culture in Europe, often at the cost of great personal sacrifice. He was known, loved and profoundly respected wherever Australian writing and literary culture were studied and wherever Australian writers and academics gathered. His nurturing influence on the whole field was prodigious. His astonishing energy; his capacity to encourage in ways that excited students and colleagues; his sharp wit; his totally infectious joy and ebullience; his philosophical attitude to – though never meek acceptance of – the vagaries of fate, circumstance and bureaucracy, and perhaps above all his determination to celebrate his Australian heritage, all marked him out as exceptional – a force for good and for excellence.
Bernard’s bubbling, tumbling, conversational style was studded with quotations – erudite, wide-ranging, comic, ironic – from literature, the Bible and folklore. So it is fitting for Shakespeare’s Mark Antony to have the last word: ‘His life was gentle; and the elements/So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up/And say to all the world: “This was a man”’.