Paradise Lost: Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell revisit Hydra

The authors of Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 take us through their findings about the mythic island

Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra. Photo by Jeff Busby

In their book Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964, Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni provide a thoughtful and astonishingly well-researched dive into the mythic artist community that settled on the Greek island of Hydra in the late 1950’s. Among them were George Johnston and Charmian Clift.

Here we have a chat about what drew them to the story of Johnston, Clift and the island of Hydra and why so many of our greatest minds flocked to the Aegean.

What drew you to the story of Hydra? Why is this story so important to our cultural history?

PG: The book was sparked coming across all of those incredible photographs that you find sprinkled throughout the book, particularly the photos by James Burke. There was this great wealth of photographs that were pretty much untouched and that gave us the impetus to investigate more widely what the experience of living on the island in that time was.

But the story of Johnston and Clift and the myth of the time they spent overseas has always been there in the background of mid-century Australian literature. It was an example of the ways Australians could expatriate that was very different than going off to London. To go and put yourself on this remote Greek island where you don’t know the language and don’t know the culture to give yourself the time and space to write, so it was that kind of dedication of their lives to their art which was kind of the gravitational pull of the story, the fact that they were prepared to dedicate themselves and to take the risk of uprooting their family and leaving behind the infrastructure of a writer’s life in favour of something new. It was the romance of the story that drew us to it.

TD: I think that it speaks to a particular generation. I mean that in the sense of, Johnston wrote My Brother Jack which was published in 1964 and it was very much part of the popular imagination for some period time. And he’s known for that book more than anything else. Charmian Clift had a very prominent career in the newspapers in the late 1960’s and was a writer in her own right. I guess the myth, though, continues on in Australian literary culture in the sense of this very romantic idea of writers going off somewhere to write and how rare that is. I guess the story continues to have cultural currency because of that romance, but it also speaks to issues that continue to interest us today, such as what it’s like to work trans-nationally, what it means to write, what it means to dedicate a life to a vocation that is not necessarily prized by the wider culture… there is that sense of writers still on that fringe, which I think the Clift and Johnston story is definitely speaking to.

What did you know about the story of Hydra before you started writing the book? What changed throughout your research?

PG: We knew that they lived there for about ten years and that it was, in a way, largely unproductive for them until they returned to Australia with a version of the great Australian novel in My Brother Jack, which is a rough outline that most people would be familiar with.

In a lot of biographies of both Clift and Johnston, which are very well-researched and very well-written, they kind of gloss over those years and only allude to the fact there was a community there, this counter-culture that had grown up around them on the island, but there was very little detail about it all. Where there was detail, it was largely about Leonard Cohen.

What we tried to do in the book was flesh out what was known about this community who was on Hydra, what they were doing while they were there and the conflicts created by the complete freedom offered to them by the island, and the ways in which this freedom was liberating but also endangering.

Photos by Jeff Busby

That idea of the freedom being both inspiring and disparaging is a very interesting one. Hydra is a beautiful place, but it is also incredibly remote. Isolating. Can you speak to the experience of living on Hydra and the difficulty is posed its inhabitants?

That issue of freedom and what it does to individuals, particularly creative individuals, is at the heart of the Hydra experience. It’s a large part of what the play is about… they didn’t want to have 9–5 jobs, particularly Johnston. But there’s this old saying, be wary of what you dream because it might come true. They both managed to maintain a work ethic, living on the island, living in such close proximity, is part of what broke their relationship in the end.

One of the first things that we noticed about Hydra was the intimacy of the island. It’s a very small space, it all revolves around one time, it all revolves around the shopfronts and the cafés that open out on the dockside. Many people who write about Hydra have noted the intensity of the personal relationships that form there because you’re always running into the same people whether you wish to or not. Clift wrote about having the same conversations with the same people day after day and the way that kind of drains you.

At the centre of this play is Clift, who — despite her incredible success and achievement — isn’t held up in the same way as Johnston in our cultural history. Could you elaborate on your understanding of Clift, her work and her place on Hydra?

TD: I think the story of Clift is interesting because her and Johnston were on Hydra just prior to the 1960’s and the upsurge of 1950’s feminism as well… viewed retrospectively, Clift’s story speaks to a woman struggling to find her voice as an author. But also, what it might mean to make those claims, but also to make claims about sexuality. She kind of demands on her relationship and on herself and on the circumstances that were ahead their time in lots of ways. And the couple was in an environment that was quite conservative relatively speaking. So her story is incredibly interesting and what she was trying to do at that time resonates with the way that which, even now, we continue to think about women finding a place as authors and creatives in a modern sense.

She was trying to negotiate what it meant to be a mother and a wife and a writer on this island that had very few modern conveniences… as much as they did have some help, Clift was negotiating very traditional gender roles. Those very material circumstances certainly impacted on what she could write.

Unlike Johnston, Clift was a very slow writer. Johnston could pump out 5000–10,000 words a day. He was a journalist and was used to churning out stories and working at a rapid pace. Oftentimes Clift’s ambitions were subsumed by Johnston’s.

This story isn’t to be understood only in gendered terms… I wouldn’t want to paint it as a story that only speaks to gender. There’s so much in it. But certainly gender definitely came into play both in terms of the work they produced and the way the relationship played out in the end.

Hydra plays in the Dunstan Playhouse from 1–19 May 2019. Purchase your tickets here.

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Learn more about Half the Perfect World here.