An essay by Charmian Clift

1 Charmian Clift 1

I’m in the middle of a Charmian Clift revival now, rereading all her books. I find her prose delightful to read. At its most inspired it has a real music, a kind of poetry. She was a bit of a gadfly in her essays, Charmian. She tackled all kinds of ‘issues’ before they became PC. I find her, again and again, astonishingly perceptive. It helps perhaps that I’m also an Australian, and think I know what she was up against. And she is so evocative, bringing back times and places so vividly I feel I’m there myself.

Charmian Clift is a major 20th century writer, who excelled at the now unfashionable essay form. She was also an outsider.

She was a woman in an era when feminine accomplishment was confined to home and family, yet she was a writer; she was a notorious flirt who had stolen another woman’s husband, yet was dedicated to her family; a country girl from Kiama fleeing the sticks yet living on the bohemian outskirts of big city sophistication; a creative artist, but best known for her journalism; and a foreigner in more than one culture. She had a novelist’s eye and an outsider’s perception of essentials in the worlds she found herself living in.

Just as George Orwell positioned himself at the centre of left wing politics in London of the 30s and from there made some of the most devastating and perceptive social criticism ever written from any political viewpoint, so Clift positioned herself at the conservative centre of right wing Australia of the 60s, and lashed out at smugness, hypocrisy, sexism and inertia. Australia then was the ‘Lucky Country’. George Carlin attacked those living the American Dream in the USA of the 80s with the remark, “To have the American Dream, you first of all have to be asleep”. This was Clift’s point in the 60s.

This is good company for Charmian Clift. George Orwell and George Carlin. She seems to have had an affinity for Georges. But Clift was also a gifted novelist, and it shows in her ability to describe milieu.

I was praising her to a friend recently, and became enthusiastic all over again to reread her essays, and her books about Greece.

2 Charmian and George

In “The Loftiest Form of Springtime” (the essay title is a quotation from George Seferis), reprinted in the collection Trouble in Lotus Land and written about April 1965 (it exists only in an undated typescript), I found this passage:

“And every year it did indeed seem miraculous that those austere crags and stony fields could spring again, so suddenly it happened. Overnight rough mountain tracks were starred with clumps of camomile daisies, as though for a bridal way or a triumph, and the slopes were stupefying with wild thyme and spotted with crimson anemones, crinkle-petalled and fine as silk. Red as blood. You could wade in the ragged asphodel. There were little green hooded lilies sprung up between the stones, trails of wild caper blossom drooping fringes and tassels from every crevice, tiny pale violets, narcissus, pink hyacinth, strange delicate trumpets and spikes whose names I never knew, brown bells on acid yellow stalks almost as fine as hair, and flowers so minute in size and simple in form that we called then ‘dolls’ flowers’.

“The irregular plowed patches high above the white town were washed with a green so tender as to be almost transparent, in paved courtyards the hard sticks of pruned vines nubbed with little swellings of bud, ancient figs put out new leaves like tiny green hopeful hands, and the broad spiny plates of prickly pear blossomed with soft fringed magenta flowers”.

This kind of description is not easy to do for a writer. I can’t do it myself, and many writers who attempt it send me to sleep with their efforts. I don’t know about you, but this gives me enormous pleasure to read. Yes, there is the slight self consciousness of language, but also a mastery of it, the flow and rhythm of the sentences, the poetic devices such as alliteration that add savour to the description. This is a view of a field in Kalymnos or Hydra recollected from her home in Mosman Australia, yet it is more, a view infused with her delight in the coming of Spring, a view felt and savoured, smelt and touched.

As becomes apparent as the essay progresses, springtime in Greece evoked powerful memories of people and ritual, all of it imbued with a sense of time, rituals that had been carried out for centuries, millennia.

Now this is a perspective I don’t think anyone in Greece who was born and lived there would have had. It is an outsider’s perspective, the viewpoint of a foreigner. For the islanders it would just have been there, as it always was in Spring. The rituals, which were required by the Church, had always been observed. They wouldn’t have thought at all about the ancient Greeks.

The ancient Easter ritual continued: “On the night of Maundy Thursday religious ecstasy took over absolutely. Christ was seized and Christ was crucified, to candles and Byzantine chanting and grievous sobbing as the crude cardboard effigy, with a silk cloth about its loins and a wreath of mountain thorns about its head, was brought out on the cross and taken in sad solemn procession around the church before being placed upright in the centre of the nave. It was accomplished. The women threw themselves to the floor in their grief, wringing their hands and clutching their hair. Children wailed and men covered their eyes. Christ was dying on the cross, now, as Christ would die on the cross this night, and now, forever…”

The mourning on Friday and Saturday ends with the good news.

“The officiating priest suddenly appeared, holding up a lighted candle, and crying, ‘Come ye, and take light from the eternal light!’

“There was the wildest surge forward in the darkness, a tumult of gasping, pressing bodies, a sea of upraised hands holding candles. One by one the candles took flame from each another and spread and multiplied, running and jumping up flights of stairs and along cool arched cloisters, while on the palm-wreathed platform the symbolic stone was rolled away, and at exactly midnight an angel cried: ‘He is not here! He is risen!'”

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Clift is on the spot, and she is moved by what is taking place, agnostic though she might be. But she is not a reporter writing some local colour for a travel sketch. There is more to her essay than that. She remembers the seasons in Greece as events, “declaring themselves more definitely, and more significantly” than they do now in Australia.

It is indeed an atavistic emotion behind the ritual. The earth has died in Winter. The end is near. And suddenly, imperceptibly but with a flourish for all that, Spring and the new growth arrive. Anguish is followed by joy. Clift can rationalise this, and what she has to say is interesting.

“Christ and Dionysus merge in torn flesh and flowers, and life is resurrected from the dead earth. The pagan world is always there, lingering on, dark and impenitent”.

There exists accounts of the festival of Adonis in ancient Athens in which the emotions are the same as that evoked by the Christian festival today.

From here Clift jumps to a perceptive insight about Greek society. It might be true of any society. “I sometimes think the observance of form is the key to the strength of the Greek family structure. There are so many rituals and ceremonies through the year that family tensions can be sublimated in the involved preparations necessary to carry off the occasion with the proper flair”.

Reliving the Easter festival in memory, Clift leaves her readers with one final thought. It takes her almost back to the start, to her evocation of the Spring flowers on stony ground she remembered so well.

“But something had been accomplished. It was reassurance. And triumph. Everything would come, this year, and every year, in its appointed season”.

And she suddenly steps back, and makes it all relevant to her readers. It is the outsider speaking.

“Even we, ignorant foreigners that we were, had the strangest feeling that we had helped the year along”.

Because it’s not just a ritual. It’s a deeply felt emotion. The earth needs us, the Christian god, the pagan god too, needs all the effort we can bring to the job, to make the Spring happen. And when it does it’s a joy and a miracle and a beauty.

It’s what the old author of Ecclesiastes had in mind:

“To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to reap what is planted…”

Not bad for 2,000 words Charmian.

4 Charmian and George on Hydra

Clift’s editor Nadia Wheatley tells us something of how Clift created. Her work was journalism. She was expected to deliver an essay a week to the offices of the Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney. She had seven days to write and shape and polish and type her piece after thinking of a subject and researching it. That’s not a lot of time. Then on to the next one.

Wheatley says that Clift found it very hard to do, because she was naturally a slow, painstaking writer who wanted to revise and restructure, polish and rewrite again. That’s how she wrote her novels and longer books. And she was apparently a private, rather secretive personality, perhaps a little defensive. Yet here she was, committed to an essay giving her opinions and details of her life and family and having to write it within seven days. Clift wrote 240 of these essays over a five year period, and by the time she was into her stride she had gained an audience of tens of thousands who waited eagerly for their copy of the Herald to see what she had to say that week.

She wrote against conscription, untrammeled building development, destruction of the environment, sexism, insularity, snobbishness. There was much to complain of in Australia in the 1960s. But it all needed to be said. As Bob Dylan remarked, “The Times, They Are A’Changin'”. He said that in 1964, when everyone was worried about him changing to electricity for his guitar but didn’t do nothing to help Hollis Brown.

The issues Clift wrote about were important then. They aren’t now. That was journalism, and journalism dates. The extraordinary thing about Clift’s essays is that they can be read now, and what she has to say is somehow still relevant, still an issue, still needs saying. Just as George Orwell can describe a boys’ school he suffered at, a boys’ school that doesn’t exist anymore, yet what he’s talking about still does, despite the obsolescent details he mentions.

The essay I’m talking about is a case in point. What do we know about the Spring? We can’t even tell from a change in temperature anymore. Yet the seasons, the equinoxes and solstices, the daily motion of the sun and moon, all are important. We are still a part of it. Perhaps if we lose all sense of it, it all might come to a stop?

We need a reminder that it is a lofty occasion.

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I read on: an essay about delivery men who never turned up with purchases until more than one visit of enquiry was made at the store. Was this a national characteristic, wonders Clift, who remembers that the Micawbers migrated to Australia, who were always hoping for things to turn up but never did anything about it. Perhaps they run the delivery services here? And a report of the Kelly Festival in Euroa and a panegyric on Ned Kelly. Can one ever be justified in rebelling against an unjust rule, wonders Clift, and are those who rebel heroes or villains? I suppose it’s a question of who writes the account. Morality doesn’t come into it.

Then I came across another essay about the seasons, one on Christmas. In an earlier essay, on “Saturnalias”, Clift had looked behind the present giving, the cards, the Santa Claus in the stores, the trees and decorations, and the celebrations and Christmas dinners, and found the ancient Roman Saturnalia. The Winter solstice, the birth of the sun. In Egyptian ceremonies the infant sun was shown as a human infant, carried by mother Isis. The period of the solstice was one between ordered systems, of negation. The old year had died, the new one was yet to be born. Rule was forsaken, topsy turvy festivities were performed like the Romans’ Saturnalia. Then, on 25 December, the sun was born anew. We know nothing of all this, Clift remarked, yet we still like to party. Does that mean we still feel the solstice in our bones?

The essay that caught my eye though was one called “We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t”, in the SMH 30 December 1965. It’s about the giving of presents. How often do you hear people say “We’re not going to bother about presents this year”. Or see people with their lists frantically doing last minute shopping. Or queueing up at January sales so as to be ready in December. Some even price match: “Auntie Ethel can’t have spent more than $25 on that pewter mug last year. Let’s give her that cheap photo frame we bought at Woolworths. It’s just the kind of thing she likes”.

All year we hear Christmas is getting closer. The countdown begins. Six weeks to go. Five weeks. And it’s all about shopping. Cards. Lists. “Oh my goodness. Your brother Jack’s sent us a card. I thought he was dead. Now I’ll have to buy another box of them just to send him one”.

Pretty oppressive isn’t it? And the Christmas dinners with family you haven’t seen since last year and don’t like, who get drunk and abusive. And you never speak to them again. Until next Christmas. What were we celebrating again? I lost touch. Ah yes. The birth of Jesus. The solstice. The continuation of life, and hope, and love.

The words Clift hears at Christmas, she tells us, are “time”, and “bother”. Like, “I don’t have time to buy everyone a present”, or “We’re not going to bother putting a tree up this year”. It reminds her of her childhood.

“…when everything for Christmas, from cards to pudding to tree, was hand-hewn as it were, as a matter of course, because there wasn’t anything much to buy and even if there had been there wasn’t any money to buy it with, and we would spend weeks designing and painting cards, making decorations, collecting shells on the beach and grading them to glue into patterns on cigar boxes which we would line with bits of silk or to thread into necklaces and bracelets, or sewing beaded bookmarks or painting wobbly waratahs on fringed leather…We all bothered”.

There is a ritual aspect about giving presents which we have lost, and Clift reminds us of it. The hand painted Easter eggs delivered personally to the homes of friends. “There was a time too when birthdays in our household began with a treasure hunt for the presents.”

She recalls the 15 year old Christmas present she still cherishes, of a hand painted alphabet book with original verses about her and her family which took the givers two months of hard creative work to make. Her friends found the time. They were bothered.

Clift takes us back to what we are supposed to be celebrating.

“The gifts of the Magi sometimes come in strange disguises and plain wrappers. But they all have something in common. Time mostly. And thought. And a great deal of bother”.

The priests of Zarathustra in the bible story travelled over two months, a distance of more than 1,000 miles or 1,700 km. Finding the Saviour was worth a bit of time and effort. Buying a lot of presents takes a small effort really but a lot of money. It might be good for the economy (but the economy is always in trouble: sorry, the price for that has gone up) but is it worth the trouble?

Well. 1,300 words of topical journalism. But worth rereading almost 50 years later. It’s the outsider’s eye. The one who sees the king is wearing no clothes. It’s the child who asks, why? The poet who wrote prose. The novelist who wrote essays. The writer who didn’t, perhaps, think she could write. Someone who deserves to be read.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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