Mermaid Singing:
Kalymnos Travel Writing

Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is a fine example of 1950s travel writing about the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese.

Kalymnos SunsetKalymnos Sunset

In 1954 the Australian writers Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston left London with their two young children to go and live on the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese. They both wrote individually, but also wanted to collaborate on a novel, and live cheaply on Kalymnos while they did so.

The Sponge Divers

The novel that the couple wrote was published in 1955 as The Sea and the Stone, to be republished the following year as The Sponge Divers. Kalymnos has been famous for its sponge divers since ancient times, and it was this industry that made Kalymnos one of the richest islands in the Dodecanese.

However, it is clear from Mermaid Singing, the non-fiction book that Clift wrote herself about the family’s time on Kalymnos, that it wasn’t the sponge divers themselves who were made wealthy, but the sponge traders. It was a tough life, honestly portrayed in Mermaid Singing. The divers would leave Kalymnos in the spring every year and be away from their families for about seven months, frequently travelling as far as North Africa. Not all of them would return, as sponge diving can be a deadly business.

One of the most vivid episodes in the book is about the annual departure of the sponge divers, and the celebrations and lamentations of the men, and their families and friends. By the time the departure happens, the author and her own family have been on Kalymnos for several months, and befriended many of the sponge divers, getting to know them and their families.

This isn’t something that everyone does, as a part of Kalymniot society looks down on the sponge divers as ruffians and drunkards. This is true in part for many of them, but there’s much more to their lives, and personalities, than that.

Sponges for Sale on Kalymnos in GreeceSponges for Sale on Kalymnos

Life on Kalymnos

There’s also much more to the book than the lives of the sponge divers. There’s the question of how their two young children, Martin aged seven, and his sister Shane, who is 14 months younger, would adapt to the switch from living in central London to a Greek island. Kalymnos back in the 1950s wasn’t the tourist paradise that it is today. Tourists were few and far between. Facilities were basic. The whole family gets followed in the street by curious children, and occasionally adults, wondering who these fair-skinned people are.

The children adapt remarkably quickly, as children often do, and are soon attending the village school where no English is spoken and speaking Greek better than their parents. They’re quickly roaming the island with their new Greek friends, with more freedom than they ever had in London.

In one section the author goes looking for Shane, to tell her daughter that her lunch is ready. She goes from home to home, following the trail of where Shane was last seen before she headed for somewhere else. When she eventually finds Shane, the daughter insists that she’s had her lunch – she’d already been fed at several of the Greek families she’s visited. Many of the friends the family makes on Kalymnos live in what we would regard as abject poverty, yet they have that remarkable generosity that is common in Greece.

Kalymnos island in the Dodecanese of GreeceKalymnos

Seeking Solitude

The book is beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of the landscapes, the customs, the food and drink, and most of all, the people. There are characters on every page.

There are insights too, about Greek life. One is the complete incomprehension of someone’s desire for solitude. Sometimes the author and her husband, when the children are at a party or otherwise occupied, try to escape on walks around the island, to enjoy its peace and beauty. They seldom succeed. Friends and children insist on accompanying them, despite their protestations. The author explains that the Greeks grow up communally, both within their immediate families and their extended families. Indeed, some of the families they get to know will have ten people living and sleeping in one room.

Kalymnos island in the Dodecanese of GreeceKalymnos

Kalymnos Today

Anyone visiting Kalymnos today should read this book, as it is fascinating in many different ways. You can compare life in the 1950s with what you see when you walk around the island now. The author is very specific in describing where the places in the book are – where they live in the main town, where friends live, the shops, the harbour, the walks they do, the other towns and villages they visit, and feasts and parties they attend, and so on. It’s not a guidebook but a fine piece of travel writing about Kalymnos. You’ll learn much more than any guidebook can reveal.

Buying Mermaid Singing

Mermaid Singing, and its companion volume by the same author, Peel Me a Lotus, have been republished by Muswell Press. You can buy Mermaid Singing here, or from Amazon and other major retailers.

Other Dodecanese pages

  • Greece Book Reviews

    Greece Book Reviews on the Greece Travel Secrets website with reviews of the best guidebooks to Greece, the Greek Islands, Athens, Crete and elsewhere.

  • Hydra Travel Writing Classic

    Peel Me a Lotus by Charmian Clift is a Hydra travel writing classic, describing her family’s life on this tiny Greek island near Athens in the 1950s.

  • Great Greek Poets: Cavafy, Sappho, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis

    There are many great Greek poets, with two authors winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and names include Sappho, Cavafy, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.

  • Rhodes

    Travel advice, information on Rhodes in the Dodecanese, with ferries from Piraeus for Athens, Symi, Crete, Kos, Patmos, Santorini, and flights from Europe

  • Easter on Rhodes

    During Easter on Rhodes Greece Travel Secrets publisher Mike Gerrard travels from Lindos to Kattavia to visit a monastery and spend Easter with a Greek family.

  • A Walk in the Old Town of Rhodes

    This walk through the Old Town of Rhodes takes you through this World Heritage Site and along the main streets and past the city walls, palaces and mosques.

  • A-Z Guide to Santorini

    The very thorough A-Z Guide to Santorini by Tony Oswin is now in its 15th edition, a sure sign that the guidebook is both popular and kept up-to-date.

  • A-Z Travel Guide to Kos

    The 2022 edition of the A-Z Travel Guide to Kos is the 15th edition of the best and most comprehensive guidebook to Kos in the Dodecanese islands of Greece.

  • Best Rhodes Guidebook

    The best Rhodes guidebook is undoubtedly the A-Z Travel Guide to Rhodes, including Symi, with a new revised and updated edition for 2022.

  • A Thing of Beauty

    A Thing of Beauty by Peter Fiennes describes ‘Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece’ and places the Greek Gods in the context of modern-day Greece.

  • Kos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Kos in the Dodecanese islands of Greece has good beaches and night-life, and archaeological remains.

  • Symi in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Symi (or Simi) is a small island in the Dodecanese near Rhodes with regular ferry connections, hotels, rooms to rent, beaches, tavernas.

  • Easter on Symi

    Easter on Symi is a wonderful Greek celebration and one of the best times to visit the little gem of an island a short ferry-ride from Rhodes in the Dodecanese.

  • A Holiday on Symi

    Mike Gerrard wasn’t sure what to expect from a holiday on Symi, in the Greek islands, but what he found was lots of local feasting, dancing, and music.

  • Books About Greece

    If planning a trip to Greece, what are the best books about Greece to read before you go, or to take with you, to give you a sense of place?

  • Margarita’s Olive Press

    Margarita’s Olive Press is a modern gem of a book of Greek travel writing, in which the author falls in love with and renovates a property on Zakynthos.

  • Kasos

    Travel information on Kasos in the Dodecanese group of Greek islands, including flight and ferry information from Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Patmos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Patmos in the Dodecanese islands is famous for the monasteries of St John and the Apocalypse and on this page you can also read about flights and ferries

  • The Summer of My Greek Taverna

    The Summer of My Greek Taverna by Tom Stone is a memoir of his time on the Greek island of Patmos in the Dodecanese, running a restaurant.

  • Wild Abandon

    Wild Abandon by Jennifer Barclay and published by Bradt Guides is A Journey to Deserted Places of the Dodecanese islands in Greece, including Rhodes and Kos.

  • Tilos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Tilos is a small island in the Dodecanese between Rhodes and Kos with regular ferry connections, hotels, rooms to rent, beaches, tavernas and ancient remains.

  • Eurydice Street

    Eurydice Street, A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff is an honest account of what it’s like to move to Athens and live as a foreigner, learning Greek customs.

  • Our Feast Day on Astipalia

    Greece Travel Secrets helps celebrate a feast day on Astipalia in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece, for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.

  • Northern Greece Guide

    The Bradt Guide to Northern Greece is a detailed guide to Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, Macedonia, Thrace, The Pelion, The Sporades and the rest of Northern Greece.

  • Nisyros

    Nisyros is a unique volcanic island in the Dodecanese and easily reached on day trips from Kos Town and Kardamena.

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