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Australian bohemians on Hydra

A tale of inspiration and cultural indulgence

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Sophia Loren on the island of Hydra, Greece, filming Boy on a Dolphin (1957).

11 January 2016

Melbourne in the late 1940s, '50s and '60s saw a large influx of Greek migrants looking for a new life and economic security. Ships such as the Patris, Australis, Ellinis travelled through the Suez canal across the Indian Ocean and the often treacherous Great Australian Bight to berth at Station Pier.

Thousands of migrants arrived here, many with one suitcase and hope as their only companion. With the large influx of Greek migrants, Melbourne became the major centre of Greek activity in Australia. Melbourne is said to have the largest Greek-speaking population after Athens and Thessaloniki.

While Greeks were flocking to Melbourne, two journalists working for Melbourne's The Argus newspaper, George Johnston and Charmian Clift, were involved in events that would propel them in the other direction. In the space of a few years they would be presiding over an extensive bohemian community of artists and writers on the Greek island of Hydra. This would become Australia's greatest love story and, some 20 years later, a Greek tragedy.

The Greeks of Hydra welcomed the Australians and soon dubbed the house they lived in Australia House. The Greeks were family people so George and Charmian were special because they had children. Tourists and other bohemians came and went, but the Australians lived there and their children went to the local school.

Their son Jason was born in Greece and was baptised in the Greek Orthodox church on Hydra.

George and Charmian were special to the Greeks of Hydra and when they returned to Sydney they would become heroes of the Greek community due to their love for Greece and their involvement with the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Greece. Both Charmian and George were vice-presidents. When the Greek government was overthrown by a military junta in 1967, Charmian Clift became political, writing extensively about her life in Greece and in support of democracy.

So, who were George Johnston and Charmian Clift and how did they come to live on Hydra?

George Johnston was born in Melbourne to a working class family, his father worked at the Tramways Board and they lived in Elsternwick. He went to Brighton Technical School. At 14 he left school and took up an apprenticeship as a lithographer. At 16 he wrote an article about his hobby, wrecked sailing ships, which was published and his natural talent for writing became obvious. At 21 he was offered a cadetship at The Argus in Melbourne. From here he was to become Australia's first war correspondent and, due to the exceptional popularity of his writing, he was dubbed the 'Golden Boy'. After the war he was appointed editor of the Australasian Post.

Charmian Clift was born in Kiama, NSW. She too left school early and tried nursing but disliked it immensely. She tried various odd jobs both in Kiama and later Sydney. During the war she joined the Australian Women's Army Service to escape the claustrophobic and conservative life in Kiama. She was posted to Albert Park Barracks. Charmian was also a talented writer and her abilities were recognised when after the war she was offered a job at The Argus.

Their love story begins in Melbourne, in June of 1946 in The Argus building, which is still situated on the corner of Elizabeth and La Trobe streets. This is where one day in June the young and exceptionally beautiful Charmian met the 'Golden Boy', the famous journalist and Australia's first official war correspondent, George Johnston. They instantly fell in love and in lust. George and Charmian began a torrid affair that scandalised The Argus staff. George was 35 and married, Charmian a vivacious beauty and 23. The conservative management of The Argus couldn't wear the scandal so Charmian was fired. George resigned in protest, left his wife and child, and they both moved to Sydney.

They were married two years later in Sydney after George was appointed features editor of the Sydney Sun. George did not like journalism but he needed the money. Both George and Charmian wanted to write novels full time. Their dream was to live on an exotic Greek island and write novels. Their first collaboration, High Valley, in 1949 won the Sydney Morning Herald Literary Prize.

Their eternal love was clearly stated in High Valley when the female protagonist Veshti says to her lover Salom: "I am glad we are setting out together. Wherever the journey should take us, I am glad we travel together." And travel together they did.

George and Charmian were anxious to leave Australia and head for Greece but money was scarce. As luck would have it, George was offered the position of editor of London's The Sun newspaper. In February 1951 George and Charmian and their two very young children left for London. London was much closer to Greece.

George and Charmian became the toast of the Australian ex-pat community in London. They had a plush apartment on Bayswater Road, opposite Hyde Park. They soon morphed into London sophisticates. They entertained Peter Finch, Sidney Nolan, Donald Horne, Laurence Olivier and others. But George and Charmian were still not settled. George's dislike of journalism began to drive him to antagonise The Sun management. They travelled in Europe, wrote feature articles but longed to write novels full time. To the surprise of many in 1954 George resigned as editor of The Sun and with Charmian and the children moved to Kalymnos, an island in the Aegean close to the Turkish coast.

They chose Kalymnos because while in London they heard of a scheme by the Australia government to bring Kalymnian sponge divers to Darwin for the pearl industry.

George and Charmian had given up secure careers in journalism and the 'high-life' in London for the vagaries of the literary life on a remote Greek island. Kalymnos was certainly remote. While here they wrote and published The Sponge Divers. They lasted less than a year. 1956 saw them move to Hydra, and in April the birth of their third child Jason.

The life on Hydra in the 1960s was exotic and sought after by writers and artists from many parts of the world. The huge influx of tourists began in the mid-'60s so the bohemian community was very small and insular until then. Ever since Henry Miller arrived in 1939 and wrote The Colossus of Marousi, many famous writers and artists visited. The island, being close to Athens, also attracted filmmakers from both Greece and Hollywood.

Australia has a close connection to Hydra for other reasons also. Sir Sidney Nolan began work on his iconic Gallipoli series of paintings here after meeting the Australian writer of Gallipoli, Alan Moorehead, who then lived alone on the nearby island of Spetses. On Hydra, for the foreign community, life was one of working and partying. The drinking, the smoking, the drug-taking, the sexual adventures with a constant stream of young foreigners created countless stories, myths and pure gossip. In the newest Leonard Cohen biography I'm Your Man by Sylvie Simmons, we get a glimpse of the levels of drug-taking and the effect this had on the various participants.

During 1963, amid the partying and the drinking, George began the iconic Australian novel My Brother Jack. Daily, George pounded at the typewriter with Charmian sitting next to him correcting the typescript and helping him to remember life and events in Melbourne. Their routine was taxing. Every morning they would write until midday and then go down to the Katsikas cafe on the waterfront for lunch and wait for the ferry from Piraeus that would bring the mail and new artists and writers looking for adventure. There they would meet friends and George would regale them with stories about Australia and his adventures as a war correspondent; friends such as Peter Finch, Sidney Nolan, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen (of So Long Marianne fame). It was during one of these conversations in 1963 that George was discussing his latest book with Leonard, and said, "I just don't know what to call it".
"What's it about?" Leonard said. "My brother Jack," George replied. Leonard said: "There you are."

In an interview for ABC radio in March 1980, Leonard Cohen said, "I knew George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift very well because I lived in Greece in those days on the same island ... I guess it was from '60 to maybe '65 on Hydra. The Johnstons were there. There were just a few foreigners there in those days.

"The Johnstons were central figures. They were older. They were doing what we all wanted to do, which was to write and to make a living out of writing. They were very wonderful, colourful, hospitable people. They helped me settle in. They gave me a table and chair and bed and really helped me out."

Michael Cacoyannis (of Zorba The Greek fame) was another close friend of George and Charmian. They became close friends in 1956 when they were shooting the film Girl In Black (Το Κορίτσι με τα Μαύρα). Cacoyannis and the star of the film Ellie Lambeti spent much of their free time enjoying the hospitality of the Johnstons. The Johnston children are extras in this film. George and Charmian became friends with all the film crews that used Hydra as a backdrop for their films. There are wild rumours about what went on in the back room of the Katsikas store with Jules Dassin, Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins when they were there filming Phaedra.

In 1963 Hollywood came calling when Robert Preston, Tony Randall and Walter Matthau came to film Island of Love. The entire Johnston family were paid extras in this film.

George and Charmian spent eight years on Hydra, during which time there was an abundance of incidents and scandals permeating though the ex-pat community and on occasion making their way back to Australia.

George Johnston and Charmian Clift in 1948.

Both George and Charmian had a knack for incorporating in their fictional writings elements of their personal lives and this often caused friction and disbelief to each other and amongst readers and peers of the Johnstons.

When My Brother Jack was published, unlike all his previous novels this one became a bestseller and won The Miles Franklin Award. At the beginning of 1964 George flew back to Sydney for the publicity tour and due a severe lack of money Charmian and the children arrived back in Sydney on the Ellinis as assisted migrants from Greece.

George set about writing the second part of the trilogy (and sequel to My Brother Jack), Clean Straw for Nothing. George by now was suffering terribly from the effects of the TB that he had contracted years earlier, which was compounded by his inability to stop his incessant drinking and smoking. He spent quite some time in hospital.

Charmian evolved into an extremely incisive essayist and wrote a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Herald which soon attracted a cult-like status. She also worked on the script of My Brother Jack for ABC TV and appeared in a morning current affairs program with Anne Deveson on 2GB. This frenetic work ethic took its toll. The drinking and partying on Hydra had also caused a terrible deterioration in the overall health and stamina of both Charmian and George.

When the Greek government was overthrown by a military junta in 1967, Charmian Clift became political and her writing reflected this, as she wrote extensively about her life in Greece. She also became vice-president of the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Greece. Her daughter Shane, who of course spoke fluent Greek, was working as a secretary to Jim Calomeras at the Sydney Hellenic Herald.

*Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia will be held at the Hellenic Museum on Friday 29 and Saturday 30 January at 6.30pm for a 7.30pm start. On Saturday a special screening of Boy on a Dolphin will follow. For tickets visit www.eventbrite.com.au/d/australia--melbourne/hellenic-museum/?mode=search

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