Remembering Charmian Clift

Charmian Clift

On the 50th anniversary of her death, Charmian Clift has been remembered not only as one of Australia’s greatest writers, but as someone whose life and writings were strongly influenced by her experience growing up in Kiama.

Those experiences, good and bad, were discussed at a Remembering Charmian event, organised by Kiama Library and the Kiama & District Historical Society.

They are also the subject of a new guided tour app, developed by the Library’s Rebecca Cook with the help of Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley and Sue Eggins of the Historical Society.

Ms Wheatley’s book, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, was acknowledged by the other speakers as the definative work on Charmian, based on 20 years of research.

Born in 1923, at what is now 1 Hothersal Street, but was then the last house on the highway heading north, Charmian never fitted in for a variety of reasons.

Although her English father was the engineer at Bombo Quarry, he didn’t hold with social standing and chose to live in a rented house in what was considered ‘the wrong end of town’.

With their love of classical music and literature, they were also considered an oddity by their quarry worker neighbours.

While their neighbour’s children went to school at Bombo, the Clift children went to Kiama Public, where they were excluded for being different by the other children.

“Charmian was smart, and when other kids sneared at her she flaunted it,” said Ms Wheatley during her talk.

“At a young age she made a vow – I’m going to show them.”

Not fitting in, combined with intelligence, led to difiant and rebellious behaviour that outraged conservative Kiama.

Her beauty was her ticket out, as the prize money for winning a PIX Magazine beach girl photo competition in 1941 allowed her to escape to the big city.

She became a journalist and at 23 began her lifelong relationship with George Johnston, then a much older and famous war correspondent.

They worked together and separately on novels, achieving recognition and status for their work.

Famously, they ruled over a Utopian clique on the Greek island of Hydra, even offering friendship to a young Leonard Cohen.

Her friend, the artist Cedric Flower, who knew her in London, the Greek Islands and Sydney,was quoted as saying, “To me Charm was always just the girl from Kiama.”

Ms Wheatley agrees, “Wherever she was, her homeplace was always in her head.”

In a novel, referring to her house on the wrong side, she wrote, “I’ll show the bastards on the right side.”

Her work was also full of what she loved about Kiama – particularly the beach and ocean, and its freedom.

In the last years of her life, she was one of the most influential newspaper columnists in Australia, and the news of her suicide at just 45 shocked the nation.

The event was also an opportunity to encourage people to appeal to her publishers, Harper Collins, to put her work back in print.

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