Honour’s Mimic, Charmian Clift

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

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Princes do but play us; compared to this,/All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’

Clift doesn’t say, but it is clear the setting for Honour’s Mimic (1964) is the Greek island of Kalymnos, just off the coast of Turkey, based on her and George Johnston’s year there in 1954/55, which I wrote about a couple of years ago (here).

The modern town, which was big for the Agean, had grown around the harbour, where the port had been since the beginning, facing south, away from the autumn gales. The black ships for Troy had put out from there, and the galleys for Salamis, and later Saracen pirates had sheltered between those two appalling cliffs that hurtled from air to water.

The story is that the richest (and handsomest) man on the island, Demetrius,  Anglophile, incumbent heir of the sponge merchant business Casopédes & Heirs, has married Millie, the spoilt youngest daughter of English landed gentry, and sometime model and actress, and brought her back with him to the island until his affairs are sufficiently in hand for them to be able set themselves up on an estate in the home counties.

Millie’s older brother’s wife, Kathy, an Australian, recuperating after an ‘accident’ in a speeding car, has come out to spend six months with her sister in law, to see her through her first pregnancy, leaving behind two sons (with their grandparents) and an indifferent husband. So far, so very Mills & Boon.

But after an awkward start, Clift’s knowledge of and love for the Greek islands lifts what might have been an ordinary romance out of the pack. Over and over, the intensity of her love for the islands and for the islanders shines through, but also the intensity of her feelings. Kathy takes a lover. Not Demetrius, though he was certainly willing, but Fotis, a drunken, impoverished sponge diver with a wife and many children, who has had an attack of nerves and is shunned by the other divers.

I was aware that Johnston had accused his wife of taking a lover in his fictionalised autobiography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) and was interested to know how autobiographical Kathy’s affair was. In fact, the lover Johnston ascribes to Clift was an American, on Hydra to which they had moved after the year on Kalymnos, and a few years later when he was away being treated for TB.

He saw it quite clearly now. They had been lovers during his enforced absence in Athens, but since his return they had imposed on themselves a scrupulous morality

Kathy takes a lover is almost the whole of the plot. Kathy propitiates Fotis’ wife; sparks jealousy in Demetrius; immerses herself in the experience of being in a Greek village where Milly tries to live above it; and screws Fotis. Here she goes to meet him

Kathy felt like laughing too, for the joy of the morning and her freedom from pain… She bought bars of chocolate and boxes of turkish delight. Then, without a glance at the warehouse of Casopédes & Heirs, she set out for Epano. A heraldry of children swept her up and up into a smell of thornbush smoke and green soap and a chorus of women’s voices. The roof-tops had picked up a random crop of grasses and rushed viridian down to the viridian harbour where the boats jogged like facetious aunts bent on nursery amusement.

Unfortunately, I think, the author is omniscient. It is true that what we know of the rest of the world is mediated through mostly English writers, and certainly what we knew of the rest of the world in the 1950s, but I would rather Clift had described Fotis, than attempted to describe how he and others were feeling.

It had never been his intention probably. Or never his conscious intention. In fact he had scarcely thought of her being a woman at all … He had the feeling that his act had been utterly sacrilegious, not because of his own appalling temerity in taking her like that: he attached infinitely more superstition to her than to the church which sheltered them.

Coincidentally, the one novel I have read by a Greek writer, Cave of Silence, was also set in the Greek islands off the coast of Turkey, and I probably learned more from Clift.

The job of a sponge diver is to live on a boat for several months at a time, and every day to plunge over the side wearing a spherical divers’ helmet, walk along the seabed fathoms down, harvesting sponges, breathing through a hose back to the boat. Walking on sand, or muddy silt, or through beds of kelp, threatened by sharks, and with the near certainty of eventual death or the loss of function in their legs, for a pay which they squandered in the first few weeks of their months ashore, and with no idea of any other employment.

A life which had continued for centuries and was now, in this generation, coming to an end as natural sponges made way for synthetic. Fotis, as I said, loses his nerve, and will not be selected for future voyages. He and many like him apply to emigrate to Australia, but Australia will not accept unskilled men with large families. In desperation Kathy writes to her father to sponsor Fotis but he … [insert Trumpisms here].

Millie and even Demetrius fade into the background as Kathy and Fotis meet in a ruined Byzantine city in the mountains behind the town, in fields and on the beach until at last they are overtaken by rumours and Kathy must leave Demetrius’ house and for a few happy weeks lives upstairs in a little tavern where Fotis can visit discretely via the back door.

Clift died by her own hand in 1969, in the lead up to the publication of Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing. In his later A Cartload of Clay (1971) the Johnston character (Meredith) discovers his late wife’s journal. I’ve never liked Johnston, and A Cartload of Clay ends with some disgusting stuff about women asking for rape, so I can easily imagine this – Kathy/Charmain’s affair with a ‘Greek lout’ – is the story he was hoping/fearing to find.

Sorry, I got off track. Read this book. It’s not a romance at all but a rivetting character study of an intense few months in one Australian woman’s life.

 

Charmian Clift, Honour’s Mimic, first pub. 1964. My edition Imprint 1989

see also:
Mermaid Singing & Peel Me a Lotus (here)
Kerryn Goldsworthy on Charmian Clift, and Nadia Wheatley’s biography (here)
Fotini Epanomitis, The Mule’s Foal, (here)

Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

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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.

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Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

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.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78