By Charmian Clift

Muswell Press. 202 pages. £8.99. ISBN 978-1-83811-012-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In 1954 the Australian writers, Charmian Clift and George Johnston, tired of the dreariness and drabness of post-war London, decided to move to the Mediterranean and a life in the sun on a Greek island. Their reasons were not just a matter of seeking warm weather and following a hedonistic lifestyle. Johnston, ten years older than Clift, had been a well-regarded war correspondent, and had published several books. And the couple had worked together on three novels. They reasoned that they could live a lot cheaper wherever they settled in the Mediterranean, and Johnston would be able to get down to the “serious” writing he wanted to do and  not have to turn out pulp novels to earn money. Clift also had ambitions to produce something of value under her own name.

The couple spent a year or so on the island of Kalymnos, and Clift, who had a flair for what is often referred to as travel writing, produced a book called Mermaid Singing, published in 1956, about life there. The family (there were two daughters, one of them from Johnston’s first marriage, a son, and Clift was pregnant) moved to Hydra in August, 1955. It will probably be evident from what I’ve outlined so far that, whatever plans Clift had in mind, she would find much of her time taken up with looking after the children and organising domestic arrangements, while Johnston applied himself to his writing. Despite these limitations, Clift wrote two novels while they were living on Hydra, as well as Peel Me a Lotus, which first appeared in print in 1959.

Polly Samson, in a useful introduction, refers to Johnston and Clift as “at the vanguard of what was soon to become a fabled bohemian community of artists and writers, of exiles and dreamers”.  But initially they were among a handful of non-Greeks resident on Hydra. The Australian painter Sidney Nolan was there, and is in Clift’s book as Henry Trevena, and there was a writer she calls Sean Donovan who was based on Patrick Greer. His wife, Nancy Dignan (Lola in the book) provided illustrations for the first printing of Peel Me a Lotus which are also in the new edition. Donovan/Greer is shown as always struggling to get published. Clift is not unsympathetic to someone like him and says: “Every one of us, in his particular way, is a protestant against the rat race of  modern commercialism…….Each of us has somehow managed to stumble off the treadmill, determined to do his own work in his own way”.

It’s interesting to read Clift’s observations on the island and its native-born inhabitants. Described as “a mainly barren rock” by Samson, and certainly impoverished in terms of opportunities for employment, it had declined in importance as a trading centre. It did attract some visitors from the mainland during the summer months. But many of the houses were empty, so could be rented, or even bought, quite easily, and low-waged domestic help was available. The locals may not have been always fond of the loose social and moral ways of visitors, but there doesn’t appear to have been extensive outright hostility.

It’s also worth noting that at the time Clift is writing about there was an armed struggle taking place on Cyprus in an attempt to oust British troops stationed there. An organisation called EOKA was carrying out a campaign of guerrilla warfare which inevitably brought aggressive responses from the British. People on Hydra were naturally sympathetic towards the Cypriot causes, though apart from one or two minor incidents noted by Clift there were few overt hostile acts directed against non-Greeks on Hydra. Many of those who started to drift in were not British, in any case, so could not be held responsible for what was happening in Cyprus.

In a way it’s possible to take what you want from Peel Me a Lotus and not expect it to shine a lot of light on the relationship between Clift and Johnston. She is certainly shown as being dissatisfied because she feels that she’s held back by having to look after the children and see to general domestic demands. But there is not much evidence of what, if other accounts are reliable, was frequently a somewhat fractious situation often brought about by excessive drinking and extra-marital affairs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that, when people were pushed together in a confined area with not many other distractions, there are likely to be liaisons of varying degrees of intensity. There would be few opportunities to disguise or hide such affairs on a small island where gossip was a game that most people played. Clift, writing about the way the bohemians formed a little circle of like-minded people, described how it was: “Always the same conversation, yesterday, today, tomorrow, the same smart verbal catch-ball with obscure poets and philosophers, the same Freudian terms, the same ‘frank’ piggery, the same little shafts of malice and spite, the same derisive laughter”.

Hydra may have had few expatriate writers and artists when Clift and Johnston landed there in 1955, but things would soon change. What would appear to have been a new breed of drifters began to call in at Hydra as they moved from place to place, rarely settling anywhere for very long, and using a desire to write or paint as an excuse for not working and sponging off those they thought likely to have money to give away. Bohemia has always been a playground for such types, but the late-1950s and early-1960s saw them multiplying in number.

Clift referred to them as “intellectual hoboes” and “transient bohemians” and noted how they had a fund of anecdotes about the places they’d been and the well-known writers and artists they’d met. They had read the reviews of the latest books and carried magazines like Perspectives, Encounter, and Partisan Review. I would guess that, a year or two later it might have been Evergreen Review.   But only a handful had any real talent for painting a picture or writing a novel. Too many were like Sykes Horowitz, a would-be artist Clift names, who “hasn’t really been able to get down to it in Europe”.  While waiting for inspiration to arrive he borrows money and drinks. It’s amusing to note that they sometimes looked down on a writer like George Johnston because he wasn’t experimental or avant-garde. And, as well as books under his own name, he wrote popular crime novels as Shane Martin. But they weren’t averse to asking Clift and Johnston to lend them money or provide free meals.  

If many of the newcomers had little money to spend they nonetheless usually drew attention to the places they stopped at for a time, and were soon followed by more-affluent types who pushed up the prices of property and inclined hotels, bars, and restaurants to increase their charges. A genuine bohemia can only exist where food, drink and accommodation are cheap, and so the productive writers and artists often move on to where, for a time at least, it’s more economical to live.

Not every new arrival on Hydra lacked the talent or drive to create. The Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen, turned up in 1960, and features prominently in Clift’s book, as does Marianne Jensen, who had a deep relationship with Cohen and was celebrated in his songs and poems. Gregory Corso, one of the leading lights of the Beat movement, also appears to have put in an appearance. He was certainly in Greece in 1961. It would be possible to place him in the “transient bohemians” category, but though he seemed to survive mostly on handouts and other substitutes for working, he had collections of poetry to his name, a novel, and a selection of scattered writings. He had some genuine creative powers, even if many people found him hard to take at times.  Anyone interested in following up on just who came to Hydra around the time Charmian Clift and George Johnston were there should have a look at Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964 (Monash University Publishing, 2018) by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell.  

It may have been a sign of the growing popularity of Hydra that, in 1956, a Hollywood film crew descended on the island. The film in question was Boy on a Dolphin, which starred Alan Ladd and a young Sophia Loren. Clift’s comments on the presence and activities of the various people involved in its making were less than enthusiastic. She acknowledged that some short-term economic benefits were felt by the islanders, but the long-term effect was to emphasise the increasing commercialisation of Hydra as a place for tourists to visit. Clift didn’t openly end her book with a wistful lament for the Hydra of old and a hint that unwelcome changes were inevitable, but it’s in the writing, nonetheless.

They did eventually leave Hydra in 1964 and returned to Australia and a parting of the ways. George Johnston worked on Clean Straw for Nothing, the second novel in a semi-autobiographical sequence that had started with My Brother Jack, published in 1964. Clean Straw for Nothing came out in 1969. A third part, A Cartload of Clay, though never completed, was posthumously published in 1971. Johnston had suffered from tuberculosis for many years and died in 1970. Charmian Clift worked as a journalist in Australia and published several books. She committed suicide in 1969, and some sources say that it was because she was worried that Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing would lay bare her sexual indiscretions when the couple were living on Hydra.

Those who disapprove of the bohemian lifestyle will no doubt shake their heads knowingly, as they will when they learn that three of the four children in the Johnston family had what can be called sad endings. Gae, the daughter from Johnston’s first marriage, died from a drugs overdose in 1988. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, widely praised as a poet, was an alcoholic and died in 1990. Were their lives affected by their upbringings on Hydra? The other son, Jason, who was born on the island, seems to have survived the experience. And plenty of people commit suicide or succumb to drugs and alcohol without ever having been the children of bohemians.

I’ve briefly rounded off the Charmian Clift/George Johnston story, though Peel Me a Lotus can easily stand alone as a well-written and vivid account of a time and a place in the sun. Clift’s skill at evoking the period is considerable, as are her quickly sketched but finely-observed portraits of both bohemians and the local community. But there’s no denying that a degree of romanticism has now accrued to the characters of Charmian and George, with allusions made to similar ill-fated literary couples such as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. A couple of recent novels, Tamar Hodges’ The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books, 2018) and Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury, 2020) do show the friction that existed between Clift and Johnson, together with their heavy drinking and various affairs, so it isn’t all made to seem easy-living and good fun. But the fact of their having been written, with surely more to follow, points to the near-legendary status that has grown up around them and their years on Hydra.