THE FADING MARGIN: serial 27Posted: June 21, 2013
A Summer in Mallorca
For the first few days I kept hearing the telephone, though there was no telephone in the house. I would be walking to the post office or down to the beach when the insistent brr-brr would have me turning round to go back and answer it. In the beginning I had to make a conscious effort to convince myself that I was indeed imagining the sound, in spite of the fact that, with a manually operated exchange in the village, a call would not have been signalled by a brr-brr but by one long ring. If I had entertained any serious doubts about the wisdom of my escape from London to Mallorca that phantom telephone would have dispelled them. To have become so dull, so stupid, so much a slave to the ordinary, urban existence as to behave with less intelligence than one of Pavlov’s dogs!
The house – cottage, rather – belonged to the baker. It had a cistern that was replenished only when it rained. After a long, dry spell – and that year we had no rain on the island from May until the end of July – the water from the first storm would be diverted onto the terrace for a few minutes before being allowed to flow into the well, which was necessary, the baker said, to clean the roof. Sometimes, he said, the rainwater would taste of sulphur, but you couldn’t help that, it was the lightning that did it. There were three bedrooms, a living room and a sort of cubbyhole that was quite big enough for another bed, though there was no glass in the windows. The best upstairs room had a tiled floor and a double bed with knobs on the wooden posts. A brightly coloured picture of the Saviour on Calvary hung above it on the white distempered wall. There was also a kitchen with a fireplace. Sometimes I cooked on the fire. It wasn’t meant for that, of course. Properly, cooking was done on the charcoal range, but I used to like sitting on the low, rush-bottomed stool, watching a mess of vegetables simmer away over logs that I had fetched and carried for myself from beneath the pines on the cliff top. That was all of the cottage except for the outside privy, which was luxurious by local standards: the baker had taken trouble with the seat and had tiled the floor. In the wall he had also fixed a large hook from which a watering can could be hung. The rose that should have been on the spout of the can had been attached to a hole made in its base, so that if you filled the can with water and then hung it up again on the wall you could take a shower. It was better than the more elaborate device to be found in many a hotel.
I had not consciously sought it, but simplicity proved to be the blessing of those days. What I ate was mostly grown in fields and gardens below the village and bought by me in the market twice a week. What I drank was mostly the rough red wine that cost less than bottled beer and that I fetched in a five-litre jar from the bodega on the Palma road. Familiarity with their origins enhanced for me the value of the things that went into my kitchen. A lettuce was not just a lettuce but a victory won against the blaze of summer, the product of laborious hoeing early in the morning, of careful watering from meagre sources when the sun had gone down. Fish were not dull, flaccid corpses upon a slab, unrelated to their element, but fresh, colourful proof of the industry that lay behind the lights that bobbed and twinkled at night, way out at sea. Best of all in sentimental recollection was the bread that was made by my landlord’s own hands. Each evening the warm, delicious smell of baking came creeping through the walls that separated his quarters and mine. Each morning I bought what I needed – light-as-a-feather ensaimadas, or the flat, off-white Mallorcan loaves, or what I liked best of all, but it was made only twice a week, the rough wholemeal bread they called “pan integral”.
In any circumstances the task that I had set myself would have called for discipline. On the island especially as spring gave way to summer and lotus-eating became the accepted occupation of most expatriates, it demanded a special attention to routine. I woke each morning soon after dawn and was out of bed before six. From the tree on the terrace I picked a lemon. There was pleasure in its scent and in the feel of it, cool and firm. There was pleasure in its crispness under the blade. I used to stand outside with the glass in my hand – hot water, no sugar, and an astringency that almost made one catch at one’s breath – waiting for the sun to creep above the rim of the mountains and take the chill from the air. No sooner had it arrived than I was concerned to protect myself against it. So long as the interior of the cottage was kept in shade it remained tolerably cool even on the hottest day, but let the front doors remain open, or the latticed shutters be left unclosed, and the temperature would soar.
By half past seven breakfast was over and I was at work. From then until one o’clock I sat at my table in the ground floor room with the door to the terrace slightly ajar, admitting light just sufficient for my needs. When not typing I became aware of a dog’s bark, the buzz of flies, the cool punctuation of water dripping into the well. Sometimes I would lunch there in the cottage, my siesta afterwards being proportionate to my consumption of the Tarragona wine. Sometimes I took cheese and green peppers and tomatoes and a flask of the Tarragona and went down to the sea. There was a place that Robert Graves had shown me (a treasured favour) where hardly anyone else ever came.
By six the sun had gone over the mountain and I was climbing slowly back through the olive groves. By half-past seven I had taken my shower and was at work again for an hour or more. By ten I had dined. Days began on the terrace, days ended there. I sat in a rocking chair drinking coffee, smoking a six-peseta cigar from the village store, thinking long thoughts. Cicadas shrilled. Stars crowded the sky. The bells of restless sheep sometimes sounded from the terraces below. At midnight, as I fell asleep, there was gossiping still outside the bakery door.
‘Once Upon an Island’, the Sunday Telegraph, 1961
Among haphazard memorabilia of the 1960s is a typewritten letter from a certain Karl Gay at Can Torrent, Deya, Mallorca, who introduces himself as secretary to Robert Graves, on whose behalf Gay is writing to acknowledge my own letter of 4th April. Graves is looking forward to seeing me in Deya and meanwhile has asked that I might be given help in finding accommodation. There are two or three possibilities which Gay thinks might interest me. What he would suggest…….
Picturesque though the poetic inspiration might be, it is almost certain that the origin of the Dagenham epiphany was to be found not in a misattributed Goethe quotation, but in the chance encounter I had had with Graves a month or two earlier. A painter we both knew, who had a studio in Soller on the north-west coast of Mallorca, had invited us to a party at the Chelsea Arts Club in London and I had talked with Robert about a few days that I had recently spent in Picardy exploring the battlefields of the war of 1914—1918. Graves, of course, had fought on the Somme in 1916 and had famously written about it in his autobiographical Goodbye to All That. We had chatted about my experiences in walking over some of the ground described in his own book and those of his wartime friend, Siegfried Sassoon, and had established a rapport sufficient for him to say on parting that I might care to look him up in Deya if ever I found myself in those parts.
It is not easy today to write about Deya in the early 1960s without the sort of geriatric nostalgia to which those who have reached THE EVENING OF LIFE are all too prone. A septuagenarian Francophile, writing about the Saint-Paul de Vence on the French Côte d’Azur that he knew and loved as a boy, might suffer the same difficulty. The inexorable tides of mass affluence, leisure, and overseas travel that would soon flood the entire Mediterranean littoral were rising, but not yet threatening to drown the little village more than a mile above the sea on Mallorca’s north-west coast. There were two or three modest places to stay, but no ‘luxury’ hotels, no Michelin-starred restaurants, fashionable bistros, boutiques, supermarkets, or municipal car parks. Disco was a term that had not yet been invented. Summers already saw a few foreign-owned villas for rent, and not all the calamari that were sold at the beach restaurant were caught by the fishing family that owned it, but not a bottle of Dom Pérignon or Roederer Cristal champagne, the staple tipple of your modern celebrity, if ever heard of in any of the modest local eating establishments, had ever been sold there. Michael Douglas, one of today’s summer celebs, had not yet set foot in Europe. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Douglas’s second wife, was well short of her first birthday. Richard Branson, owner-to-be of La Residencia Hotel, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has a house on the mountainside high above the village, were still at school.
Contrary to a popular legend, it had not been Robert Graves, advised by Gertrude Stein, who had ‘discovered’ Deya: the Catalan poet and painter, Santiago Rusinol, for years resident in Paris along with many other expatriates, including Stein, had been there at least a quarter of a century before. Graves had first arrived in 1929. Three years earlier, although already married and with four children, he had met, and soon become intimately involved with the American poet, Laura Riding. The subsequent affair had bizarrely led to Riding’s attempted suicide and Robert’s injury, and to escape the ensuing scandal and possible criminal charges the couple had fled to the Balearics. Ever since, with the exception of the years of the Spanish Civil War and WWII (collectively 1939 —1946) it had been the British writer’s presence in Deya that had contributed to its steadily increasing popularity. It was a popularity, which he deplored, but had himself unwittingly done much to ensure: he had written frequently about the island and had willingly lent himself to numerous media features, that had revealed his whereabouts.
“The proofs reached me in Mallorca , where I had gone to live in 1929 as soon as I finished the writing”, Robert wrote concerning the first edition of Goodbye to All That. “The book sold well enough in England and the United States to enable me to pay my debts and leave me free to live and write without immediate anxiety for the future”. He lived at Canellun, back from the road to Soller and just above the track leading down to the Cala, and except for the years of enforced absence had done so since 1932, the year in which the 2-storey house in its own grounds had been completed. Unlike the sort of faux bohemian who occasionally thrived in the local community of expatriates, he was no lotus eater and was not frequently seen in the village itself. “I’m a driven man”, he once told me. “Driven by the desire to give my children a decent education”. Income from Goodbye to All That notwithstanding, he had never been without anxiety for long. The writing had not been restricted to a prolific outpouring of poetry, which he considered to be the chief purpose of his creative life but which, he said, “never paid the household bills, let alone the school fees”. Untold thousands who had never read a line of it had read not only Goodbye to All That, but his two historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God and his book about Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence and the Arabs. Generations of sixth formers and university students had had The Greek Myths on their shelves. The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, had not itself been a money-spinner, but it had hugely contributed to his reputation as an original, not to say colourfully eccentric man of letters, which in turn had secured him numerous highly profitable lecture tours in the USA. Before his death in 1985, Graves would have published more than 50 volumes of poetry and more than 70 other titles ranging from The Nazarene Gospels Restored, a work about the life of Jesus Christ, to They Hanged my Saintly Billy, the story of the life and public execution of a notorious 19th century murderer. All of his creative work, the poems most especially, went arduously through many drafts, written with an old-fashioned steel-nibbed pen. Subsequent typescripts, produced by Karl or a helper, were revised again and again.
Now, in 1960, the 65-year-old expatriate fugitive of 1929 was at the height of his fame, divorced from his first wife in 1949, long married to his second, father of 8 children, sought after by the great and the good, both in his native land and further afield. He had received the Christina Foyle Poetry Award and the Gold Medal of the American National Poetry Society. The American magazine, Holiday (which never dealt in nonentities and paid among the highest freelance rates in the business) had several times commissioned him. The University of Buffalo in the USA had paid $30,000 (roughly £150,000 today) for his discarded manuscripts (“the contents of my waste paper basket”, said Robert) and other archive material. Huw Wheldon, himself a leading light among film and TV producers, had made a documentary of his life. He had been on one of the most popular radio and TV quiz shows ever broadcast and had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall with John Betjeman. Sam Spiegel had consulted him about his film, Lawrence of Arabia. He was a devoted friend of Ava Gardner (aged 63, she would attend his memorial service), on first name terms with Alec Guinness (who visited him in Mallorca), lunched severally with Robert Frost, Stephen Spender (another visitor to Deya) and W.H. Auden and was on the short list for the Chair of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Harold Macmillan had offered him a CBE, which he had refused.