Thursday, July 2, 2009
MEMOIR: MEETING ROBERT GRAVES
Larry Buttrose with Robert Graves, Deya, Mallorca, July 1976
MEMOIR: MEETING ROBERT GRAVES
by Larry Buttrose
I stepped out onto the steep cobbled street outside the Villa Verde. I had arrived at the hostal’s door in the wilting afternoon heat of the day before, after having taken the overnight ferry from Barcelona, and the bus up from Palma, along with the locals in breeches and headscarves carrying bound clucking chickens on their laps.
I strolled down towards the centre of the village and the Cafe Del Monde. The hostal keeper had told me everyone in Deya spends at least an hour or so there every day, and thought it would be as good a place as any to begin my quest. After all the hitches and delays of my time back in Barcelona waiting for the letter from Graves’s secretary that hadn’t come, I sensed now the final obstacle might just be overcome.
I had only walked some twenty metres down from the Villa Verde when I saw a pale, pink-faced man staring absent-mindedly out his front window onto the laneway, drying teacups with a white tea-towel. I greeted him and he responded with a smile. He turned out to be English, quite. I explained that I was visiting Deya hoping to meet the poet Robert Graves. He replied that Robert would be calling for tea in less than half an hour, and would I be so kind as to join them.
Martin embodied Robert Morley in the role of Oscar Wilde. Affable and arch in strictly equal amounts, his vocation was writing musical comedies for children, the scores of which were scattered throughout his stone cottage. The front room was dominated by an enormous oak table, which I saw was set for tea: bread, butter, tea cups, saucers and plates, and jam, Martin confided, made by Robert's wife Beryl.
He prepared a pot of tea, taking his in staccato sips. This was, he informed me, probably the finest tea in the entire world, a vestige of contacts between his family and Asian traders going back quite some time. As he spoke, over his shoulder I saw a huge bank of cloud, entirely black, swirl in across the escarpment that soared behind the village and blot out the sky in a moment.
Regulars at his long-running daily tea party, Martin continued on, included Colin Wilson, Robert of course, and a miscellany of Huxleys. He stopped speaking just then and turned to the glass-panelled front door, where an old man stood outside, smiling. He was rigged out in the style almost of an actor, in white suit, black Spanish felt hat, and a blue-striped vest with silver buttons. The facial features were as he once himself related: nose bent, lips full but ascetic, eyes blue, wide and clear.
‘I think it will rain. Do you think it will rain?’ His words came in a lilting rush, trilled like a child’s, with a similar earnestness.
‘I don't know Robert,’ Martin sighed, ‘but do come in.’
Over tea Graves spoke at length of the weather, of what it had been like the day before, what might eventuate today, and predictions for tomorrow. There seemed a fitting sense of propriety to it though: a poet, a great poet, at the end of his life, quietly obsessing about the weather over tea.
After taking our leave from Martin we walked through the village out to his house, about a kilometre away. The storm clouds vanished from the peak as suddenly as they had come, and the afternoon sun was hot. We toiled up a long slow rise past olive groves, until he bounded on ahead of me, instantly playful.He regarded it as a wonderful joke that he could easily outdistance this visitor more than half a century his junior. He was a very fit man, particularly for one reported dead from war wounds sixty years previously.
The house was in the local style, double-storey sandstone with green shutters. Gardens flourished about it and a cool neatness within. I met his wife Beryl, a charming no-nonsense woman, who politely requested I not to tire him with too much talk. He had only returned from London that day, where he had been attending the shooting of the BBC’s television adaptation of I Claudius.
I enquired about his secretary, with whom I had made the initial arrangements for my visit. I had first written, entirely out of the blue, from Adelaide, with my request, enclosing half a dozen of my poems, and had been astonished when a reply had soon come that Mr Graves would see me. But after arriving in Spain I had received no further word, and crucially nothing awaited me at Poste-Restante in Barcelona, as had been agreed, regarding the timing of my visit. I had come somewhat to enjoy the waiting though, it had to be admitted, immersing myself in the piquantly perilous demi-monde of Barcelona.
Beryl answered that the secretary had left them some weeks previously. I realised that my letters, addressed to her by name, would have followed her all the way to her new post, somewhere in Switzerland.
I went into the living room where Graves was seated in an armchair. He pointed out a book on a shelf, and I brought it to him. It was his Five Pens In Hand, a collection of criticism and essays I had read. He pointed with a craggy forefinger to a page and I read selections out loud as he requested: On Pope: ‘A sedulous ape’. On Shelley: ‘Voice is too shrill’. On Wordsworth: ‘He disowned and betrayed his Muse.’ On Pound: ‘Cloacal ranting, snoot-cocking, pseudo-professorial jargon.’ On Dylan Thomas: ‘He gave his radio audiences what they wanted.’ On Eliot: ‘His poetic heart has died and has been given a separate funeral, but he continues to visit the grave wistfully and lay flowers on it.’ And on Auden: ‘The prescribed style of the 50s - compounded of all the personal styles available.’
I looked up at him, and saw he was watching me closely. The smile of a cheeky child was upon his lips. His eyes were cloudless skies. The rough old skin around his mouth bunched as he let out a laugh. The forefinger left the book, and pointed to his own forehead with its wisps of white hair on end. ‘Poets these days,’ he said, ‘not much knowledge.’
I wished to defend Shelley and his voice, debate Eliot's mournful wreaths and Pound’s ranting and Auden’s style, but he had passed on. His eyes were on the window now, fixed on the distant escarpment, where again storm clouds jostled. The range was dark as the slopes of Harlech he had once climbed: I imagined him back there now, a young man alone up where the vapours swirled.
Beryl came in with tea on a tray and sat with us, but Robert’s attention remained fixed on the window. Then apparently tuning back in to the room, he turned and asked where I was travelling next. I said I intended going to Ireland, that I had ancestors from there. He looked at me, entirely lucid now, with real concern on his features: ‘You're not Catholic are you?’
‘Certainly not,’ I replied, feigning shock. He laughed at this, as did Beryl. Nonetheless they seemed genuinely relieved, for my sake. ‘Anything but,’ I added. He gave me a slight nod, and another childlike smile.
‘I came here to request your Poet's Blessing,’ I said. The words sounded too loud to me as I spoke them, and hung in the air.
Graves looked at me once more. This time it was a stare, of scrutiny, one which assessed me utterly - my youth, my doubts and faults, my all-too obvious naiveté. Yet, he nodded.
‘You have it,’ he said.
Not long after, I walked back out through the gardens and out gate, and started the walk back to the village. It was hot again. For the second time in the afternoon the clouds had vanished from the mountain and the sun was strong. Perhaps there was something to the weather worth his attention after all.
Twenty one years later I went back to Deya to research a novel based on my experiences and discovered that now it was called Deia. The Villa Verde hadn’t changed though, and even the old hostal keeper was still there. She even said she recognised me; I doubted it, but felt flattered nonetheless.
At breakfast on the hostal terrace I met two middle-aged women from Berlin. Heidi was a strong blonde fifty-year-old, fit and travelled, ringed and jewelled, with a husband back in Germany. Greta was a few years younger, dark and demure: getting over a divorce, Heidi mentioned.
In the early evening I encountered Greta on the main street. She was looking for Heidi because they had planned to go to an art gallery opening at La Residencia, the village’s swish hotel. ‘Owned by Richard Branson,’ Greta said. ‘Lady Di stays there.’ She thought Heidi might have gone shopping in Palma, and asked me if I would accompany her to the exhibition. As I had no other plans beyond a drink in the town’s only remaining cheap bar, I happily agreed.
The gate of La Residencia opened into an enclave of serene courtyards and shady nooks, of massive flagstones and tumbled blossom. The buildings were solid, beautifully dressed stone, and fronted by a line of dining tables that overlooked a lush garden and croquet lawn. One could not help but wonder how much of the village water supply went into keeping it that green.
The exhibition was in a side-room off a courtyard, and by the time we arrived a small crowd was milling about. They were nearly all arty Deia locals, many of them in their sixties and seventies, with short-cropped steel grey or white hair, dressed in linen. Most had deep suntans, especially the women, their skin purple-brown from years of baking in the sun.
Greta and I went inside to look at the work, which appeared mainly to be paintings of iridescent-coloured goldfish in iridescent-coloured water. The tones reminded me of the “Young Artists” of Bali, and I wondered if the artist had spent time there.When I asked Greta what she thought of the work, she seemed nervous about responding.
‘I don’t really know,’ she stuttered.
‘What, you don’t know if you like it?’
‘No. I would need to discuss it with Heidi I think. What do you think of it?’
‘Well, it’s not really to my taste.’
‘You mean you don’t like?’
‘It’s a bit too decorative for me.’
‘Oh,’ she said, then looked at me. ‘What does that mean, too decorative?’
I opened my mouth to reply, but realising the scale of what would need to be said, shrugged instead. ‘Perhaps we’d better have a drink,’ I said, moving towards the trestle table bar with its brimming vat of sangria.
‘Do you think they will let us drink?’
‘Why wouldn’t they? It’s a gallery opening.’
‘I don’t know. Perhaps they won’t.’
I asked the barman for two sangrias, but then Greta was afraid to take it. ‘It might get me drunk.’
‘I don’t think one sangria will get you drunk. It’s not strong. It’s mainly fruit pieces. Look.’
‘Yes, I know,’ she said, ‘and that is where all the alcohol hides.’
‘Have a soft drink then.’
‘I’ll take a Pepsi please,’ she told the barman, and he poured it for her and placed it on the white tablecloth next to the sangria already there for her.
‘You mean, you’d rather have a Pepsi than a sangria?’
‘Yes. Why not?’
‘But, it’s horrible, Pepsi.’
‘Well, you know I do prefer Coke, yes, but they do not appear to have it.’
She went to take the Pepsi, but her hand stopped. ‘You say the sangria is not strong.’
‘No, it is not strong.’
‘Perhaps then I have the sangria.’
‘I think that’s a good decision.’
‘But perhaps not.’
The barman and I both watched quietly fascinated as for the next few moments her hand went from glass to glass, touching, almost taking each. The tiny drama was punctured by the sudden arrival of Heidi. Greta was so glad to see her that she threw her arms around her, and it seemed for a moment she would cry.
‘Where have you been!!’
‘Palma. Only to Palma. Have you got a drink?’
‘Yes, yes,’ Greta said, snatching up the sangria and sipping. ‘It’s very nice.’
‘Yes it’s a good drink sangria.’
Heidi and I kissed cheeks, and the pair of them drifted off, and I asked the barman for a refill.
The crowd was building up, and the vat of sangria was already visibly drained. The locals caught up, hugged, gossiped. One woman told me she had come from England twenty years ago for a holiday and never gone back.
‘Never, not even to visit family, friends?’
‘No!’ she declared. ‘And do you know, when I came I was going to paint, I was going to write, I was going to do so much! And do you know what I’ve done here these last twenty years? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! And it’s wonderful!’
Later I found myself speaking with a woman originally from Segovia. She had lived many years on Mallorca, and introduced me to her daughter, a wispy blond angel.
‘Ah, and here is my husband too,’ she said, ‘Tomas.’
We shook hands. Tomas was a tall man in a bone-grey linen suit. He had a long face and a thick, straight grey hair, full lips and blue eyes. I would have recognised him anywhere.
‘Is your surname Graves, by any chance?’
‘You’re Robert’s son.’
‘One of them, yes. The youngest.’
He had a trilling, amused voice and a charming yet almost shy manner. I told him how I had come to the village two decades before to meet his father, and asked him if he wrote too.
‘Well, yes,’ he said, ‘I have just written a book, although it’s not literature.’ He went on to describe the book, which advised people on how to maintain houses on Mallorca when they buy them as absentee landlords. ‘It’s a problem here. You see, so many people, from Germany, England, mainland Spain, buy old houses. But they don’t know how to maintain them, and they go to ruin.’
I asked him if he had read his father’s work very much.
‘Yes, the novels. And the poetry.’
‘What about The White Goddess?’
‘A rather difficult book really,’ he said. ‘I think a lot of people have trouble with it. Do you know it’s only recently been discovered that when the second edition came out in the early 1950s, a whole paragraph got transposed. It’s been in the wrong place ever since, but the mistake has only just come to light.’
‘You mean a whole generation of readers didn’t realise there was anything wrong?’
‘Well I‘ve read it a couple of times, and I didn’t realise it.’
He laughed. ‘Well there you are then. Did you enjoy it?’
‘Yes. A remarkable book.’
He nodded politely.
‘I’ve visited your father’s grave up at the churchyard,’ I said. ‘I was surprised it wasn’t crowded with literary pilgrims.’
‘Sometimes there are quite a few people up there. People like to leave him things too. We find poems they’ve left. The other week someone left a kilo of peaches.’
The crowd divided in front of us, and I saw a man in a long black raincoat with orange face-paint and a fish mask on the top of his head come towards us sucking water from a plastic bottle and squirting it up in the air through a plastic straw.
‘Oh, I think the performance is starting,’ Tomas said.
The artist made his way to a small podium where he stood up with a handwritten sheet held with arm outstretched, and declaimed a poem about water. Before each mention of“water” he would take a mouthful from the bottle and then gargle the word. It went on for about five minutes. As it ended, a big man with a steel grey crewcut elbowed me and muttered “Christ”. I wondered what Robert would have said.
Through a contact I made in the village I got a telephone number for Beryl and dialled it in the booth on the main street. She answered, and I explained that I had met her briefly twenty years before when I had come and met Robert. I wondered if it would be possible to drop by briefly. She was very welcoming, and suggested I come by at four o’clock that afternoon.
Robert and Beryl married during World War II, after he and the American poet Laura Riding ended their more than decade long relationship. He had met Laura in 1926, and soon afterwards his first marriage broke down. He and Laura moved to Spain, to Deya - which Gertrude Stein had told them was “paradise, if you can stand it” - and they had lived there until 1939, when Laura returned to the US. Robert and Beryl moved back to Deya soon after the end of World War II.
I bought a fruit flan at the village bakery and set out in warm afternoon sun for the walk to Canellun. After a few minutes I saw it up ahead, double storeyed with its green shutters.
I opened the iron gate and stepped inside the walled garden, passed a grove of orange trees and a shed, and walked up to the back door, which I remembered from my time here before gave entry to the kitchen. I knocked once, and two small dogs rushed up barking. Behind them was Beryl, kindly-looking, smiling warmly, grey hair still as thick as that of her son Tomas.
We shook hands and she showed me into the kitchen. I gave her the fruit flans I had bought.
‘Ah, from the bakery. They look very nice. I think we’ll need spoons to eat these.’
We sat on the sofa with tea and talked. She had now lived for fifty years in Canellun. When she and Robert first came here together, just after World War II, they had to fetch wood to chop for heating. They had no car, she said, and the bus only went into Palma once a day, at 7.30 in the morning. Electricity came on in the mornings and went off late at night, after the mayor and owner of the little hydro turbine closed up the sluice gate.
‘You were always working, just trying to keep up with the necessities in those days,’ she said. ‘These days it’s easier, but now there are so many cars on the road. Back then you could walk down the road and not see a single one.’
She mentioned she had been working with a collaborator, putting together Robert’s complete poems, and showed me the first volume of it, a very handsome edition.
‘There will two more. I have galleys for the second, and the third will have some poems previously uncollected.’
I mentioned the anecdote Tomas had told me - that an entire paragraph had been misplaced in one of the early editions of The White Goddess, and somehow no-one had noticed ever since. She elaborated on it, saying a poet working for the publisher had found the mistake in painstakingly picking through the text. He had been working on it because a new edition was being published soon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its publication.
She showed me the typescript introduction written for the anniversary edition and indicated the passage that had long been misplaced, now put right.I marvelled that I had not realised it when I read it, nor had anyone else for that matter: but then, I supposed, it was that kind of book.
‘T.S. Eliot at Faber accepted the original manuscript you know, after it had been rejected by other publishers. Even The Greek Myths was rejected at first. It was hard for us when it happened, because we had no money at the time. But then Penguin picked it up, and it’s been in print ever since.’
As she topped up our cups, I looked around me. There was a screen print of Graves in his familiar Spanish hat on the wall, and a magazine of the Robert Graves Society on the coffee table, and a few other pieces of memorabilia, but I sensed little of him lingering here. It felt as if it had slipped the knot of life cleanly, and gone wherever spirits go.
I mentioned to Beryl that when I had first visited, I had come in with Robert and she had been standing in the kitchen, and asked me not to tire him out with too much talk. We had gone in and had our talk, and I had asked him to give me his poet’s blessing, and he done so. 'As he had been blessed,bySwinburne,’ I said.
‘Yes, pity it was Swinburne,’ Beryl replied. ‘I suppose he was all there was about. And you know he was blessed by someone, Tennyson...? and someone blessed him... Wordsworth was it...? anyway it goes back quite a way.’
I said I suspected Robert might not be very proud of me, because even with his blessing I hadn’t done much as a poet, my works barely known in my own country, much less beyond it. I didn't even write poetry as much as I would like, and dwelt more in the realm of prose writers nowadays.
She regarded me closely. ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get back to it. You’ve got plenty of time.’
‘I would like to place some flowers on Robert’s grave,’ I said, ‘and was wondering if you could suggest what kind of flower he would like the most.’
‘Oh, any will do,’ Beryl smiled. ‘Robert didn’t care about things like that very much. You know, before he died, people asked where he wanted to buried - the Deia churchyard or Westminster Abbey. And he said, I don’t care, once I’m dead what does it matter? He was always like that. He is buried in the churchyard of course, but funnily enough he is also in Westminster, in Poets’ Corner with the War Poets, because when they did the War Poets he was still living, but they wanted him to be part of it, so he is there too.’
That is a kind of fate only a poet might know, I couldn’t help but think, to be buried in more than one place.
After our tea Beryl took me up to Robert’s writing room, at the far end of the house: ‘he went up there every morning after breakfast and shut the door - and no-one could enter until he came out.’ There she also showed me annotated first editions of their own poems that he and Laura Riding had printed on their Seizin Press.
I asked her about Laura Riding.
‘She was a nice person, very lively,’ Beryl said. ‘But she often caused breaks between Robert and other people. But I liked her. There is a biography being written now, you know. Several all of a sudden, I think. You know how it is with publishing.’
Something more came then that I wanted to ask her, about how she had felt about his muses - the various other women he had found as sources of poetic inspiration - whether she and Robert had worked it out between them, and how honest he had been about his feelings.
But I didn’t ask. Instead I said: ‘With biographies it’s of course usually the things left out that are the most interesting,’and she nodded agreement.
Beryl walked me back down the path, and farewelled me at the gate with a handshake and a smile.
As I walked away, back towards the village, in sunshine as hot as it had been those 21 years before, I realised that she was right, that it didn’t matter what flowers you took to Robert’s grave. He was never sentimental, but was as tough-minded yet alive to every breeze and bud as every poet should be.