Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Eating Oranges with Robert Graves

2014 is, as everyone must be aware by now, the anniversary of the start of the First World War, and so it seemed fitting that when I was in Mallorca early this month I made a pilgrimage to the home of Robert Graves. Robert von Ranke Graves (1895–1985) was one of the First World War Poets, who included, for the men, Graves’s friend Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen. Amongst the women First World War Poets were Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Charlotte Mew.  

Graves separated from his wife and moved to Mallorca with his lover, American poet Laura Riding (1901–1991), in 1929. They built a house, which they called Ca n’Alluny, in the mountain village of Deià on the north west coast, at that time a fishing village. It’s an artist’s dream home, and indeed the area had earlier attracted other artists including Chopin and George Sand. 

Graves’s house is in a beautiful setting, high above the Mediterranean with views down to the glinting ocean. In the olive groves goats graze on tender shoots from olive branches thrown over the fence by the farmer. Here and there tendrils of smoke rise from tended fires in the orchards and the valley is filled with the fragrance of wood smoke. The air is still and it is very quiet except for the incessant, clopping tinkle of the bells around the goats’ necks, and the occasional chink of hammer on stone made by men working on a wall lower down the valley.  

An artist's dream home

As if that isn’t enough tranquil beauty for a poet to gaze upon, the house is surrounded by a stunning garden, laid out as it was during Graves’s lifetime. There are lemon and orange trees, palms, monkey puzzles, almond trees, rosemary, lemon grass. There’s a patio to eat on in the summer evenings. There’s a grotto (closed to visitors for safety reasons) and paths to meander along. You can see Graves himself pottering about amongst these glories on the introductory film shown at the start of the visit.  

All this perfection is rounded off by the house itself, which is furnished as it was when Graves was living there in the 1940s, after an exile of ten years during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Graves returned to Deià in 1946 with his new partner, Beryl Pritchard (1915–2003), Laura Riding having left him in 1939.  

The house is pretty, light and airy and filled with paintings and works of art made by friends, as well as plenty of examples of that most magical item of furniture, the bookcase. There’s a cosy dining room and kitchen and no doubt the bedrooms were all pretty too (one is on display; the others were where the excellent exhibition is now). There’s also a room with a printing press where Graves published some of his own novels under the Seizin Press imprint. 

Light and airy interior
But the heart of the house is Graves’s study (Riding also had a room of her own when she lived there). There’s a sense of a house built around writing: everything is arranged to facilitate the work. This is hardly surprising, since the house was built to Graves’s specification. He even took a hand in the construction.   

Graves was also possessed of that other element of the poetic idyll: a wife, or as he preferred to call it, a muse. After his return to Deià, Beryl acted as both muse, inspiring Graves’s love poetry, and housekeeper. She catered for numerous visitors, looked after their four children, cooked, cared for the garden, and tolerated her husband’s emotional entanglements with a series of other muses, all young women, many of whom became her friends. She cared for Graves during his final years and his tragic descent into Alzheimer’s; he died in Ca n’Alluny and is buried in the local church. Beryl had studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at what was to become St Anne’s College, Oxford and was a socialist. She read widely in English, Spanish and Russian and after Graves’s death she co-edited, with Dunstan Ward, an annotated, three volume edition of her husband’s work.  

Oranges and olives

The house is a muse in itself, a place of tranquillity but also of passion – Graves’s love life was a complicated one! Which is more important for the writer: peace or turmoil? Graves declared for turmoil, but thanks to Beryl he also got peace. Perhaps the two are equally important. At any rate, Ca n’Alluny is a house full of life and poetry, a generous house with inspiration built into its foundations. It was a privilege to visit it, and to round off the visit sitting outside with the gardener drinking hierbas, an aniseedy, herby liqueur, and eating oranges plucked off an eighty-year-old tree, a tree planted in 1933 when Robert Graves was living at Ca n’Alluny.  

La Casa de Robert Graves website – http://www.lacasaderobertgraves.com/index_eng.php

St John’s College Robert Graves Trust and the Robert Graves Society – http://www.robertgraves.org/