Men like Robert Graves

imagesYou might think I mean men who are famous for their intellect and works of literary genius, as Graves was, but, having just returned from a holiday in Deia, Majorca, which was Graves’s home for much of his life, I have a different kind of man in my mind, a man not unlike my father. This man chooses an alternative from the ordinary, and sometimes leaves a family and children in the process. He makes the choice for himself and quite often his art. I’m aware that women also do this, but not to such a degree.

Here is a quote from ‘To A Poet in Trouble’, an early Graves poem, Cold wife and angry mistress And debts: all three? Though they combine to kill you.

Graves moved to Deia in 1929 with his partner Laura Riding. He had just published his bestselling autobiography ‘Goodbye to All That’, and he and Laura built a house with the proceeds. They had previously lived together in Oxfordshire forming a ménage à trois with Graves’s wife and four children, which broke up when Graves’s affections became more focused on Laura (there is currently a film being made about this more racy period of his life, starring Orlando Bloom). We visited Graves’s house while on holiday and watched a video about him in which he said that his first wife Nancy was a feminist ‘and somewhat difficult’. He was also shell-shocked from his time in the trenches during World War I, and wanted to escape debt. In moving to Deia with Riding, he dedicated himself to writing. Be grateful to the goddess, (Our cruel patroness), for this felicity: Your poems now ring true.

I’m not sure what happened to Nancy, only I see looking on Wiki that she made it her business to cycle for miles to educate young people on the importance of contraception when there wasn’t much available, and she later hooked up with a new lover on a houseboat. So she was obviously an independent gal, though having to bring up four children on her own must have stalled her career as painter and textile artist.

Seeing Graves’s life in the form of his writing and his house made me think of two things. How appealing the simple life can be: sun, sea, mountains, spring water; Graves was drawn to Majorca because it was spacious enough to not make him feel claustrophobic, and it wasn’t too concerned with politics; he wanted to empty his life and his mind to free himself for his writing. What a privilege. But perhaps it is more about risk. He fled from debt and responsibility of his family and won’t have had much money. He could live on a quarter of the income he needed in England. ‘There was nothing really to prevent me from going wherever I liked, because a pen is the only essential luggage a writer need take.’ Well, lucky him (and unlucky Nancy and the children, some might say). Which brings me to my father.

Like Graves, my father was a writer, he also left his family to live a more alternative frugal life, rich in an egotistical pursuit of enlightenment, with little sense of responsibility for anyone but himself. Like Graves, my father also spent much of his life living communally. But unlike Graves he took many years to settle and kept moving from country to country for the best part of 20 years. As his daughter I resisted the travel bug, preferring to make a nest that felt secure and familiar, a place that changed only with the slow gentrification of the area. I have barely moved two miles from where I was born and raised.

Yet when I am confronted with people who remind me of my father (like Graves), I feel a sense of restlessness at the possibilities of life, perhaps because I have witnessed someone close to me taking risks, being care-less, although I have also experienced first hand the destructive nature of this impulsiveness. I saw my father reduce his life to a few bags and boxes and slowly piece it back together again, only to leave it all for a second time, a third, a fourth, abandoning sentimentalities, photographs, memories. He also abandoned us. There is one fundamental difference between me and men like my father, and like Graves, and that is possibly gender, but also the sense of love and obligation. I wouldn’t abandon my family for anything.

But what makes writing so magical is that these yearnings can be turned into art and written out from the safety of a study above a tiny urban garden, backed up by terrace upon terrace of brick and window. I remember a man sitting alone in a Deia café, a distinctive face, a shock of white hair and a rugged jersey. I know he is English, though he speaks Spanish because he’s lived there a long time. Every morning after his coffee (or half lager perhaps), he walks up the mountain and breathes in the air, looks out at the vast space, watches the slow weightless clouds. His eyes, when they meet mine, have a yearning for connection – perhaps he has voyaged too far.

Graves didn’t believe that the Majorcan landscape inspired, instead it was fertile ground for people ‘whose minds already team with ideas that need recording in absolute quiet’. Perhaps he wasn’t escaping anything: when his relationship with Laura broke up he remarried and had four more children bringing them up in Deia. My father, on the other hand, continued moving, from India, to America, to Italy, to England, back to America again with a kind of frenzy, searching for something, perhaps just in flight from himself. He eventually put his money down and bought a small cottage in a seaside town on the Californian coast, where other people with frustrated dreams congregate beneath the sea mist. Here his spirit eventually died.

I am his daughter and a writer and, regardless of where I reside, my family is my anchor never known to drag; my adventure, my imagination.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Mena Martin says:

    Enjoyed your blog! need a sunny garden, a bottle of wine and children running around in background to discuss! hope to see you soon. x

    1. lilydunn says:

      Oh, yes. When can we combine in Brighton? need to talk to the Nolan. Thanks so much for reading. xxx

  2. A very moving piece, Lily. I don’t know that much about Graves but it seems to me he comes from that great tradition of male artists who put their art above everything else, going from place to place and woman and family to woman and new family – Picasso being the ultimate example. As you say, women are perhaps less able to do this because their ties to their children are more physical and primal, having carried them. BUT i do keep coming across women who have left their small kids, even if turned out to be only temporarily – people I know personally, and then also recently Elizabeth Jane Howard ( That’s a phenomenon I’m very interested in. Overall I do think that, as you allude to with Graves, people obsessed with freedom (artistic and general/lifestyle) can only achieve that at the expense of other people.

  3. lilydunn says:

    Yes, I was struck by Elizabeth Jane Howard’s life (and I’m tempted to say: how manly she looks!). Julie Burchill did the same. But it takes a brave woman to walk away from her children and try to defend it, brave or just plain narcissistic. Having said that, not all women feel that emotional bond to their kids and how much damage might they do by sticking around if it’s going to drive them crazy? Yes, it is perhaps driven by an obsession for ‘freedom’, but at what cost to themselves? It would be human to carry enormous guilt with this decision, particularly these days when we know so much more about the affects of abandonment on children, and so often the dream doesn’t match up to the reality.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this, and found myself having a very visceral response to it too – almost an angry one towards those narcissistic men who indulge their passions above all else, and forgo any responsibility to their families. I know this is reminding me of my own father ( I have plenty of issues with him). And I also loved reading about your own process within this. Beautiful writing.

    1. lilydunn says:

      Thank you. I have since understood it more as a compulsion that some people have, both women and men. Only less women act on it. I don’t know if this is because we carried our children for nine months and gave birth to them, or because of social expectations (or both?), but some men do find it easier to walk away and not have contact with their kids. Does this come down to bonding? Right from the start when their children were babies? Of course, Graves was living in a time when we knew less about the psychological affect that a parent disappearing might have on a child, and things have changed massively even from the 70s/80s when my dad did it. But men were not part of a woman’s pregnancy in those days, and were not even allowed to be in the birthing room. They were expected to be the breadwinner, absent during much of their child’s upbringing. If a father doesn’t bond with his child, sticking around becomes obligation, and if you have a compulsion for a different kind of life… well, some would call it bravery.

      But that’s not to say that it brings more happiness. Often artists/writers are solitary souls with the belief perhaps that their creativity will be nurtured better in a clear, quiet environment away from the chaos of children and the ties of ‘modern life’. But, how wonderful it is to balance art with the more physical demands of motherhood. I find being a mother brings me out of myself, and takes away the melancholy that often accompanies solitude.

      1. I think you have a very valid point regarding men being less involved in previous generations, and thus less bonded. When the kids were were younger and more physically dependent on me I definitely resented that I couldn’t just ‘run away’ – not that I ever actually wanted to, of course, but there were times when just the possibility (or just getting away for a couple of hours, or a night or two) would have made me feel better! But now I think any kind of separation from our kids would be as painful for my husband as for me. And in terms of art, I think motherhood has made both me and my husband much better writers. I love this article by Frank Cottrell Boyce about embracing the chaos of family life and letting it feed you –

      2. When I am not wrapped up in my own stuff/issues, and I can detach a little more, I can see very clearly that this is a generational thing too – that men of my fathers generation,born during the second world war, and not to sound too general with my words, are of a certain disposition, linear and inwardly focused. I also can’t help thinking the deep psychological effect the second world war had not only on our grandparents but also on the first generation of babies that followed the war, what they inherited, carried in their genes – in their collective unconsciousness – a deep need to escape, to run away from all sorts of horrors, including the intense of alchemy of the family – especially those early years, and children. I hope that made sense!

  5. lilydunn says:

    And why shouldn’t you want to run away when they are tiny? It is intense and all consuming, and we lose ourselves in the mothering (those early days drove me insane at times).

    I also love that article: I’ve read it a couple of times. Why are there not more like it? When I get unhappy and restless it is often because I haven’t been engaged with family, and when I do engage, I realise what a wonderfully creative place it is.

  6. It’s a shame more people don’t realise that. Parenthood gets bad press in many respects. Or maybe those undeniably difficult, intense early years scare people off. For me it’s definitely been a tunnel back towards the light in terms of creativity, but that waiting in itself has made me a better writer, with more, and better things, to say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s