Charmian Clift, Mermaid Singing (©1956, in a single volume with Peel Me a Lotus, HarperCollinsPublishers 2001)
According to their standard biographies, Charmian Clift, her husband George Johnston and their children Martin and Shane left London in 1954 to live on the Greek Island of Hydra and write full time.
But between London and Hydra, there was Kalymnos, where they lived for most of a year writing a novel together. The publication of the novel, The Sea and the Stone aka The Sponge Divers, meant they could move to the more hospitable island of Hydra.
Mermaid Singing is Charmian Clift’s account of their time on Kalymnos. Though I’ve read several of George Johnston’s novels and have my eyes on Nadia Wheatley’s selection of Clift’s newspaper columns, Sneaky Little Revolutions (NewSouth 2022), this is the first of her books I have read.
It starts out as a charming, chatty account of a modern Australian family, fresh from expat life in London, arriving on Kalymnos seeking respite from hectic big-city life. They are met with enormous hospitality. The young, blond children are taken to the hearts of the community. Cultural differences are perplexing, and often hilarious to both sides.
Mermaid Singing was published the same year as a book I loved as a child, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a memoir of Durrell’s time with his family on Corfu in the 1930s. The opening chapters of Mermaid Singing remind me strongly, not so much of that book – which is written from a child’s point of view – as of the TV series The Durrells. Like The Durrells, these opening chapters make rich comedy out of the visitors’ shock at the condition of the house they have rented, and the locals’ only half comprehending attempts to make them welcome and comfortable. The Durrellesque comedy continues with escapades like one involving a ruined toilet, and there’s even a pet rabbit: the locals struggle to grasp that the children’s pet isn’t intended to eventually become food, and their attempts to console the children when it dies made me laugh out loud.
The book moves well beyond comedy. The treatment of the rabbit’s funeral, insisted on by the distraught Martin and Shane, is a good example. It goes from high comedy to this:
By the time we reached the top of the stairs the procession was fifty strong, and all across the mountain slope dark figures were flitting among the scattered houses, converging on us. The children clustered close about Martin and Shane suddenly began to chant softly. Behind us a woman took up the chant and tossed it, shrill and unexpected, down the massed moving line.
The ludicrous reason for the procession was lost and forgotten. We were caught in something else, an old rite the meaning of which had melted in a time lost long ago but the form of which was part of that dim race memory we inherit at our births. That wild cry of lamentation was not for a stiffening rabbit. It was for Tammuz dead, or the springing red flowers where Adonis’ blood was scattered, or a woodland king torn on the sacrificial oak. Straining and stumbling on the loose boulders we toiled up the dusk-wreathed mountain. The chanting rose deep and sad from a hundred throats, and a boy with a torch (or a lantern or a candle or a blazing cypress brand) moved to the head of the line and led us on. High over the noble rock that soars above the town one star hung in the great blue night. I thought perhaps we were climbing to reach it.(Page 109)
The book moves well past the comedy or the romance of cultural difference. The Johnstons get to know people, and to understand something of the realities of life in that traditional Greek community whose survival depends on the dangerous work of collecting sponges from the sea floor, work that is disappearing as synthetic materials replace sponges in many of their uses. They develop real relationships of mutual respect and affection. The chapters on gender politics – one on the women’s lot, and one on the men’s – are brilliant. For the women, there’s the everyday indignity of being referred to as gorgonas and the appalling toll taken by seemingly endless childbearing. For the men, there are months away at sea each year where ‘their daily lot is danger, hardship, privation’.
It’s basically a travel book, with rich and/or amusing descriptions of landscape and local customs. But it’s more than that. Through it all, George and Charmian are working on their novel, and keep a parental eye on their children. Even for its first readers, part of the appeal must have been in the element of memoir. Nearly 70 years after publication, when we know that George went on to substantial fame with My Brother Jack (1964), that the Johnstons’ time on Hydra has an almost mythic status (as in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard), that Charmian became an enormously popular newspaper columnist, that the charming little boy went on to write brilliant and challenging poetry, and that all their lives were to be touched by tragedy, the book is filled with astonishing light.
A personal note: Martin Johnston and I were born in the same year. I knew him when we were in our 20s, and was in awe of him as a poet. It’s tempting the read the book’s final image as somehow prophetic. The family have been swimming with two of their local friends and helpers. A blue boat with a tan sail arrives and is being hauled to shore by some children. They call to Martin to join them:
He turns his head slowly towards the boat and the other children. Slowly he goes towards them, almost reluctantly, the kelp trailing forgotten from his hand, looking back over his shoulder as he goes, as though he is watching for something … or listening …(Page 211–212)
If I stay for a moment, only a moment, perhaps I might hear it too – that one rare mermaid, singing.
Added later (14 July 2022): Fran Munro has pointed out in a comment that Charmian Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley recently appeared on Caroline Baum’s Life Sentences podcast, where she talks interestingly about Mermaid Singing and Kalymnos. The relevant part of the conversation, if you’re interested and have limited time, runs from 20’45” to 27’28”.