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The Greek tragedy of Charmian Clift – by Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Jun 11, 2023

Charmian Clift in 1941, aged 17. Picture by Frederick Stanley Grimes (State Library of New South Wales)

The Australian writer, born a century ago, killed herself aged only 45. She wrote two marvellous books exposing the rotten underbelly of expat life in the Greek islands. By Harry Mount

If Harold Pinter’s plays were about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet, Charmian Clift’s memoirs (Peel Me a Lotus and Mermaid Singing) are about fish rotting in the Greek island sun. She was born a century ago, on August 30 1923, but killed herself in 1969, aged only 45.

With her writer husband, George Johnston, and their three children, she decamped from London in 1954, first to Kalymnos and then to Hydra.

The Australian couple, previously successful journalists, were among the first post-war literati to colonise the islands. On Hydra, they coincided with Leonard Cohen and his muse, Marianne Ihlen, as in the elegiac song So Long, Marianne.

It all looks so impossibly glamorous – not least because Charmian was a real looker: high cheekbones, plump lips and a tide of black hair spilling over the collar of her white linen shirts, collar turned up.

In these two bittersweet memoirs – Mermaid Singing(1956) about Kalymnos and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) about Hydra – she does indeed paint an enchanting picture of the simple Greek life she encountered – to begin with, at any rate.

Clift has a gifted eye for detail, combined with a line in poetic writing that never gets sick-making. Here she is on Mikailis’s tavern on Kalymnos:

‘It is in a brightly coloured alleyway close to the sea. When you turn down it, you can hear the waves soughing under the gratings beneath your feet. Beneath its buckling ceiling of pasted-together sheets of paper, the tavern is like a huge, vaulted cave.’

The problem is that Charmian was rather too keen on the tavernas. As she confesses, she often found herself ‘two retsinas ahead’.

What’s more, once the couple got to Hydra in 1955, they were seriously short of money: ‘Our royalty statements have come in and we must accept the fact that we are caught.’

Wrinkled linen shirts are all very well as an artful indulgence. They’re not so appealing when necessarily worn over and over again through poverty. Clift’s clothes become ‘a variegated pattern of dams and patches… held together by pins or bits of string’. The picture-postcard views of Hydra literally turn rotten, as she describes ‘the oozy, sweetish, briny smell of black sponges dying, of rotting shellfish, of stranded weed aswarm with flies’.

The couple may be in paradise but it is a confined island paradise. Soon the faces of the fellow literati and artist blow-ins become horribly familiar. Clift finds herself in the horrid position of watching Hydra ‘in the process of becoming chic’. Worst of all is the self-indulgent painter, Jacques – ‘How offensive, how artificial and silly his provocative, shuffling walk, his skintight pants, his jasmine flower and that damned earring.’

What Clift doesn’t reveal is that she had an affair with the real-life model for Jacques, painter Jean Claude Maurice – with literally fatal consequences.

When the couple returned to Australia, George Johnston wrote a novel, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969), detailing Clift’s affairs on Hydra. She took an overdose on the night before the book’s publication and died in Sydney, aged only 45.