Clean Straw for Nothing – George Johnston

Clean Straw for NothingMy latest read is the Miles Franklin winner from 1969. George Johnson had already won the prize in 1964 for ‘My Brother Jack’ so a second win 5 years later was significant. These books were published at a time when Australian literature was thin on the ground and Australian film was almost non-existent. Fortunately the 70s ushered in a new era when both literature and film in Australia started to flourish.

Clean Straw for Nothing is memoir as fiction. Its the second in a trilogy of the story of David Meredith, a war correspondent from Melbourne (My Brother Jack was the first, the third, A Cartload of Clay, was technically unfinished). David and his beautiful, charismatic new wife Cressida move from Melbourne to Sydney in 1949, where they marry and have children, David working for a newspaper. But they feel stifled by Australia and the narrow-mindedness of its people and set sail for England, where David is posted as a foreign correspondent. But even London quashes their spirit, with David working all day and writing all night, trying to fulfill his dream to be a novelist.

With encouragement from Cressida, they leave for Greece, where they establish themselves on the island of Hydra, living a bohemian lifestyle with a growing number of expatriate artists, aiming to fund their lifestyle by writing. This they do for 14 years before finally returning to Australia, broke and David ill with tuberculosis. Its a fascinating insight into the lives of a volatile bohemian couple navigating the staid environment of Australia post-war and the poverty and beauty of Greece.

The title comes from a London sign in Gin Lane in Hogarth’s time, which reads ‘Drunk for a Penny, Dead Drunk for Tuppence, Clean Straw for Nothing’ and to me this represents David Meredith’s life in Greece – so cheap to live that it costs almost nothing, but in the end defeats him anyway.

Its impossible to read this book without knowing the story of George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift, which I read immediately after in ‘Charmian and George’, by Max Brown (don’t read it, its awful, possibly because the author died before it was finished. It reads as if it has never been edited). Their lives follow that of David and Cressida Meredith described above and when they returned to Australia, they were the golden couple of the literary world in Sydney. But by that stage, their marriage was in trouble and George was expecting to die from tuberculosis. Charmian became the breadwinner, writing a weekly column syndicated in several Australian newspapers, which was very widely read and influential. Unlike all of his other books, Charmian refused to read Clean Straw for Nothing because she knew it represented their lives in Greece and detailed the affairs she’d had. Apparently so apprehensive about it, she committed suicide, aged 46, in July 1969 just before it was published. George Johnston died a year later.

I could not help but be affected by the feeling that I was reading the real-life destruction of a couple’s marriage, and their health from excessive drinking. Many of the characters apparently represent real people, such as the actor Peter Finch, and the painter Russell Drysdale and his wife Maisie, to whom the book is dedicated. The details of David Meredith’s jealousy of Cressida and the corrosive effect it has on their relationship, and his poignant realisation that there’s a part of Cressida that he can never know or reach are powerful. The descriptions of living in a Greek idyll, with the harbour, the water, the lives of the local villagers are vividly portrayed.

The prose is strong, clear and evocative – ‘When Manolis the police lieutenant finally left, it seemed to Meredith as if the little Greek official had dropped back into his correct position in the elapsed history of a night which had come to stretch out behind him in a series of precise and separated shapes that could be run together or held apart, or even moved on with a run of little clicks, like the amber beads on a kombolloi.’

What I learned from this story is the skillful way that George Johnston was able to pace and weave it together. One scene that particularly stuck in my mind was a scene where David and Cressida are having an argument. He starts it off with some dialogue, which gives an idea of how angry the two characters are, but then stops it by saying the fight went on for a while. It made me realise that scenes don’t need to continue to the end. I already knew this – the get in early, get out early mantra, but its made be think more about how, in particular, I am ending my scenes.

This book also has an interesting structure that works well. Its written mainly in first person from the point of view of David Meredith, but some chapters are in close third. It also jumps around – broadly from Sydney 1968 (present time), to Melbourne 1945, Sydney 1949, London 1954 and Greece 1956 to 1964 and England 1962. So the reader is always jumping back and forth in time, though the first and second halves are broadly restricted to decades. The earlier scenes help build depth into the later ones and its extremely well executed. It isn’t something I’d attempt myself first off, but its an interesting approach.

This book made a big impression on me because of the compelling knowledge that its a thinly disguised memoir of two significant and intriguing figures in Australian literature and the rise and fall of their bohemian life together.