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In 1951 Charmian Clift and George Johnston left Australia for England with their children, Martin (three) and Shane (one). In late 1954 the family moved to the Greek island of Kalymnos . In 1955 they bought a house on the island of Hydra , where their third child, Jason, was born. George Johnston returned to Australia in early 1964, and was joined by the rest of the family in August. 
On her return to Australia Charmian Clift wrote a weekly column for the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and the 'Melbourne Herald'.


ON DEBITS AND CREDITS - by Charmian Clift - November 1964

Since I have come back to Australia I have been asked many times about the advantages and disadvantages of bringing up my children on a Greek island.

Because yes, of course, there are disadvantages as well as advantages. But observing those same children now—after two months in a land that is their homeland and yet virtually a foreign country—tearing off in a last-minute spurt to catch school buses, telephoning new friends, bickering about who is going to see what television programme, making plans for weekends, practising Twist and Shake until the house rocks, I realise that the debits and credits have balanced out as nearly evenly as if they had spent the last ten years in a more conventional way.

Fortunately for parents, children are such incredibly adaptable creatures.

I remember with what doubts and misgivings I watched the two eldest (seven and five then, and the third one not even thought of) during our first few months of island living. Dislodged so suddenly from the familiar, comfortable and utterly secure London pattern of home and school and nursery tea, ordered outings in ordered parks, toys and treats and special family rituals, and thrown into what must have seemed to them to be a barbaric chaos of harsh landscape, strange unappetising food, uncomfortable housing, savage and bare-footed children who patently regarded them as interesting freaks, and without any means of communication whatever, they sickened, grew thin and nervous, and rather pathetically unconfident out of our presence for even a moment.

We hardened our hearts and sent them to school. And an outlandish school it was too—called, for a reason I have never been able to discover, The Black School—catering for the minimal educational needs of the swarms of island children who testified to the virility of their tough, sponge-diver fathers. It was built on the ruins of an ancient Temple of Artemis, and had turned out rather Byzantine in character if not in fact, with an elaborate tinselly chapel, and rows of plain plank benches under hand-drawn charts of primitive husbandry—reaping and threshing and winnowing. The woman teacher wore a long skirt and an apron and a headscarf, very medieval. The male teacher carried a birch rod. The little girls wore patched and faded blue smocks and long hair tied in bows, the little boys also wore patched and faded smocks, but their heads were shaved, and their arms and legs (and their shaved heads too) were scored and scratched and bruised and cut with new and old wounds. They were indeed formidable.

What was interesting was that within a month our pampered little darlings were spurning shoes, neglecting their toys (those they hadn't given away or used as bribes or paid out in blackmail), wolfing bread and oil and olives and goat cheese with every appearance of enjoyment, and jabbering away in Greek with a whole horde of shaven-headed snot-nosed little savages, with whom they raced away every afternoon to shin up ships' masts and rigging, to explore rocky mountain trails, to help with the goat-herding or to trample bales of sponges in the shallows, to fly kites from the high golden rocks that soared over the town. They were playing fivestones, they were fishing from the harbour mole, they were beating an octopus on the rocks, they were triumphantly swimming at last without touching the sand with their feet, they were in and out of houses, sponge-clipping rooms, warehouses, they were following wedding processions and funerals, they were awed spectators in the gruesome slaughterhouse, they were here there and everywhere— everywhere, that is, except home.

By the time we moved on to the island of Hydra, where we were to live for the next ten years, they had forgotten that any other way of life existed other than one of rather Spartan frugality in the way of comforts, and absolute physical freedom. They could sleep on the hardest planks, in shepherds' huts, on the decks of caiques, they could ride donkeys like cowboys, they could swim like fish and fight like tigers. They were beginning to be slightly ashamed of us for our distressing Greek and our foreignness, which they felt to be rather humiliating to them personally. We had to get down to serious maintenance work on their English.

But the new pattern was established, and was to be maintained for the next ten years.

The only break in it came after we had been living in Greece for six years or so, and decided to take a trip back to England for six months. Now we had another child, born on the island, and it was uncanny to see the whole thing in reverse. He spoke only Greek, and he had never been off the island of Hydra in his whole four years. He had never seen a train or a car or a neon sign or a hot-water service or a real bath-tub or a modern shop or any traffic other than a mule train or a string of fishing boats, or a vacuum cleaner or a garden hose or a lawn mower or a kitchen gadget.  

And yes, of course, he panicked, grew thin and nervous, unconfident, clinging, whiny; rallied, and came back to Greece at the end of six months speaking English with a quaint Gloucestershire accent and no Greek whatever, to the horror and dismay of his Greek nurse and all his little Greek friends, who could neither believe nor understand it. So we had to go through another couple of months of readjustment. After that we stayed put.  

Now, on the debit side, I think it has been trying for the children to have foreign parents. Children are really conformists, and I think they found it quite hard work to live down the fact that their mother wore pants and smoked and frequented the waterfront taverns, and that both their parents spoke Greek lamentably enough to make them targets for childish ridicule. They were particularly vulnerable during the Cyprus troubles, when all their little friends were being valorous about EOKA,(1) and they, for the life of them, didn't know which camp they were in. They solved it characteristically, the elder with reason and some moral courage, which was appreciated and worked not only in his favour but in ours too, and the second by throwing in her loyalty absolutely with the other children and leading bands of them round the back streets shouting Death to the English, which worked in her favour and ours just as much as her brother's moral stand for justice.  

There were religious difficulties also, since there is only one religion in Greece , and nobody even has a name or an identity until he is baptised. Also, religion is a compulsory school subject. We left it up to them. One decided to stay outside the Greek Orthodox Church but to take religion as a school subject, one decided to be baptised and take a new Greek name, and in the case of the baby we decided to have him baptised without his consent, since it seemed desirable he should have a name rather than not, the neighbours and townspeople were thrilled, and it tactfully sidestepped another possible charge of parental peculiarity against the older children. It was a very happy baptism, at which all the islanders were present, and none of us has ever regretted it.  

On the debit side also, from my own point of view, was the total lack of medical facilities, and the ever-present nagging worry about accidents, emergencies, teeth and tonsils and appendix, mule-kicks, mad dogs, and the fact that there was only one steamer a day, which took three-and-a-half hours to make the journey to Piraeus. We kept our fingers crossed and I learnt first aid and kept a well-stocked medicine cabinet, and luckily nothing ever happened that I couldn't cope with.  

The credits are good. Once the children got through primary school and entered gymnasium they received as fine a classical education as one could wish anywhere in the world. Old-fashioned certainly, terribly disciplined, without hobby or play periods or consideration of their psyches, but very sound. Also they have grown up with basic and real values, and probably for as long as they live they will never quite take for granted water and food and warmth and shelter, because they have lived for so long in a place where people have been hungry sometimes, where water depends upon rainfall and is often rationed, where the household roof is almost a sacred thing, where a shady tree is precious, where life is lived to an ancient pattern of ritual that grows out of man's constant and continuing battle with the earth and the sea. They each have two languages, and a deeply ingrained knowledge of another culture. They have standards of comparison which will be of value to them as long as they live.  

I am glad to have brought them home again, and they are glad to be here, in a world of modern marvels that is their own to evaluate and to make of what they can and will. Now it is up to them.

1. EOKA was the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, which revolted against the British colonial rule of Cyprus in 1955. When negotiations between the British governor and the Greek leader Archbishop Makarios broke down in early 1956, the British deported the much-loved patriarch to the Seychelles . While on Cyprus itself EOKA waged guerilla warfare in the struggle for self-determination, there was also intense anti-British feeling in Greece .


Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer/songwriter, He, with 'the gift of a Golden Voice' emerged on Hydra , Greece. This emergence was aided by two significant and charismatic Australian writers - 
George Johnston and Charmian Clift. Leonard's first ever concert was in the back of the Katsikas Brothers
general store on Hydra which was organised by George Johnston.

The fabulous love story of George Johnston & Charmian Clift on Hydra


George Johnston & Charmian Clift

Charmian Clift on Hydra


Areti Ketime
A Musical Genius from Greece



There are 3 types of men;
lovers of wisdom, 
lovers of honor, and 
lovers of gain. (PLATO)