Cumbria Times
A Voice of the North
Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
5:01 PM 9th July 2021

Review: Mermaid Singing By Charmian Clift

Mermaid Singing, first published in 1956, is the gloriously illustrative account of Charmian Clift's experience when, in 1954, she and her husband, tired of the grim city life offered by London, relocated to live in the Greek Islands.

On reflection, they might have confessed to a naive attitude, but their act was brave. They didn't know what to expect, and the vivacity and colour of the culture and society they encountered is captured in an evocative, carefully observed narrative, often peppered with a wit and perspicacity that the reader feels privileged to share.

Charmian and her husband, George Johnston, also a writer, were inspired by a BBC documentary they had seen on a scheme to relocate the unemployed of the island’s declining sponge diving industry, on which the island of Kalymnos was reliant, to Darwin, Australia to revitalise the pearl industry there. They departed for the island perhaps in search of escape, both dispirited by the city life they lived. Arriving at the island, in the story's opening lines a fellow passenger on the boat cries "Mother of God!" between vomits, exclaiming in response to the sight of the two small children the couple have in tow. This cry epitomises the energy and emotion of the island’s residents, and they are not afraid to voice it.

The account recalls their eventful and unpredictable first year on the island - the encounters they have, the friendships they at first tentatively form, despite the language barrier. The reader is immersed in a culture infused with, often hysterical, emotion, yet firmly underpinned with distinct rhythm, routine and convention. We see the disparity between men and women, observe the annual scene of the sponge divers setting off for the African coast, which leaves distraught, but sometimes relieved wives waving them off from the shoreline. The remaining men are mostly the hundreds of former divers who've suffered in their trade, now crippled, sometimes cantankerous, symbolic of the island’s poverty, and its inevitable decline.

Studio Portrait of Charmian Clift,
by Frederick Stanley Grimes
Studio Portrait of Charmian Clift, by Frederick Stanley Grimes
Her vivid description encompasses even the smallest of details, adding deft nuance to the prose. A swollen dead pig is observed washing against the closed doors of a coffee house, elsewhere, “Ladies in coloured petticoats scuttle like queer, bright-shelled beach crabs into the pavilion.” The facial expressions and mannerisms of her neighbours are captured in perfect precision: "(his) wizened little face was cocked sideways. He looked more than ever like a sceptical monkey."

Her recollection at times reads like a lucid dream; she recalls - "in my memory everything is elemental, furious, beyond the edge of normality and control," which perfectly captures the essence of the book, leaving this review almost superfluous! In the scenes she witnesses - the carnivals, the celebrations, the mournful rituals of death and passing - her near non-sequitur commentary enlivens our own experience, suggesting more by what is not said, than by what is. Of a lively celebration, she observes:"Sevasti has a wild stare in her eyes as she studies two bottles - one of retzina (a Greek wine) and one of paraffin. It is clear she has mixed them up. No one pays any attention to that either."

The ocean is inextricably linked to the lives of the island residents, and Clift's language personifies it as another character: “The sea doesn’t care. If she can’t kill them, or doesn’t choose to, she will probably bend one of their legs just a little to show who has command of the situation.” What is undeniable is the resilience of the people; they have very little, yet from such meagre resources every last drop is squeezed. And they suffer: abundance of spirit goes hand in hand with the depths of despair.

Religion too is deeply ingrained in the island’s culture. We have pages dedicated to the rituals, the fasting, and ultimately, the celebrations of Easter. It is much like being seized by a wave that renders you paralysed. The strict adherence to orthodox dogma creates a grave drama that endures until its final release into an explosion of euphoric hysteria.

Clift's own vibrant personality is not restrained, and she intersperses her commentary with playful quips and amusing anecdotes, always underpinned with an effusive warmth towards her neighbours, despite simultaneously poking a bit of fun. She is open with her readers and she doesn't hide her own feeling of inadequacy.

A thoroughly captivating and evocative memoir; one that’s been reissued this year courtesy of independent publisher, Muswell Press. For me, the story provides travel writing at its very best: an opportunity to escape in time and space to experience a world in vivid colour and vibrancy, penned by a writer with exceptional skill – truly a must-read.

Mermaid Singing by is published by Muswell Press