My thanks to Muswell Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.
In the 1950s, Australian writer Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston (with whom she also jointly wrote books) decided to leave grey, dreary London (where George was working on Fleet Street) to move to a Greek Island with their children and live by their pen—not being of the other persuasion of journalists who apparently take to pig-farming. Mermaid Singing is the first of two volumes of her memoirs, this one of the year the family spent living on the impoverished island of Kalymnos. (The other, of their life in Hydra is Peel Me a Lotus, which I’ll have a separate review of). At the beginning of each chapter are pen and ink illustrations by Cedric Flower—these I think are new.
Beginning with their rather uncomfortable boat ride (after hours of air travel) to the island, experience finding a house and settling in, we are taken through various facets of the family’s life there—the different people they met and interacted with, things Clift observed–from nature to human nature, the children’s experiences and the adults’, to other aspects of island life–taverns, customs, meals and celebrations. Kalymnos was an island of sponge divers—the men went by ship to the African coast each year to dive for sponge while their wives and children remained on the island. Life was hard and the fact that synthetic sponge was being preferred to natural meant the divers’ livelihoods were under threat. (Interestingly around the time I was reading the book, I happened to chance upon a short TV programme on Greece which also discussed the livelihood problems the sponge divers are facing in the current context, half a century or so since this volume). The society was very traditional and strongly patriarchal, but there were women that spoke their mind and questioned the limitations they had to live under (like their domestic help Sevasti). Clift and her family were the only foreigners but there were also Greeks who had been brought up in England or elsewhere but now lived in Kalymnos. Life there was completely different from anything they had known or experienced, yet rich and much more satisfactory and fulfilling. And it is this, from small everyday experiences (like leaks in their house when their first moved in) to little adventures (like getting the children the pet they were promised, or ‘the small animus’ as a Greek friend called it) and trips they took (on which they are never left alone), to larger issues like that of gender that we see in this book.
When I started this book, what immediately captured my attention was Clift’s wit and humour. For instance, ‘There is some mysterious affinity between a journalist and a Berkshire sow, that to me is completely unfathomable, but then I married into the island persuasion of journalists’. Perhaps there are more downright funny observations at the start than later but her writing is great fun all through. Clift was a keen observer and gives us vivid descriptions with great detail about each facet that she is writing about, be it a person or occurrence or scene. Reading the book, one could well be sitting with her and her family watching events unfold or gazing at the landscape.
Considering how full their life seemed with just the events described, she does point out that amidst all that she and George did write the book they were there for, and she would have been writing this one as well. So certainly as she writes, on the island away from modern entertainments and distractions, they had the time to work, spend with their kids, and enjoy the life that it offered to the fullest. Yet reminders of their old life (an unpaid gas bill that follows them) are kept on as their link with that other life.
Reading about island life and culture, especially the patriarchal set up, I was somewhat surprised by how much was similar to other parts of the world—early marriages and dowries (or at least their equivalent), strict (and unfair) gender roles, and of course the misogyny. Charmian stands out and perhaps shocks residents by dressing in pants, swimming with (and faster than) men, and drinking in taverns which were the realm of men alone.
Charmian and her family’s life isn’t necessarily the idyllic island life with picturesque scenes (though there are those) and lolling about in the sun—the characters are rich, there is a great deal of colour but there are also tragic and melancholy stories and gory details (Clift doesn’t shy of describing the butcher’s shop or the fate of the poor spring lambs)—besides work, of course.
This was a really enjoyable read for me, one I could be lost in. So glad to have come across this on NetGalley since I hadn’t heard of either Clift or the books before.