The Charmian Clift
|In every generation there are certain writers who function as national weather vanes, recording change in the social and political climate. Charmian Clift was one of these.|
1951 Charmian Clift her husband George Johnston left
ON DEBITS AND CREDITS - November 1964
have come back to
yes, of course, there are disadvantages as well as advantages. But
observing those same children now—after two months in a land that is
their homeland and yet virtually a foreign country—tearing off in a
last-minute spurt to catch school buses, telephoning new friends,
bickering about who is going to see what television programme, making
plans for weekends, practising Twist and Shake until the house rocks, I
realise that the debits and credits have balanced out as nearly evenly
as if they had spent the last ten years in a more conventional way.
I remember with what doubts and misgivings I watched the two eldest (seven and five then, and the third one not even thought of) during our first few months of island living. Dislodged so suddenly from the familiar, comfortable and utterly secure London pattern of home and school and nursery tea, ordered outings in ordered parks, toys and treats and special family rituals, and thrown into what must have seemed to them to be a barbaric chaos of harsh landscape, strange unappetising food, uncomfortable housing, savage and bare-footed children who patently regarded them as interesting freaks, and without any means of communication whatever, they sickened, grew thin and nervous, and rather pathetically unconfident out of our presence for even a moment.
hardened our hearts and sent them to school. And an outlandish school it
was too—called, for a reason I have never been able to discover, The
Black School—catering for the minimal educational needs of the swarms
of island children who testified to the virility of their tough,
sponge-diver fathers. It was built on the ruins of an ancient
What was interesting was that within a month our pampered little darlings were spurning shoes, neglecting their toys (those they hadn't given away or used as bribes or paid out in blackmail), wolfing bread and oil and olives and goat cheese with every appearance of enjoyment, and jabbering away in Greek with a whole horde of shaven-headed snot-nosed little savages, with whom they raced away every afternoon to shin up ships' masts and rigging, to explore rocky mountain trails, to help with the goat-herding or to trample bales of sponges in the shallows, to fly kites from the high golden rocks that soared over the town. They were playing fivestones, they were fishing from the harbour mole, they were beating an octopus on the rocks, they were triumphantly swimming at last without touching the sand with their feet, they were in and out of houses, sponge-clipping rooms, warehouses, they were following wedding processions and funerals, they were awed spectators in the gruesome slaughterhouse, they were here there and everywhere— everywhere, that is, except home.
By the time we moved on to the island of Hydra, where we were to live for the next ten years, they had forgotten that any other way of life existed other than one of rather Spartan frugality in the way of comforts, and absolute physical freedom. They could sleep on the hardest planks, in shepherds' huts, on the decks of caiques, they could ride donkeys like cowboys, they could swim like fish and fight like tigers. They were beginning to be slightly ashamed of us for our distressing Greek and our foreignness, which they felt to be rather humiliating to them personally. We had to get down to serious maintenance work on their English.
But the new pattern was established, and was to be maintained for the next ten years.
break in it came after we had been living in
of course, he panicked, grew thin and nervous, unconfident, clinging,
whiny; rallied, and came back to
the debit side, I think it has been trying for the children to have
foreign parents. Children are really conformists, and I think they found
it quite hard work to live down the fact that their mother wore pants
and smoked and frequented the waterfront taverns, and that both their
parents spoke Greek lamentably enough to make them targets for childish
ridicule. They were particularly vulnerable during the
religious difficulties also, since there is only one religion in
debit side also, from my own point of view, was the total lack of
medical facilities, and the ever-present nagging worry about accidents,
emergencies, teeth and tonsils and appendix, mule-kicks, mad dogs, and
the fact that there was only one steamer a day, which took
three-and-a-half hours to make the journey to Piraeus. We kept our
fingers crossed and I learnt first aid and kept a well-stocked medicine
cabinet, and luckily nothing ever happened that I couldn't cope with.
credits are good. Once the children got through primary school and
entered gymnasium they received as fine a classical education as one
could wish anywhere in the world. Old-fashioned certainly, terribly
disciplined, without hobby or play periods or consideration of their
psyches, but very sound. Also they have grown up with basic and real
values, and probably for as long as they live they will never quite take
for granted water and food and warmth and shelter, because they have
lived for so long in a place where people have been hungry sometimes,
where water depends upon rainfall and is often rationed, where the
household roof is almost a sacred thing, where a shady tree is precious,
where life is lived to an ancient pattern of ritual that grows out of
man's constant and continuing battle with the earth and the sea. They
each have two languages, and a deeply ingrained knowledge of another
culture. They have standards of comparison which will be of value to
them as long as they live.
I am glad to have brought them home again, and they are glad to be here, in a world of modern marvels that is their own to evaluate and to make of what they can and will. Now it is up to them.
THE BOYS IN THE BACK ROOM HAVE? - December 1967
April 1967 the democratic government of Greece was overthrown in a coup
led by the Colonels, and the fascist regime of the Junta began. If in
this essay (published in December 1967) Clift makes her first reference
to events in Greece, her apparent slowness to react was not through lack
of concern, but through fear that outspokenness might further endanger
friends such as Mercouri and Theodorakis. By April 1968 so many were
being jailed and tortured that the time for caution was over, and
Charmian Clift became one of the few non-Greek members of the Australian
Committee for the Restoration of Greek Democracy)
Our grocer, who is also our friend, is a Greek from Suez who has been in this country a little more than five years and says that he knew nothing about food at all until he started his present business; he was an oil man.
a man who knew nothing about food at all five years ago he has picked up
a point or two: idling through his back room is like having a little
wander through Andre Simon's Encyclopedia of Gastronomy. What shall I
buy, I, an Australian housewife, ensconced in suburbia, idling away a
pleasant hour in the back room of my grocer's shop with a very fine pale
sherry in a very fine pale glass? It is Christmas, I can be extravagant,
or think I can be extravagant, since Christmas is a time for it, and all
newspapers, magazines, radio programmes and television urge me to it,
and if I think about hungry children in Asia or famine-stricken
multitudes in India I had better not because I might throw up my fine
pale sherry, which would be a wicked waste and distress Dimitri besides,
and I wouldn't like to do that because I am very fond of him indeed and
he is justly proud of this back room, which is a success story.
can buy champignons from France, a hundred varieties of pickles and
peppers from Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Hungary, I
can buy artichoke hearts from Italy or hearts of palm from Brazil,
cocktail mushrooms from Japan, curry from Regent Street as well as India
and Malaysia, pickled celery from Hamburg, foie gras with truffles from
France, tamales from Mexico, black cherry jam from Switzerland, dried
mushrooms from Carpathia, nasi goreng from Holland, smoked salmon from
Denmark and red salmon from America, grapefruit from Jamaica, Scottish
grouse in port wine jelly, vine leaves fro Egypt, stuffed peppers from
Greece, frozen oysters from Japan fish dumplings from Copenhagen, fondue
from Switzerland' frankfurts from Czechoslovakia, pappadums from India,
Bombay duck, pumpernickel, geese and chickens and lychee nuts and bean
sprouts and bean curd from China, frozen rainbow trout, Scotch whisky
marmalade and Victoria plums in rum, lobster bisque and clam bisque and
oyster bisque, yams, escargots, frogs' legs and dried octopus, cream of
artichoke soup or cream of almond, vichyssoise, calfs foot jelly,
chestnut spread, asparagus and endives, chow mein and chop suey, goulash
and chile con came, hollandaise sauce and bearnaise sauce and newburg
sauce and every other sauce anybody ever dreamed up.
I can buy tortillas and barbecue beans and red kidney beans and black beans and lima beans and haricot beans, I can buy clam crisps and noodles and 200 different varieties of sausage, as many of cheeses from every country in Europe, I can buy honey cakes and candy cakes and pineapple cakes and banana cakes, ginger and cumquats and hearts of pickled celery, French tripe and English biscuits, tarragon vinegar from Belgium, wine vinegar from France, malt vinegar from Germany, every herb that ever grew in an Elizabethan garden, all the spices that the world was conquered for, French bread and Italian bread and German bread and sweet Vienna rolls, cream and pastry and nuts and olives and pate of hare's liver. And Patum Peperium, The Gentleman's Relish. I can buy the taste of the cold north and the warm south and the inscrutable Orient and the authentic flavour of the tropics. I can buy, I, an ordinary Australian suburban housewife, anything in the damn world.
All this makes me think, inevitably, of other Greek grocers back rooms, and other Christmases, and my heart is so torn and hurt for Greece and my Greek friends at this moment that if I could help them I would willingly transpose myself to the other back room I know best, hung with plaits of onions and garlic, festoons of cotton waste, ecclesiastical organ-pipe arrangements of beeswax candles, rusted tin hipbaths, spiked coffee roasters,
of whitewash brushes, shovels and brooms, and it wouldn't be fine pale
sherry I would be drinking but a rough retsina out of a copper beaker
while working out my Christmas shopping list.
My Christmas shopping list would be necessarily short, because there would not be all that much to buy, although some extra festive goodies would have been brought down from Athens, nuts and sweets and hams and cheeses, red brick caviar, and a few imported tins at fabulous prices. My turkey would be hobbled in the corner by the blue barrels, gobbling distressfully under the expert appraisal of Niko, Andoni, Costa, Lefteri, Michalis, Sotero, and sweet downy-faced Pano, who would squabble among themselves for the privilege of playing executioner and shriek with delight at my queasiness.
of little children would burst through the side door like ragged posies,
raggedly chanting the ritual Christmas carol, interminably long and
interminably boring, but profitable in reward of drachmas, nuts, sweets,
and fizzy gasoza. Kyria Kali, ancient and spry, would make risque
suggestions to the police captain, who would be expansive and jolly and
very willing to accept a glass of wine or ouzo. All through the morning
the back room would fill up with wharf labourers, muleteers, masons,
carpenters, visitors from Athens, foreign artists, schoolteachers,
citizenry of high and humble degree, and there would be singing and
eating and drinking and argument, and great goodwill would prevail.
wonder what goes on in the backroom these days. Perhaps the back room is
proscribed as a possibly dangerous fermenting ground for political
dissension. Under the new regime would the police chief accept risque
suggestions from a wicked old lady, or a glass of wine from a bearded
foreigner? Would such gatherings be allowed at all, even at Christmas?
One thing I do know is that Melina Mercouri won't be gracing the back
room this Christmas, as she did so often, or Theodorakis, or many many
others who seem to have disappeared without trace, many many friends of
whom we hear nothing any more.
In Dimitri's Ali Baba cave of gastronomical treasure I think of these things sadly, while sipping my sherry and yielding to temptation. After all, why shouldn't I? I am free as an Australian suburban housewife can be, and there is no reason in the world why I should not buy up handsome. Everything in my society urges me to it, and then I am so fond of Dimitri, who is my friend, and has made himself such a heart-warming success story.
It is probably only some perverse quirk of my foolish nature that makes me feel guilty and sad to be free and well fed, stuffing my shopping basket with the choicest delicacies the world can provide and saying whatever comes into my head with never a thought of looking over my shoulder to see who is listening.
Pappadums from India? Why not? I might as well feed them to my family this Christmas. The Indians can't possibly afford to feed them to their own, and should, biologist Professor Paul Ehrlich tells us, be abandoned to starvation to teach them not to make life. Although it is all right to make life in test tubes.
I wonder how that carpenter's son would celebrate his birthday? I would love to talk to him in the back room.
Big Chariot, (with
The Sponge Divers, (with George
Peel Me a Lotus, 1959
Honour's Mimic, 1964
in Aspic, Selected Essays, 1965
World of Charmian Clift, 1970
in Lotus Land,
Alone with Oneself,
Charmian Clift: Selected Essays, 2001
© Charmian Clift & The Johnston Estate