You 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.