Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.
They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.
Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.
Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.
In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.
At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*
Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:
Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …
It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?
So we did.
We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.
Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.
Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.
The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.
Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.
This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.
For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.
You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!
These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.
Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)
I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.