Charmian Clift a distinguished Kiama offspring

Kiama, NSW

In times to come I would also discover my distinguished ‘neighbour’ with whom I shared not only the nearness of our south coast harbour communities but also our love of Greece. She was from Kiama the pristine seaside township distinguished by its great Norfolk Pines, the Lighthouse, and the famous Blowhole. I was ten minutes down the Princes Highway, turning left onto Fern Street, in the quieter but equally beautiful Gerringong. The strikingly looking Charmian Clift, born in 1923, with that equally distinct first name from Greek provenance, belonged to that strain of author who lived and breathed to write. Henry Miller could well have had Charmian in mind when he opined, “[w]riting is its own reward.” The only fact which would make her- who did things which ‘nice’ Kiama girls didn’t do “or at least didn’t do it openly”- reveal her true age to me was that she was born one year before my own father. Charmian also loved Greece and together with her well-known husband George Johnston (the iconoclastic journalist and author of My Brother Jack) she would spend around nine creative years on the island of Hydra moving there in 1955. “One of the recurring reference points” in Clift’s writings Nadia Wheatley tells us in her giant seven-hundred page biography of the writer and newspaper columnist “is the song of the sea.” Clift’s collaboration with Johnston on Mermaid Singing, a memoir of the one year they spent on Kalymnos in the south-eastern Aegean Sea, speaks clearly to these reference points. Her suicide on the 8th of July in 1969 at the age of 45, despite her melancholic episodes did surprise her friends and the broader journalistic community and is still a topic of intrigue for those who continue to explore her multifarious life. Might well Wheatley title her book The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001).[1] Twelve days later on the 20th of July man first walked on the Moon. Charmian would probably have considered that awesome event quite ironic being the intrepid traveller and chronicler herself.

George Johnston and Charmian Clift in an eastern orthodox church on Hydra (1956).

George Johnston and Charmian Clift in an eastern orthodox church on Hydra (1956).

Many Greek-Australians of the latter generations would not know of her commitment to the Greek community here in Australia when she returned home, and of her passionate efforts to inform the Australian public of the horrors of the 1967 ‘Colonels coup’ in Greece. To paraphrase an old friend of mine the playwright Sophia Catharios, when Greeks in Australia remember the dead in their churches they would do good to add the name of Charmian Clift to the list. Incredibly, there is also the connection to her indefatigable biographer as well. For some years Nadia Wheatley, whose own life is not without its own absorbing history, lived in Newtown, the place where I grew up and skinned my knees. She also lived in Greece, on the isle of Crete, with the eldest of Clift’s and Johnston’s three children, the poet and journalist also gone too soon, Martin Johnston.

As one well-informed online writer has put it Charmian Clift was “[b]eautiful, smart, and talented.” But now also too long neglected and waiting to be rediscovered.[2] Like that lyrical memoir, to cite just one notable example, of her little tribe’s encounter with the sponge-diving community of Kalymnos, Mermaid Singing (1956):

“We came to the island of Kalymnos in a small grey caique Angellico, belting in around Point Cali with a sirocco screaming in from the south-west, a black patched triangle of sail thrumming over our heads, and a cargo of turkeys, tangerines, earthenware water jars, market baskets, and the inevitable old black-shawled women who form part of the furnishings of all Aegean caiques.”

And incidentally, what is not so well known is the close friendship established on Hydra by Clift and Johnston with Leonard Cohen.[3]