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 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.

    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.

  • Taverna by the Sea is an account by Jennifer Barclay of her summer spent working in a taverna on Karpathos and a welcome new book of Greek travel writing.

    Taverna by the Sea

    Taverna by the Sea is an account by Jennifer Barclay of her summer spent working in a taverna on Karpathos and a welcome new book of Greek travel writing.

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

    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.

  • Travel and vacation information about the Dodecanese islands of Rhodes, Symi, Kos, Patmos, Halki, Tilos, Karpathos, Leros, Lipsi, Astipalea.

    Dodecanese

    Travel and vacation information about the Dodecanese islands of Rhodes, Symi, Kos, Patmos, Halki, Tilos, Karpathos, Leros, Lipsi, Astipalea.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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?

    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?

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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

    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

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

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

    Nisyros

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

  • Greece Travel Secrets reviews the photography book Monemvasia with extracts from works by Yiannis Ritsos and Nikos Kazantzakis.

    Monemvasia Book Review

    Greece Travel Secrets reviews the photography book Monemvasia with extracts from works by Yiannis Ritsos and Nikos Kazantzakis.

  • 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.

    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.

  • The Lonely Planet guide to the Greek Islands is a thorough and helpful guide to all the Greek island groups, with Athens included.

    Lonely Planet Greek Islands

    The Lonely Planet guide to the Greek Islands is a thorough and helpful guide to all the Greek island groups, with Athens included.

  • The latest edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Greece is a comprehensive 750-page guidebook to the whole country.

    Lonely Planet Greece

    The latest edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Greece is a comprehensive 750-page guidebook to the whole country.

  • Lonely Planet Crete is an excellent and thorough guide of almost 300 pages to the largest of the Greek islands.

    Lonely Planet Crete

    Lonely Planet Crete is an excellent and thorough guide of almost 300 pages to the largest of the Greek islands.

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

    Lipsi

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

  • Leros is a sizeable island in the Dodecanese with flights from Athens, ferries from Rhodes and Piraeus, good beaches, restaurants and hotels.

    Leros in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Leros is a sizeable island in the Dodecanese with flights from Athens, ferries from Rhodes and Piraeus, good beaches, restaurants and hotels.

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

    Kos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

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

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

    Kastellorizo

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

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

    Kasos

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

  • Karpathos in the Dodecanese islands of Greece is noted for its traditions, its music, and mountain villages like Olympos.

    Karpathos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Karpathos in the Dodecanese islands of Greece is noted for its traditions, its music, and mountain villages like Olympos.

  • Kalymnos in Greece in the Dodecanese islands is most famous for its history of sponge fishing, and see here information about flights and ferries.

    Kalymnos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    Kalymnos in Greece in the Dodecanese islands is most famous for its history of sponge fishing, and see here information about flights and ferries.

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Latest Posts

  1. A Walk around Kolonáki

    This walk around the Kolonaki neighbourhood of Athens starts and ends in Syntagma Square and takes you to several museums, Kolonaki Square and Mount Lykabettos.

    Read More

  2. Changing of the Guard in Athens

    The Changing of the Guard in Athens takes place outside the Parliament building at the top of Syntagma Square and is a must-see for visitors.

    Read More

  3. Athens National Historical Museum

    The Athens National Historical Museum is in the former Greek Parliament building and houses an archive of historical artefacts and documents.

    Read More

  4. This “Secret Paradise” Island Boasts Great Food, According to Financial Times and The Sun

    Foreign press are raving about this Greek island, known mostly for its wild nature and hiking paths, but not (yet) for its incredible food.

    Read More

  5. Unspoilt Beauty: Epirus Lights the Path to a Sustainable Future

    In this wild and mountainous region of northwest Greece, pioneering individuals and communities combine traditional lifeways with sustainability.

    Read More

  6. The History of the Aegina Pistachio + 2 Recipes to Love

    The Protected Designation of Origin pistachios from the Saronic island of Aegina are arguably the best in the world.

    Read More

  7. Lakes Doxa and Stymphalia: A Peaceful Alternative to the Beach

    These two natural hideouts in the Corinthia mountains offer a quick escape from Athens and a great alternative to the crowded beaches of the islands.

    Read More

  8. Introducing Hania as a Cultural Destination

    The opening of the new Archaeological Museum as well as a plethora of artistic events throughout the city put Hania in the lead in terms of cultural summer destinations.

    Read More

  9. Athens War Museum

    The Athens War Museum is a fascinating look at Greek history through the lens of warfare from ancient battles to the Greek War of Independence and World War II.

    Read More

  10. Syntagma Square

    Syntagma Square or Constitution Square is the main square in Athens and has a metro station, the Greek Parliament building, hotels, cafes, and a post office.

    Read More