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Two companion travel narratives set in 1950s GREECE

5th April 2021

Two companion travel narratives set in 1950s Greece.

Author Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston uprooted themselves to go and live in Greece in the early 1950s. They were both writers and were seeking something new and fresh. The two books featured here are both written by Charmian and they are her accounts of Greek daily life and of her observations.

Two companion travel narratives set in 1950s GREECE

The couple and their family proved to be a magnet for a wider artistic community and in1960 on Hydra they met Leonard Cohen. Their lives were at the heart of the novel written by Polly Sampson A Theatre For Dreamers (set on Hydra), which brought the era and island of Hydra to beautiful and colourful life.  It became, she says, “..a fabled bohemian  community of artists and writers, of exiles and dreamers”. Clift chronicles her life in these two separate travel narratives that “..bring Grecian heat and light to your life..” (Editor’s Travel Choice, The Bookseller)

Polly Sampson writes a pertinent and incisive forward to each book. Each is beautifully produced with an eye catching cover.

Mermaid Singing set on Kalymnos, illustrations by Cedric Flower

Kalymnos lived on the sponge diving industry but it was a dying art when Chairman and her husband arrived, two children in tow, landing in a country that was so unfamiliar, with little money in the bank, but hey, they were up for a change and some adventure. They had left bleak and grey London behind and the lure of Greece was strong. Clift marvelled at the island, it felt imposing with the mountains towering behind and the waterfront quite the cosmopolitan harbour, especially by sleepy Greek island standards. The evidence of the sponge diving history was everywhere and in fact in their rented and rather run down ‘yellow house’, there was a sponge clipping room, where the men cut and sorted the sponges.

They have arrived on an island that is was entrenched in traditional values, where the men had the final say and traditional dress was ubiquitous (mainly for women). Marriages were often arranged, men left to dive, the women left behind, sometimes going years without seeing their husbands.

There are many snippets of island life and I certainly learned a lot from her insightful thoughts and observations –  that pine resin was added to wine, to preserve it as it was shipped further afield, for example and, the resultant astringency of resination counteracts the oily nature of Greek food. If you are a fan of retzina, then each glass is a toast (in other words it is not a drink for glugging!) and I raise a glass to the stalwart and resourceful author.

Peel Me A Lotus set on Hydra, illustrations by Nancy Dignan

The family has arrived on Hydra from Kalymnos and they have decided to spend the last of their savings on buying a small house, costing them 120 gold pounds. It was not one of the grand dwellings, rich in history, which at the time could have been bought for a paltry amount.  As it was they were living on a financial knife edge, every penny had to be counted and Clift was also about to give birth. Open cooking fires, basic toilet facilities and a hand to mouth existence had to be taken in their stride, balanced by a pretty healthy outdoor life.

The narrative is divided into months, the changing seasons reflected in the stories she tells. As time passes, more people arrive with the warmer weather and it is no longer ‘their’ island. They regularly go to meet the boat, the Sirina, that brings provisions and people, they encounter the locals with whom they are building relationships, they revel in the rhythm of island life. The noises of the animals both day and night add resonance, as the temperatures begin to rise. German girls arrive to keep the Scandinavian male trio company, whom they have dubbed Pepsin, Strepsin and Amylopsin. And of course Leonard Cohen soon arrives and theirs becomes a happening, artistic community.

In the background the Greek Cypriot War is underway but their focus is on the life they are building on this small island.  This is a chronicle of village life writ large. As the seasons change, the crowds descend but there is always Katsikas’ Bar…

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