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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 9 January 2016
12 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 9 JANUARY 2016 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Australian bohe A tale of inspiration and cultural indulgence HARRY FATOUROS 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 ti longed to write novels full time. To s full tiime. T 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 Sophia Loren on the island of Hydra, Greece, filming Boy on a Dolphin (1957). The Johnstons’ ‘Australia House’ on Hydra became a hub for numerous artists including Leonard Cohen (C).
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