Hydra as intimate theatre by Paul Genoni

In late 1963, Rodney Hall – an aspiring but unpublished poet and novelist – travelled through Greece’s Saronic islands with his wife and their infant daughter. Shortly after Christmas they found themselves on the island of Hydra, where they fell into the company of expatriate Australian writers George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift, whose time on the island was drawing to a close after nearly a decade. The Johnstons, their marriage precariously holding together amid a ruinous trail of alcohol, infidelity, and public brawling, did as they had done so often before – cast aside their personal troubles and embraced their fellow Australians with immense personal warmth, hospitality, and charisma. As Hall remembers, ‘they were lovely, they were so warm, and welcoming, and funny and clever, and it was just instant friendship, we just loved them.’

By this time, a string of marginally successful novels had rendered Johnston’s finances as fragile as his marriage, but he was also armed with his justification for having taken his family from the locus of postwar literary expatriation, London, to a poorly developed corner of the Aegean. In his hands, Johnston held nothing less than his tilt at the Great Australian Novel, the book he believed would redeem his reputation and set right the personal and professional toll of his expatriation. As Hall recalls:

After we had known them five or six days, George said ‘I’ve finished this book, would you like to read it? You will have to come over to our place because I have only got two carbon copies and I can’t let either of them out of the house.’ So every morning I left Bet with the baby and I went over and sat at Charmian’s table, a big long wooden table running along one wall with a bench on one side and ladder back chairs. A lovely, beautiful kitchen. And I would read My Brother Jack, and sometimes George would come down to watch. It was a bit intimidating and he would sit at the end of the table and smoke. The table would seat sixteen or so people, and he would sit at the far end of the table pretending to read a book on his own account, but really checking on my response. And it was very exciting because certainly the first third of that book is truly wonderful, and I was able to be highly demonstrative. That went down well.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Published in December 2016, no. 387
Paul Genoni

Paul Genoni

Paul Genoni is an Associate Professor with the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University. He is a former President of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and author of Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction (2004). With Tanya Dalziell (University of Western Australia) he is currently writing a social history of the expatriate community on Hydra during the time George Johnston and Charmian Cliftlived on the island (1955-1964).

Comments (2)

  • Leave a comment

    I, for one Ray, am still eager for more from that wonderful, flawed period. From Clean Straw for Nothing, we think we know quite a bit about the atmospherics of that period; and to visit Hydra is to be enabled to imagine how plausible it might all be but the actual texture, the nitty-gritty, of those self-indulgent days and nights still eludes us. within those post-adolescent self-indulgences of alcohol-infused hellenostalgia, there flourished some of the real genius of the mid- to late-twentieth century. We need to be patient with the partial recountings to understand how that actually worked.

    Thursday, 01 December 2016 21:58 posted by Alan Lawson
  • Leave a comment

    Yet another story about George Johnston and Charmian Clift on Hydra. Surely it's been done to death.

    Thursday, 01 December 2016 14:48 posted by Ray Liversidge

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.