Read the world: A Theatre for Dreamers

Rob Ryan is transported back to a Greek island by British writer Polly Samson’s 2020 fiction

Polly Samson’s much-praised book A Theatre for Dreamers is not a guidebook, but a novel. Yet, to my mind, it works better as a travelogue for the Greek island of Hydra than as fiction. She is an evocative writer, able to conjure the sights and sounds – the bells, the roosters, the cranky mules, the screeching cats – of the waterless rock with its stunning amphitheatre-like harbour. Although set in the early ’60s, it isn’t difficult to find the places she refers to even now – the stony beach at Vlychos (now with a rather good beach-side café), the cave at Spilia or the white-trunked trees at Xeri Elia Taverna (now more commonly known as Douskos), where Leonard Cohen was pictured with Aussie-expat Charmian Clift leaning on his shoulder. Inside the restaurant, you can find photographs from the ’50s and ’60s, including Sophia Loren and Alan Ladd filming the rather enjoyably terrible movie Boy on a Dolphin. Clift’s old house is a short stroll from Douskos, in a cute square with a (sealed up) well in the centre.

Samson (who is no doubt tired of being reminded that she is married to Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour) has also done the world of travel writing a stellar service by shining the spotlight on Clift (b. 1923), who is a key character in her novel. Samson has also provided insightful intros to the two memoirs Clift produced about living in Greece. So, let’s start with Charmian. 

It begins in Kalymnos in the early ’50s, where writer Clift and her husband George Johnston, an ex-war correspondent and novelist, along with their two young children have fled a drab, dreary London with the aim of living cheaply on the royalties from their work. The book Clift produced there, Mermaid Singing, is like an anthropological study. The island’s only industry was sponge diving, a brutal enterprise and her Kalymnos is filled with men and boys maimed by deep sea diving. It also involved most able-bodied men leaving for months at a time to scour the sponge beds off Africa. It wasn’t quite the idyll they expected – money was always tight – but the book is a fascinating insight into the life and rituals of a fiercely patriarchal island society – something proto-feminist Clift rails against.

In 1955 they changed islands, moving to car-less Hydra and becoming the focal point of a slowly growing colony of artists who gathered, nightly it seems, at Katsikas grocery store and bar (now the Roloi Café) on the waterfront. The book she wrote about her time there, Peel Me A Lotus, is a classic of travel writing, yet was out of print until Polly Samson rekindled interest in Clift. This second book is lighter and wittier in tone than Mermaid – she is especially funny on the weeks when Hollywood, in the form of Loren and Ladd, came to the tiny town and a lot of her time seems taken up with the challenges of plumbing and drinking water, as well as fretting over the whereabouts of the island midwife as she gets closer to giving birth to her third child. The narrative follows the seasons, from the cold grey of winter to the burning cauldron of high summer and, along the way, the fortunes of a mix of locals and expats (with some of the names changed to protect the guilty).

 The island is also in a state of flux. It is only a short ferry hop from Piraeus (an hour and twenty minutes these days by catamaran) and it has been discovered by rich Athenians who are buying up the decrepit mansions that once belonged to the island’s sponge and seafaring magnates. The Clifts worry that the days of cheap living are over: ‘This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many beautiful little Mediterranean ports “discovered” by the creative poor… After the artists, come the people with big yachts and big bank accounts who send the cost of living so high that the artists are forced to discover another little port.’ 

This was very prescient – Hydra is much visited by “big yachts” (including, when I was last there, Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s vintage steamer Maid Marian 2 – yours for £60,00 a week, sleeps 10) and is indeed an expensive island. There’s the odd cruise ship, too. Add in day trippers and in summer it can feel like it might burst. Outside of the highest of high season, though, it remains one of the loveliest spots in the world and, if you can tackle the seemingly endless steps leading away from the port – which will probably lead you up to Cohen’s house, although it isn’t signposted or celebrated – it is easy to regain a sense of isolation and calm.

Leonard Cohen has not yet arrived on Hydra when Lotus ends. Polly Samson cleverly picks up the Clift story and weaves into it the famous love affair between Marianne Ihlen and Cohen as well as a fictitious element that involves a young woman whose mother had been a friend of Charmian’s in London and who might have led a secret life. 

So why didn’t this work as a novel for me? I found the narrator, a young ingenue from London called Erica, irritating, forever on the verge of tears or sobbing uncontrollably. Erica’s own story – or her mother’s mystery – simply cannot match the Clifts’ real-life tribulations or the romance of Cohen’s love affair with Marianne. The author’s decision to have the Canadian speak only in his own words from writing, letters, poems and songs, gives him a stilted, detached air. 

That’s not to say you shouldn’t read A Theatre for Dreamers – Samson can be as rhapsodic and evocative about Hydra as Clift and both books act as a siren call for a return to Greece. She also moves the narrative along to the darker days when ill-health and infidelity (and too much booze) caused the Australian couple to move back home. At the end of Lotus, you might find yourself envying the Clifts, despite all their hardships. Samson reveals that the idyll turned to tragedy, one that infected the next generation. There is no doubt that the author has done her research and you’ll be reaching for Google more than once.

However, I wouldn’t pick up A Theatre for Dreamers without first reading the account by the woman who had been there, done that. And I would recommend going to Hydra to do so, although not perhaps in August (Clift makes it sound like hell, even before the crowds came, with its enervating heat, marauding wasps and scorching meltemi winds). Stay at the Phaedra Hotel, just up from the port. Tell Hilda I sent you.

Robert Ryan is a journalist, screenwriter and Sunday Times bestselling author

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