Thursday, 3 August 2017

CHARMIAN CLIFT Peel Me A Lotus (1959)

William Collins (Australia) Limited, first Australian edition, 1969

I thought of the safe anonymity of the office desk, the furnished flat, the monthly salary cheque, the insurance policy, the hot, stale smell of the herd and the will-less, witless way one had shambled along in the middle of it.  It had seemed a glad thing to declare against all that; to declare for individuality, for risks instead of safety, for living instead of existing, for faith in one's ability to build a good rich life from the raw materials of the man, the woman, the children, and the talents we could muster up between us.  'We will go and live in the sun,' we had said, and George had got up from his desk and walked out whistling
  But would we be left alone to do it?  Was there really any room in the world for people who did not fit neatly into the filing system?  Perhaps one would be forced to take sides, declaring For or Against... or perhaps one was going to be filed away without any choice at all. 

The Memoir:  In September 1954 Australian writer Charmian Clift and her novelist husband George Johnston decided to pack up their two small children and their most essential possessions and move from dreary post-war London to the small Greek island of Kalymnos.  The family had been living in the English capital since 1951, Johnston working as bureau chief for the European section of Associated Newspapers –– a job he had recently been demoted from –– while Clift took care of the children, served as both his amanuensis and literary collaborator and struggled along with the solo novel she had long wanted to write about her childhood in the New South Wales coastal town of Kiama.  The plan was to live in Greece for a year or perhaps two at most, the expense of the trip subsidized by the royalties earned from a book they planned to write about the country's once thriving but now dying sea sponge industry.

They arrived on Kalymnos in November and stayed until the following August, researching, writing and selling the manuscript of a novel that would be published in England as The Sponge Divers and in the USA as The Sea and The Stone two years later.  Their time on Kalymnos also saw Clift begin Mermaids Singing (1956), a 'travel book' her 2001 biographer Nadia Wheatley described as 'the finest work that [she] would ever publish.'  Although Clift and her husband wanted to stay in Greece –– Clift adored Greece, feeling it to be her true spiritual and creative home –– they did not necessarily want to keep living on such a tiny, barren and, even by pre-revolutionary Greek standards, primitive island.  The neighbouring 'uninhabited' island of Hydra seemed to offer better prospects so this was where they went, unaware that their carefully chosen paradise was soon to become one of the world's most fashionable and therefore busiest tourist destinations.

Peel Me A Lotus (1959) is Clift's impressionistic reconstruction of their first ten months on Hydra, beginning in February 1955 with their purchase of a one hundred and sixty-seven year old house –– worth one hundred and twenty gold pounds or 'about thirteen hundred Australian dollars' –– and concluding in October with the return of autumn and the prospect of another dull and stormy Greek winter to be endured in the expatriate sanctuary known as Katsikas's Bar.  

But this is no ordinary 'stranger in a strange land' travel tale, filled with amusing anecdotes (although a few are to be found within its pages) and humorous observations designed to highlight the clash of cultures and milk it for easy laughs.  Peel Me A Lotus is, at its core, a book about relationships –– the relationships the Australians forged with their new Greek neighbours, the relationships Clift and Johnston had with their fellow creative exiles and, perhaps most significantly, the relationship between Clift's yearning to live a life free of social and creative encumbrances and the reality of what it meant to turn your back on financial security and the comforts and privileges which, for many Westerners, accompany it.  Life on Hydra was interesting and challenging but it was far from being the 'carefree idyll' that most outsiders imagined it to be.   

Drawing by NANCY DIGNAN, 1959
To do what the Johnstons did may look easy in our age of cheap air travel and digital communication, but it was far from being so in the very different, largely disconnected world of 1955.  While many people dreamed of 'getting away from it all' and escaping to their personal version of a sun-drenched island paradise, remarkably few of them –– especially if they were married Australians with two children –– ever found the courage required to act upon this impulse.  'This is the island to which we are committed,' Clift states at one point early on in the book and the claim is neither a fanciful nor a pretentious one.  Moving to Greece, living with her husband and children in what she thought of as being her own personal 'Promised Land,' represented a leap of faith no less profound than that taken by Icarus when he attempted to soar to the sky on his soon-to-be melted wax wings.  Clift strongly identified with this character from Greek mythology and the parallels between her own situation and that of Icarus are, in several respects, uncanny.  

Throughout Peel Me A Lotus Clift struggles to reconcile the dream of living her own life –– soaring above the earth on her own set of metaphorical wings, as it were –– with the irritating, bewildering and often confronting realities of living in primitive and geographically isolated foreign country.  And the process was made no easier, in her case, by pregnancy and the birth of her third child.  But, unlike many of her literary contemporaries who made little or no attempt to include realistic portrayals of actual Greek people in their travel writings, Clift resists the temptation to trivialize or patronize the locals, allowing them to speak for themselves in a way that's refreshing, intelligent and, again, strikingly unusual for its time.  She also acknowledges the division between the Greeks and those, like herself and her husband, who have come to Hydra to escape the things –– ease, comfort, conformity –– which prevent them, as they see it, from fulfilling their creative destinies.  The Greeks are there because they have no other place to be.  The Australians are there because being there is a conscious choice they've made, an attempt to live life to the full despite the price that must be paid in terms of security and, on more than one occasion, their dignity. 

But it's ultimately Clift's vivid and sympathetic depictions of the people she encounters –– old Creon the former millionaire whose crumbling mansion is a reminder of Hydra's glorious but long vanished past, Socrates the town's self-appointed real estate agent and jack-of-all-trades, the ladies who gather each morning at the well and think nothing of invading her privacy at any hour of the day or night, her fellow exii [expatriates] Sean the failed Irish novelist and Lola his bubbly Australian wife, the painter Henry and his frustrated wife Ursula, the beautiful predatory Frenchman Jacques who thinks nothing of roaming around barefoot with his shirt unbuttoned to the navel –– that stick in the mind and make the book the entertaining and incredibly sharp piece of human observation it is.  'It is a diverse and tantalizing collection of human beings sprawled about these rocks,' Clift writes of one of their summer swimming sessions, 'on a cliff ledge far from their native lands, insurgents all who have rebelled against the station in which it pleased God to place themWhat do they expect to find here, an Australian journalist, an Irish schoolmaster, an American misfit, an exotic outsider from the St-Germain-des-Pres?'  This idea recurs again and again in Peel Me A Lotus and Clift does not spare herself the magnifying glass and the self-doubt this form of literary analysis occasionally exposes:  'The clean becomes soiled, one makes the soiled clean, the clean becomes soiled again. One is as weary as a gladiator after combat, and yet tomorrow will bring no rest.  All is to be done again, and yet again.  And was it for this, I think, examining my grimed hands ruefully, that I renounced so gladly the material comforts of civilization?  The gadgets?  The labour-saving devices?A housewife is a housewife wherever she is –– in the biggest city of the world or on a small Greek island.' 

Hutchinson of London first UK edition, 1959
Peel Me A Lotus was not the runaway commercial success that Clift and Johnston hoped it would be.  Three years is an eternity in the publishing industry and the vogue for non-fiction books dealing with 'exotic destinations' had more or less passed by the time it finally appeared in 1959.  (Its publication was delayed by several years due to contractual and other complications.)  The book falls just shy of two hundred, easy-to-read pages but it could easily have been stretched to twice or even three times that length had Clift not been so sure of her material and of her ability to present it in such a honest, effective and enlightening way.  In fact, the book's brevity is one of the things that makes it such a joy to read.  Providing too much detail would have been as grave an authorial mistake as failing to provide enough, but time and again Clift manages to strike precisely the right balance between description and dialogue, soul-searching and the delineation of her daily household chores and other non-glamorous tasks she's called upon to undertake as a mother and often only because she happens to be female.  

The centre of her world is Katsikas's Bar –– a couple of tables set up behind potato sacks inside a waterfront grocery store –– and it's fitting that this is where the Peel Me A Lotus ends because, in its way, it serves a suitable metaphor for the entire expatriate experience.  Things happen, friends and tourists arrive and depart, but she, George and their fellow exii can always meet at Katsikas's Bar to drown their sorrows, share their joys or find the strength they need to keep resisting the temptation to forego their dream of freedom and return to 'civilization.'  Clift makes the reader feel as though they too have spent ten months living on Hydra, drinking retsina and waiting for the caiques to sail into the harbour laden with barrels of olive oil or the cheap plastic sandals so beloved of the hordes of invading summer holidaymakers.  Although she would go on to have a successful career as a journalist –– for five years she wrote a popular weekly column which appeared in the 'Women's Sections' of both The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspapers –– you only need look to the nine years she spent in Greece to find the real Charmian Clift, a writer whose delicacy of touch was matched only by her wisdom, compassion and honesty. 

The Writer:  Charmian Clift was, on the surface at least, an unlikely candidate for literary stardom.  Born on 30 August 1923 in the small coal mining town of Kiama –– a tightly knit Australian working class community located on the south coast of New South Wales roughly one hour's drive from Sydney –– she grew up in poverty in what was technically known as North Kiama, feeling very much the invisible outsider in a family dominated by her eccentric and overbearing father.  As an engineer at the local colliery, the English-born Sid Clift and his family could easily have taken their places alongside the 'upper crust' of what was, at that time, a small and relatively isolated seaside village.  But Sid preferred to house his family –– his shy long-suffering wife Amy, his daughters Margaret and Charmian and son Barré –– in a small fibro cottage in what was deemed to be its poorest section, close to the beach and the mines and far from those he contemptuously dismissed as 'wowsers' and snobs.  His middle child would be haunted all her life by her memories of Kiama –– the sea and the marshlands she loved so dearly and the scorn she felt she and her family had been subjected to by its so-called 'respectable' inhabitants.  Of such stuff, it seems, are future literary careers made. 

Despite brief stints at art school and secretarial college –– and an even briefer period spent living the 'bohemian life' in Sydney's King's Cross where she worked as a model and gave birth to an illegitimate daughter whom she was forced, as were the majority of unmarried women of the time, to give up for adoption –– Clift did not fully succeed in putting her Kiama childhood behind her until April 1943, when she and her sister volunteered for the Australian Women's Army Service.  It was her stint in the army that allowed 'Lieutenant Clift' to make full use of her natural talent for writing, providing copy for and eventually becoming the editor of a military publication titled For Your Information –– a job she did so well that it enabled her to walk straight into a paid position on a Melbourne newspaper shortly after being demobilized in May 1946.

It was not long after joining the staff of The Argus that Clift, who had recently become engaged to an ex-RAAF officer whom she was planning to join in Malaya, met George Johnston, Australia's most famous and internationally respected war correspondent.  It was the couple's second meeting, their paths having crossed exactly one year earlier in the bar of a Melbourne hotel.  This time, however, their attraction to each other was instantaneous and uncontrollable.  Johnston was a successful published author and the epitome of the generous, relaxed, socially adept and laconic 'Aussie hero' Clift had been waiting to meet and fall in love with all her life.  He was also eleven years her senior, married to another woman and the frequently absent father of a five year old daughter.  The relationship, which soon became an open secret in The Argus office, probably cost them their jobs –– an event, in the view of Clift's biographer Nadia Wheatley, that marked the beginning of the myth that would envelop and all but obliterate the truth about this 'golden couple' for the next two decades and beyond. 

Clift and Johnston did not remain in the Victorian capital for long.  Johnston, who had grown up in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick, was eager to leave his native city and soon accepted a job in Sydney, sending his now-pregnant lover back to her parents' home in Kiama while he worked to reestablish his career and find them a flat they could afford.  Clift would travel up to the city most weekends to be with Johnston and discuss the novel –– the first of four they would write and publish together –– they began collaborating on soon after beginning their affair.  Clift's pregnancy (her second, in reality) made it all but impossible, given the restrictive social standards of the time, for the traditionally-minded Johnston not to divorce his wife and marry her, which he did in a civil ceremony performed on 7 August 1947.  Their son Martin was born four months later and was followed, in February 1949, by their daughter Shane.

The birth of her second child placed Clift in the unenviable position of being forced to juggle her writing –– she was writing regularly for radio at this time and had recently begun another version of the autobiographical novel, based on her Kiama childhood, that was to occupy her on and off for the remainder of her life –– with her 'other' roles as wife and mother.  'I had this dual thing,' she remembered in a 1965 interview she recorded for the National Library of Australia, 'the frustrations that are inevitable with any creative person being tied and bound and at the same time struggling, beating one's head against a wall to do what one wants to do.  I think those are terribly difficult years for any young woman and for a young woman who wants to write or paint or anything else, even more so.' 

In March 1951 the Johnstons arrived in London, seeking a more conducive artistic atmosphere than what was available in the deeply conservative Australia governed by Robert Menzies, the man who would go on to become the nation's longest-serving and arguably most reactionary Prime Minister.  The timing of their decision could not have been better.  Johnston's employer, Associated Newspapers, offered him a new, better paid three year position as head of its European office, making the idea of relocating to England an irresistible one to himself and Clift just as it had become to so many of their friends –– a group which included the actor Peter Finch, the painter Sidney Nolan and fellow writers Ruth Park and D'Arcy Niland –– who had come to feel emotionally and creatively stifled in Australia.  Clift herself saw the move as an opportunity to finally discover 'the Promised Land' she had dreamed of entering all her life, only to have the notion that England might be this place immediately drummed out of her by its mood of bleak post-war austerity and the perpetually foul London weather.  

Although being based in England enabled her and Johnston to travel to France and Germany, it was not until April 1954, when they made their first visit to Greece, that Clift began to feel that she might at last have found her elusive nirvana.  With Johnston recently demoted and facing the prospect of being fired from his job at any moment, the couple decided to sell everything and move to the island of Kalymnos, planning to cover their expenses by collaborating on another book about its threatened, soon-to-be dead sponge-diving industry.

The move to Greece was, at first, everything Clift had hoped it would be.  She loved the people, the culture, the country's history and its dry and rocky terrain, so similar to Australia yet in many ways so different to it.  The decade she and her family spent in Greece –– first on Kalymnos, then on the nearby island of Hydra –– were arguably the happiest of her life in both the professional and the personal sense.  Within months of their arrival on Hydra, she and Johnston became the unofficial 'leaders' of its small but growing expatriate community, creating and consolidating the myth of themselves as a couple who were as passionately devoted to the creation of quality literature as they were to each other.  The two travel books Clift published before the decade was over –– Mermaids Singing (1956) and Peel Me A Lotus (1959) –– were written in and about Greece and are remarkable for their honesty and their unwillingness to patronize or trivialize the Greeks who, along with other foreigners like Canadian poet and future singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, were her friends as well as being her neighbours.

Unfortunately, Clift's years on Hydra coincided with the rise of Greece –– and especially what she and her family considered to be 'their island' –– as a popular stopover on the increasingly crowded international tourist trail.  The success of Greek films like Never on Sunday (1960) brought hordes of American and European tourists flocking to Hydra each summer, many of whom were interested in meeting these strange Australians who had fled their native land to live what, to their eyes, seemed to be an exceptionally primitive if not unhealthy and dangerous life in a socially, economically and politically 'backward' country.  Life became infinitely more difficult during the tourist season and the difficulties were compounded by the birth, in 1956, of Clift and Johnston's third child Jason as well as by the brief affairs she had with some of their male visitors (affairs which caused irreparable harm to her relationship with her husband, who had enjoyed several affairs of his own during their stay in London).  The news that Johnston, now actively engaged in writing what they both considered to be his masterpiece, had contracted the lung disease tuberculosis placed even more strain on what was already a tension-fraught and now largely sexless marriage.  

Eventually, Clift's paradise became a Paradise Lost, the issues of tourism, Johnston's steadily declining health and the lack of educational opportunities for their children obliging the family to do what had once been unthinkable and return to Australia.  Ironically, their lack of money meant that Clift and her children had to return to their native land as 'assisted passage' migrants, forcing them to submit to exactly the same kinds of degrading tests and examinations that Greeks applying for visas were expected to undergo before being granted visas to enter Australia.  Johnston, in the meantime, flew home to undertake a nationwide publicity tour for My Brother Jack (1964) –– the novel that was to make his name a household word in Australia and make his wife notorious as the model for the beautiful, free-spirited but ultimately treacherous Cressida Morley.

Clift found it no easy task to adjust to this 'new' Australia –– a country different in some ways to the repressive, uncultured place she had left in 1951 but in other ways disturbingly similar to it.  She still found its people smug and complacent, out of touch with what was happening in the rest of the world and happy to remain so as long as their lives remained unclouded by what were important and often horrifying international events.  She had little time to reflect on this, however, with her sick husband regularly entering hospital to receive treatment for his disease, obliging her to assume the role of the family breadwinner in addition to serving as his carer and continuing to raise their three children.  On top of writing a weekly newspaper column –– a column which started in 1964 and appeared each Thursday in the Women's Sections of both The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne newspaper The Herald-Sun –– Clift also found time to appear regularly on radio and television as a kind of conveniently available conduit to the 'woman's point of view' and to adapt My Brother Jack for television.  This adaptation, which aired in 1965, would eventually come to be recognized as one of the best and most ambitious serialized dramas ever produced in Australia.

CHARMIAN CLIFT in Sydney, c 1968
Clift and Johnston soon became, as far as both the public and many of their friends were concerned, Australian literature's most successful double act, a kind of smooth-running literary machine which seemed incapable of breaking down.  But success and the expectations which invariably accompany it took their physical and psychological toll on Clift, the pressure of deadlines –– she took enormous pride in the fact that she never missed a single one during her time as a columnist –– and her growing celebrity depriving her of the time and privacy needed to think about, plan and write her own, long postponed 'big' novel.  Johnston was considered the 'real' writer in their relationship, her journalism and the collection of it published as Images in Aspic in 1965 viewed as being somehow less important than his struggle to conceive and write Clean Straw For Nothing, the 1969 sequel to My Brother Jack.  

Add to this the pressures of having bills to pay and a terminally ill husband to care for, that same husband's lingering jealousy over past infidelities and the many bitter if privately conducted arguments these provoked, her 'other job' as the mother of three adolescent children and a political activist who privately dreaded the thought of addressing large groups of people, and it becomes easy to see why being 'Charmian Clift, columnist' led the writer to seek solace in prescription drugs and alcohol.  Clift's death by suicide on 8 July 1969 shocked not only her family but her many devoted readers of both sexes, none of whom could understand why such a kind, loving, committed and gifted human being should choose to kill herself.

Sadly, George Johnston succumbed to tuberculosis on 22 July 1970, shortly after completing work on A Cartload of Clay, the final volume of his 'David Meredith' trilogy.  Even more sadly, his daughter Shane committed suicide in 1974 at the age of twenty-five, while his first daughter Gae –– born to his first wife Elsie –– died of a drug overdose in 1988.  Gae's death was followed by that of poet, translator and novelist Martin Johnston, who died in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst of an alcohol-related illness on 21 June 1990, leaving his younger brother Jason as the only surviving member of the Clift/Johnston family. 

Click HERE to read an essay about the life and work of CHARMIAN CLIFT by her biographer NADIA WHEATLEY.  Those interested in learning more about the time that CLIFT and her husband GEORGE JOHNSTON spent on the Greek Island of Hydra –– where their friends included Canadian poet, novelist and singer/songwriter LEONARD COHEN –– can do so by clicking HERE.

You can also click HERE to read a long post about CHARMIAN CLIFT, containing many excerpts from her work, on the excellent Australian literature blog Australian Literature Diary maintained by writer, critic and editor KERRYN GOLDSWORTHY.

A long and moving essay about the poet and novelist MARTIN JOHNSTON, written by his friend and fellow poet JOHN TRANTER as the introduction to the 1993 book Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose, can be read by clicking HERE.

Flamingo/Harper Collins Australia, first edition, 2001

Regrettably (and shamefully), none of the work of CHARMIAN CLIFT or GEORGE JOHNSTON currently appears to be in print.  Secondhand copies of their work, including several posthumously published collections of CLIFT's journalism and JOHNSTON's novel My Brother Jack (1964), can be found on various used book websites, as can several hardback and paperback copies of The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, the award-winning biography by NADIA WHEATLEY published by Flamingo/HarperCollins Australia in 2001.  

Special thanks to JILL MACLEAN for giving me the book which sparked my interest in the life and work of CHARMIAN CLIFT and has now made her one of my favourite writers

You might also enjoy:
THINK ABOUT IT #23: Charmian Clift
WRITERS ON WRITING #61: Charmian Clift
JESSICA ANDERSON The Commandant (1974)

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