Charmian Clift
Australian writer extraordinaire

'A Writer who believed in Human Dignity'

The Charmian Clift Essays


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. 

In 1951 Charmian Clift her husband George Johnston left Australia for England with their children, Martin (three) and Shane (one). In late 1954 the family moved to the Greek island of Kalymnos. In 1955 they bought a house on the island of Hydra , where their third child, Jason, was born. George Johnston returned to Australia in early 1964, and was joined by the rest of the family in August. 
On her return to Australia Charmian Clift wrote a weekly column for the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and the 'Melbourne Herald'.



Since I have come back to Australia I have been asked many times about the advantages and disadvantages of bringing up my children on a Greek island.

Because 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.

Fortunately for parents, children are such incredibly adaptable creatures.

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.

We 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 Temple of Artemis, and had turned out rather Byzantine in character if not in fact, with an elaborate tinselly chapel, and rows of plain plank benches under hand-drawn charts of primitive husbandry—reaping and threshing and winnowing. The woman teacher wore a long skirt and an apron and a headscarf, very medieval. The male teacher carried a birch rod. The little girls wore patched and faded blue smocks and long hair tied in bows, the little boys also wore patched and faded smocks, but their heads were shaved, and their arms and legs (and their shaved heads too) were scored and scratched and bruised and cut with new and old wounds. They were indeed formidable.

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.

The only break in it came after we had been living in Greece for six years or so, and decided to take a trip back to England for six months. Now we had another child, born on the island, and it was uncanny to see the whole thing in reverse. He spoke only Greek, and he had never been off the island of Hydra in his whole four years. He had never seen a train or a car or a neon sign or a hot-water service or a real bath-tub or a modern shop or any traffic other than a mule train or a string of fishing boats, or a vacuum cleaner or a garden hose or a lawn mower or a kitchen gadget.  

And yes, of course, he panicked, grew thin and nervous, unconfident, clinging, whiny; rallied, and came back to Greece at the end of six months speaking English with a quaint Gloucestershire accent and no Greek whatever, to the horror and dismay of his Greek nurse and all his little Greek friends, who could neither believe nor understand it. So we had to go through another couple of months of readjustment. After that we stayed put.  

Now, on 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 Cyprus troubles, when all their little friends were being valorous about EOKA,(1) and they, for the life of them, didn't know which camp they were in. They solved it characteristically, the elder with reason and some moral courage, which was appreciated and worked not only in his favour but in ours too, and the second by throwing in her loyalty absolutely with the other children and leading bands of them round the back streets shouting Death to the English, which worked in her favour and ours just as much as her brother's moral stand for justice.  

There were religious difficulties also, since there is only one religion in Greece , and nobody even has a name or an identity until he is baptised. Also, religion is a compulsory school subject. We left it up to them. One decided to stay outside the Greek Orthodox Church but to take religion as a school subject, one decided to be baptised and take a new Greek name, and in the case of the baby we decided to have him baptised without his consent, since it seemed desirable he should have a name rather than not, the neighbours and townspeople were thrilled, and it tactfully sidestepped another possible charge of parental peculiarity against the older children. It was a very happy baptism, at which all the islanders were present, and none of us has ever regretted it.  

On the 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.  

The 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.

EOKA was the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, which revolted against the British colonial rule of Cyprus in 1955. When negotiations between the British governor and the Greek leader Archbishop Makarios broke down in early 1956, the British deported the much-loved patriarch to the Seychelles. While on Cyprus itself EOKA waged guerilla warfare in the struggle for self-determination, there was also intense anti-British feeling in Greece .


(In 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.

For 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.  

I 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,

bundles 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.

Bunches 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.  

I 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.


High Valley, (with George Johnston) 1949

The Big Chariot, (with George Johnston) 1953

          The Sponge Divers, (with George Johnston) 1955

Mermaid Singing, 1956

Peel Me a Lotus, 1959

 Walk to the Paradise Gardens, 1960

Honour's Mimic, 1964


 Images in Aspic, Selected Essays, 1965

 The World of Charmian Clift, 1970

 Trouble in Lotus Land, 1990

 Being Alone with Oneself, 1991

 Charmian Clift: Selected Essays, 2001


© Charmian Clift & The Johnston Estate