Ozlit's gentle ambassador in Italy


Ozlit's gentle ambassador in ItalyHe was standing 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. The year was 1974, the place Venice, and I was about to meet Bernard Hickey for the first time. This 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, the University of Venice. He presented me with a timetable that would have kept a whole department flat out for months and we got down to work — though I was disconcerted to find him on edge, tense — a condition which 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, 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 pizzazz.

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’ombre 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 but would often end riotously with friends tagging along and a dinner in some favourite trattoria.

Ozlit's gentle ambassador in ItalyOnce, 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, swopped anecdotes and ideas with Hickey, declared him "a scholar and a gentlemen" and then, discovering he had missed his stop and was on his way to Mannheim, settled down happily for more talk and laughter.

If any test were needed to establish Hickey’s uncanny ability to lead, to 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, 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.

As Mark Antony said of Brutus: "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'".



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Existing comments

Brian has captured the man. He was wonderful.

Bill Hannan | 30 August 2007  

well done Brian! that's Prof. in a nutshell, God bless him

veronica thomas | 20 November 2008  

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