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Saturday October 24, 2009

Goodbye to All That

Now that I live in Majorca I often guiltily recall, how despite living in central London with museums and art galleries practically tripping me up on the doorstep, I rarely got round to visiting many. Of course I blamed the stress of London life and work but I really should have made more effort. Yesterday, in glorious sunshine, I found myself standing for the very first time-to my shame- outside Ca N’Alluny on the outskirts of Deya village, erstwhile home of the English poet, Robert Graves.

It was in 1929 that Graves arrived in the un-spoilt and tourist-free village of Deya (now mischievously dubbed by some wags as Chelsea-on-Sea) with his overbearing lover, American poetess, Laura Riding. Despite a ten year interlude when forced to leave his beloved island for the duration of the Spanish Civil War, and later, Second World War, Graves resided in Deya until his death in 1985 at the age of 90. When, in 1946, the poet did return to Mallorca with his second wife, Beryl and their four young children, he also brought hope. His plane was the first civilian flight from Europe to land in Mallorca since 1936, the year when the Spanish Civil War began. For the people of the island, the great poet’s return must have signalled a return to normal life.

Much had happened in Robert Graves’s life during those ten long years in exile from Mallorca. Laura Riding with whom he had built Ca N’Alluny in 1932, largely on the proceeds of his anti-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, had found herself a new love interest in the States, leaving the divorced Graves to take up with second wife, Beryl. It is extraordinary to think that it was due to Riding that Robert Graves had left his first wife, Nancy Nicholson, and four children, only to find himself enmeshed in a relationship worthy of soap. Bossy and controlling, Riding took Graves indeed for a ride, relying on him for funding for her own half baked schemes and finally leaving him for another man. The upside was that while together they had formed the highly respected Seizin Press while in Mallorca and co-wrote two well received books together. Their flawed relationship hit its nadir when Riding dramatically leapt from the third floor window of a house they shared in Bloomsbury, badly breaking her pelvis bone. She survived and despite their sunny sojourn in Mallorca, their tempestuous 13 year long relationship didn’t. Meeting Beryl must have represented a new stability in the poet’s confused domestic life.

Visiting this picture postcard, old limestone house is deliciously voyeuristic. The house has retained almost entirely its original character and has been lovingly personalised by William Graves, the eldest son from his father’s second marriage and the executor to his estate. A gently controlled, sprawling Mediterranean garden bursting with fruits, olive trees and grapevines, backed by grizzled mountains, ushers the visitor back to a time when Graves, in old straw hat and peasant shirt, picked his own bitter oranges to make marmalade. The house itself peers over the mountain road leading from Deya to Soller in solitary splendour and rather like a Tardis, betrays the spacious interior and unexpected treasures that lie within.

It is a relief to find that Ca N’Alluny (the Far House), has not received plastic surgery or toe curling embellishment from the Robert Graves Foundation which acquired it from the heirs in 2003 and opened it to the public in 2006. Faded stains remain on the old stone floor tiles, care worn laundry in the hall, and jars of marbles and pebbles, collected by the poet, sit on the bookcase in his study. On the poet’s desk an old pair of spectacles, pens and scattered manuscripts, give the impression that he has just popped out to the village for lunch and will return soon. Upstairs in a long gallery are examples of entertaining correspondence between Graves and the then great literary, politic and philosophical minds of the day and beyond. Margaret Thatcher vies for space with Gertrude Stein and the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and the Queen’s secretary. There is poignancy in the history too for it was in the First World War during the battle of the Somme that Graves was seriously wounded and left for dead. Rather like Mark Twain when in a note to the New York Journal in 1897 he wrote, ‘This report of my death was an exaggeration’, Robert Graves was forced to print a similar correction in The Times which erroneously reported his death on the front line.

The most startling aspect of my visit was discovering how ignorant I was about the extent of Graves’s works. Sure, like most, I’ve flirted with The Greek Myths, I Claudius and several collections of poems, but I had no idea that T E Lawrence, for example, had asked his friend Graves to pen his first authorised biography or that Graves was the author or editor of 140 works-books and collections of essays and poetry. It was Graves who joked that his sense of discipline came from his German mother and his poetry and story telling skills from his Irish father. All I know is that here in a small village in the mountains of Mallorca, we have a treasure of immeasurable worth on our very own doorstep. I’m glad that this time I finally took the trouble to visit.
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  1. loved this article on Robert Graves house. We visit Deya every time we sre on the island but have never been to the house. Having read about it we shall definately visit next year. I love all your articles, we are planning to live on the island and your stories really facinating about island life. We plan to live among the mallorquines rather than on the coast and have passed many a wonderful day in Soler. Keep writing,
    hasta la vista

    * by Maureen Swann | Dec 5, 06:31 pm

  2. Hi Anna,
    i have had little time during the past months to catch up on your articles. Now i have and i must say i was also very impressed and fascinated on my vist to Ca N’alluny 2 years ago. It really seems that time has stood still and that Robert Graves will pop back any minute. I have also read the books by William and Tomas which for a Mallorca Fan like myself proved really interesting. Have you any plans for a new book? I will be in Soller in October with a Group of Walkers accompanied by Salvador from Fornalutx, If i have time (you too) we could maybe meet in Cafe Paris
    All the best / Mike Jones from Germany

    * by Mike Jones | Feb 16, 12:40 pm