I first went to Mallorca in 1953, at the age of 10, as a guest of my great-uncle and aunt, Robert and Beryl Graves, who’d invited my mother, Robert’s niece, to stay with them when she became ill after her divorce. My parents were both in the theatre, where divorces tended to be catastrophic, because everyone felt they had to take sides.
Simon Gough's encounter with the White Goddess
16/08/2012 by Stacey Bartlett
Simon Gough recalls sun-filled memories with his great-uncle Robert Graves on the island of Mallorca
In spite of the grimness of the situation, to a boy who’d been at boarding schools for most of his life, the excitement of flying ‘abroad’ for the first time, on his own, and to an exotic island in the Mediterranean, was almost unbearable. As I stumbled down the steps of the plane in the crushing July heat of Palma aerodrome, and into the arms of my family waiting on the tarmac, it was as if I’d finally come ‘home’ in the true meaning of the word. It’s a feeling I’ve never lost, and will never lose.
Robert lived just outside the village of Deya, in the parched and savage landscape of the north coast, clinging to the side of the Teix mountain, over a thousand feet above a primitive fishing hamlet with a rocky beach and an equally primitive restaurant, run by the local fisherfolk - a simple palm-frond roof, and a kitchen carved out of the huge limestone rocks.
Robert and his family seemed to be their best customers, often filling the long table with their friends - some of them apparently famous, like Kingsley Amis, Robert Kee, and, later, Ava Gardner (for whom I had a hopeless schoolboy crush), but having been brought up in the theatre, fame was meaningless to me; one could have just as much fun with Richard Burton’s dresser as with Rich himself - unless he was a bit drunk, of course, when he was funniest man alive.
The others around the table came from the growing community of artists and writers who had come to live in Deya and were currently in my great-uncle’s good books. Anyone in his bad books kept away; he was built like a prize-fighter, with a badly broken nose from boxing at Charterhouse and in the army, and could (and occasionally did) knock someone out with a single blow. The restaurant was my favourite place for lunch, perched high up on a rock to protect it from the violent winter storms, yet in summer providing the most perfect spot to look down at the tiny pirate cove. Deya was my first (and most cherished) earthly paradise.
When I returned in 1960, on my way to university in Madrid, it was to find, to my huge relief, that nothing seemed to have changed, except that the same old caramel-coloured charabanc from Palma was now half filled with weird-looking young men and women - the men mostly dressed in black, with long lank hair and bags under their eyes, the women in floaty gauze dresses, with flowers in their hair, singing songs by someone called Joan Baez.
The village, too, was precisely as I remembered it - the only café, Las Palmeras, the nerve-centre of the ex-pat community, still looking down from its vantage point over the village street. Here again, the only thing that had changed were the people. There were far more of them than I remembered, and although I recognised a few faces the majority were strangers to me, as foreign-looking as the people on the bus. In London, I’d come across the odd ‘beat’, or ‘beatnik’ as they were beginning to call themselves, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them.
Once back at Canellun, Robert took me off to his study and gave me a lecture on the new drug-culture of Deya, the pushers and lotus-eaters, whom I should avoid at all costs. I was family, he insisted, and he expected me to behave “like one of us.” Although he himself had apparently experimented with ‘pot’ and magic mushrooms and even with psilocybin (a mushroom derivative), he’d done so purely for poetic reasons, to grant himself closer access to The White Goddess, just as Her worshippers had done thousands of years before. This new generation of ‘hipsters’, however, were doing it for nothing but their own pleasure - to escape not only the world, but their worthless selves.
Once he’d warned me, though, he allowed his muse, Margot, (with whom I’d already fallen in love at first sight), to take me to a party where he knew there would inevitably be drop-outs and druggies. Perhaps it was a test. When I was offered a hand-rolled cigarette, of course I took it, not realising it was ‘pot’ until Margot quietly pointed it out. I looked down at the thing, decided that if Robert had experimented with it then so would I, and ‘toked’ away until a greedy young woman snatched it out of my mouth.
Apart from his hatred for the new drug culture in Deya, Robert had also made it clear to me in his study that he hated secrets of any kind, and yet here I was, within hours of arrival, up to my neck in them. Margot kept my secret - for which I loved her even more. It turned out to be the start of a strangely close relationship which led to deepening passions, to drama and betrayal, and to my final act of atonement in the olive grove below Canellun.
We still go back to Deya, despite some of the horrors that have since been built there - and the yet worse horrors who now come there. This year I’m being taken back to celebrate my 70th. birthday; and yet if I were to stand in the garden of Canellun and look down over the treetops to the wedge of sea so far below, I could just as easily be that boy of ten, arriving for the first time and realising that he had at last come home.
Robert and Beryl’s children, my beloved cousins whose home it truly is, needn’t worry, though: whenever I leave, I simply pack up my memories and take them with me, without leaving so much as a wet footprint on the rocks to tell that I’d ever been there. Except for what I left behind in the olive grove below Canellun, of course. But that, as they say, is another story.
The White Goddess: An Encounter is published on 1 September by Galley Beggar Press.