It is worth keeping in mind that a classic of the post-war Australian novel, My Brother Jack, owes its existence to the incredible patience and generosity of a grocery store/kafenion owner on the island of Hydra.
This is one of the gems of information that is hauled and re-polished for the reader by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni in their book Half the Perfect World, Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964.
The book, which won last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award in the non-fiction section, covers the time Australian literary couple George Johnston and Charmian Clift spent on Hydra. Towards the end of their time there, Johnston’s My Brother Jack finally earned him recognition for his long labours in Hydra.
There is a section in Half the Perfect World, quoted below, which reflects something of a world that now seems long gone. A friend, Rodney Hall, recounts when George Johnston goes to pay his debt at the local kafenion owned by the Katsikas family. The debt is a big one stretching over the years – Johnston and Clift, and their three children, have lived on Hydra on little income in the hope the novel-writing craft for which they have forsaken journalism and Australia will finally yield success and fortune.
After nine years on Hydra, their efforts finally bare fruit – My Brother Jack, is accepted and 100,000 copies are to be printed. They receive a cheque from the publishers and one of their first acts is to repay the debt to the ever-patient Katsikas.
Rodney Hall is hauled in to witness the honouring of the debt: “…we trooped along the Agora to the corner of the laneway where Katsikas had his shop and they went in and announced to him that they had a cheque and would he give them their bill. It took him a moment to process what they had said, because they only spoke English. And then it dawned on him and he said ‘Yes’ in a very courteous, restrained way, and he got out the book, because their best customers had a whole book to themselves with receipts and things. He got his abacus out and started doing all his calculations and this took some time. Charmian said, ‘You know, every month we thank him for it, and we don’t pay. And over all the years we have been doing this, never once has he said I can’t keep supplying you because you don’t pay me anything.’ And they bought everything there, all their groceries, their green groceries, and their alcohol. And their alcohol bill would have been something. Everything that was bought on at Katsikas was on this account. And he added it all up, and it was some thousands of pounds sterling…. And you know, we only have My Brother Jack because of an obscure grocer called Katsikas.”
“But for all the generosity of the Katsikas brothers, the extravagant sociability; the many long and bountiful days and the years of drinking and talking; the frisson of forming new relationships; and the thrill of occasional success, there were also undeniable tensions on the agora that went further and deeper than alcohol induced arguments and lovers falling out.”- write Genoni and Dalziell.
The chair of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards’ panel, Professor Lynette Russell said Half the Perfect World: “documents the lives of two prominent post-war Australian literary exiles, it is also a book that addresses contemporary Australia, and our propensity for looking both outward and inward.” The book goes further than that as it also captures a moment in time of a world that seems quite removed from what we know today.
What had started out as a study of the development of tourism in postwar Greece became something more when authors Genoni and Dalziell uncovered, through the internet, a treasure trove of 1,500 pictures by Life magazinephotographer James Burke of Hydra’s expatriate community of artists, dreamers and drifters. These pictures form the pictorial backbone of the book.
The authors fill in the rest with the accounts of friends and contemporaries of “various written sources, both published and unpublished, as well as oral accounts and interviews.
George Johnston and Charmian Clift are at the very centre of the book. Voluntary exiles from the conservatism of post-war Australia, after fleeing journalism and the gray skies of London to finally settle for the sun, romance of island life on Hydra while they try to forge a life in literature. The setting may seem idyllic and the couple work hard to realise their ambitions but they also play hard as a community of expats, including Leonard Cohen, then a successful poet and author, converge on the island.
Dalziel and Genoni apply an academic rigour to the book tying in the various sources into a line of narrative which captures a unique period in time. Theirs is not the light touch of a Gerald Durrell looking through a romantic prism of childhood.
The life that Johnston and Clift have made for themselves is hard and while they stick to their task to earn a living from writing, the money situation is hard on them. The island life itself offers many distractions – alchohol and messy relationships within the community all take their toll so that by the time they leave Hydra for Australia in 1964 the expat community is divided into factions.
But there is a lot to enjoy in the vignettes of the many characters that inhabit the island such as the policeman poet Emmanuel Androlakis, the comings and goings of people like Leonard Cohen soon to become world famous as a singer, the mysterious sailor Sam Barclay with his undercover activities.
Then there is Demetri Gassoumis who is consumed by his strange mission to build the first private swimming pool on an island struggling for water.
The Hyrdiot families encourage the development of the arts on the island and befriend many of the expatriates who have come to live there -Artist Nikos Hadjikyrikakos Ghika was the one who first brought Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell to the island in earlier and Katerina Paouri who famously hosted Marc Chagal and who was said to have torn a drawing the artist made for her because she thought it was trash.
Eventually as mass tourism starts to take hold, the expat community that fled from their world find that world has come to them and that they are part of the tourist attraction on the island.