When I mentioned to a PR friend that I had a commission in Deià, Mallorca he immediately offered to put me in touch with William Graves, son of writer Robert Graves and custodian of Canellún, La Casa de Robert Graves.
Apart from a vague notion that I’d seen Graves’ war poetry in anthologies or maybe even studied one once at school, I knew very little about him.
“Will you be mentioning Canellún?” I asked the author of the piece. “In passing. But it’s been done before, it’s all been said, you don’t need to shoot it” she told me. Having never even thought to visit Mallorca till the commission landed in my inbox, I was even more unaware of this little hill-top village and its illustrious past. Of course I was intrigued and said yes to the PR.
I picked up a copy of Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves, William’s biography of his father, and began to wrap myself up in the beautifully illuminating portrait of the village I had been dispatched to. It revealed details of how the villagers lived, farmed – and smuggled – during the civil war; introduced me to colourful characters whose actions shaped the modernisation of the region by bringing the first electricity to this mountain outpost; upgraded a rocky track into a paved road or provided the first bus service to the capital, and; there were countless anecdotes about visits to the craggy cove of a beach with its idyllic clear blue water and rocks from which to jump in.
William met me under the trellis at his childhood home and this is where I took his portrait. He’s a well-spoken, affable man in his mid-70s, a geologist by trade, which has taken him all over the world but, as he’ll happily confess, his heart has always remained in Deià.
He gave me a personally guided tour of the house for which I felt incredibly honoured. We saw the room in which his father wrote all his famous works; the bedroom in which Laura Riding – his fellow poet and lover – convalesced; the original letterpress with which he and Laura printed and published as the Seizin Press; unique batik artwork created by Len Lye; the garden and its culinary possibilities. The tour ended in the museum room in which I began to fully appreciate that there was a hell of a lot more to Graves’ repertoire than just war poetry.
To learn about the physical and emotional context in which any creative person lives and works is integral to understanding the creative process. What touched me about reading William’s chronicle, however, was that not only did I get an up-close glimpse of a great writer but I got to see a potted history of why this little craggy village had become such a draw for artists and, subsequently, the tourists who then followed them there.