Interview: Lucia Graves - Goodbye to all that ... hello to my future

Robert Graves was known for his unusual domestic arrangements as well as his writings. His daughter, Lucia, tells Hester Lacey about an eccentric childhood
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Lucia Graves was just three years old in 1946 when her father swept up his family and bore them off to his house in Majorca. Robert Graves, who was by then already a well-known poet and writer, must have been eager to get back to his beloved home in the mountain village of Deya. He had lived on the island since 1929 and had built his own large, stone house there, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War had forced him to leave in the mid-Thirties and the closed frontiers of the Second World War had prevented his return.

Lucia was born in Devon, but her earliest memories are of olive groves and mountain springs. Now she has written her own book, A Woman Unknown: Voices From A Spanish Life. It is a memoir which mingles her own life, the lives of her Spanish friends and the the turbulent recent history of Catalonia with affectionate recollections of her parents.

Fifty years ago, moving abroad in the way the Graves family did was extremely unconventional behaviour. This was long before mass tourism; there was no electricity in Deya, cooking was done over charcoal fires and ice-boxes were cooled with blocks of ice delivered on the bus. When the Graves family imported an Aga from England in the late- Fifties, it was such a novelty that people would call in specially to see it. Even the Spanish mainland seemed remote. As a girl, Lucia went to the village school and grew up speaking English, Spanish and the Majorcan variant of Catalan.

Her father, she says, chose Majorca almost by chance. He was travelling with his then mistress, the American poet Laura Riding, for whom he had left his first wife and four children. "He and Laura went to visit Gertrude Stein, who said, `Why don't you try Majorca? It's paradise, if you can stand it'. So they went there. At first they were in Palma, then someone said, `Why don't you go to Deya? The fish is very cheap'. I've always thought that Deya probably reminded him a little of Harlech because of the mountains and the sea, and he's always loved Wales. It looks just like a Greek island; it was primitive and beautiful and the people were friendly and uncomplicated."

By the time he returned to the island in 1946 he had married Lucia's mother, Beryl Pritchard, and had started his second family with her; Lucia is their second child and has three brothers. "I always realised that my father was very different from other fathers," she recalls. "In the first place, he was the age of most of my friends' grandfathers; he was a whole generation above my mother - there was a 19-year gap. He was very tall and strong. He was always working. He was not the kind of person who'd sit around having a cup of tea and chatting. I was aware that he was completely ... unique. But at the same time he was a very cosy father, very close to me. He was just my father."

Several recent biographies of Graves have painted an unflattering picture of his later years. Much has been made of his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, and his relationships with a series of young female "muses". "I'm rather angry about these books," says his daughter. "I don't think they have understood. It's the way it is all explained. I have my own reading of my relationship with these women. I am very comfortable about it. To me, the fact that he needed to have these inspirations for his poetry was part of his life. His obsession to keep writing poetry in the way that he felt was right was his way of being loyal to himself and to his ideas. I don't think it was anything outrageous or out of line."

Graves's tempestuous relationship with Laura Riding, a scandal at the time, has been written about, dramatised and was loosely disguised in a recent novel. "They've usually got it wrong," says Lucia resignedly. "You can understand people being interested in all that because it was an extraordinary relationship. Laura Riding tried to commit suicide; she jumped out of a window, and in those days suicide was a criminal offence. There were a lot of things that they had to leave England for and that was one of them. But she was a catalyst; he wrote his memoir of the First World War, Goodbye To All That, when he was sitting in hospital thinking he'd lost her.

"I think she made him break a lot of inhibitions. I think he loved her because she was very stern and made him think and made him work, which is what he needed. He needed to get away from established rules and think back from zero, rebuild everything." The break-up of their marriage was, she says, "very sad" for her four half-brothers and sisters. "But as I said to them sometimes, if it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't be here now - he would never have met my mother." Her father and Laura Riding had, she says, a good working relationship. "But she was very egocentric. She benefited him in some ways but hurt him in others. He had a terrible time with her - we were all aware of that. When he met my mother he had suffered a lot; it was very peaceful afterwards."

In her own book, Lucia describes her mother as a woman with a way of "standing back to make room for others". She supported and nurtured her husband, and, says Lucia, she did it willingly. "She didn't mind. She was aware of the importance of his work and she was dignified and strong - she would give him a lot of space." An adjective that appears frequently in connection with her is "long-suffering". This makes his daughter first laugh and then look irritated. "Not long-suffering at all. What's the opposite of suffering? Long-happy, rather. She had to deal with all the practical side of things, ensure the school bills were paid, run the house, that sort of thing - my father could make money all right but he didn't know what to do with it. But essentially she has been very happy all her life. I don't think people have understood that." Her mother, now 83, is currently gathering and annotating a definitive version of the Complete Poems of Robert Graves; after years of work she is just completing the third volume. "She is remembering so much, going through these poems. My father's now been dead 14 years and we see the poems and say `Do you remember this? Do you remember that?'"

From the village school in Deya, Lucia went first to an international school in Geneva, then to London where she studied for her A-levels at the French Lycee in Kensington. She met her future husband, a Catalonian named Ramn, playing in a jazz ensemble in a Majorcan nightclub when she was 17, but delayed her marriage to study modern languages at Oxford, where she gained a first-class degree. Then she returned to Spain and married Ramn, a week after taking her final exams, in 1965; the first of their three daughters was born in 1967.

As a wife and mother, she found life in Spain very different to her carefree childhood. The bureaucracy and corruption were exasperating and the political regime under General Franco was stifling. The absolute and patriarchal power of the Catholic church and the machismo of Spanish men angered her - equality took a long time to catch on in traditional Spain. (Before her wedding, the priest gave her a booklet called What Every Woman Must Know Before Her Wedding. It contained guidelines on how to be a pious and submissive wife, including the memorable lines: "If you should have the great misfortune to miscarry a child, you must examine your conscience with great care. Ask yourself `What sin have I committed to deserve such a punishment?'")

Ramn was working as a producer for record companies and television programmes; Lucia kept house as they moved about to follow his work, brought up their daughters, and wrote lyrics for the songs he composed. She had loved translation classes at Oxford ("translation was always a journey to another place") and, longing for intellectual stimulation and escape, she began to work as a translator. Her first job, in 1971, was translating her father's novels into Spanish. The two of them worked together on the project. But as she started translating his second book, he was already showing signs of the dementia that was to claim his last 10 years.

This was a painful time. "It was terrible. The worst part was the beginning, because he would get very tense and restless and he couldn't remember people's names. He would start packing sometimes in the middle of the night, saying he was going back to England."

And he would remember his experiences of the First World War. "All these nightmares he had tried to suppress all his life all came out. He would talk about the dead horses in the trenches and cry out `Save me, save me' as if he was dying. It was horrible. But the most painful thing for me was seeing him trying to write, getting his pen and writing a couple of lines, and looking at it and realising that he wasn't able to do it any more." Her mother nursed him devotedly until she became ill herself with exhaustion. She read aloud to him for hours. "How do we know he is not bored and unable to tell us?" she asked her daughter.

Since then, she has translated her father's other works, hearing his voice in her head as she worked. And now, after years of interpreting the words of others, Lucia Graves has published her own book. She is 55, though with her fine-boned face and slender figure she looks younger. Her marriage to Ramn ended after 20 years and she remarried two years ago; her second husband is a man she first met at university. She has settled in South London, though she often visits Majorca, where her brothers live and her mother is still installed in the house her father built. Writing A Woman Unknown was a cathartic experience. "I feel very happy about the past now, whereas before I was unhappy for a long time. I was bored or I felt wasn't doing anything, and now I look back I think it wasn't time wasted after all. It is like a wonderful dream when you can recover something you thought wasn't there at all."

`A Woman Unknown: Voices From A Spanish Life' by Lucia Graves is published by Virago at pounds 18.99

IN HER OWN WORDS...

On childhood

"If I woke up with a nightmare and my father came into the room, he'd look for the nightmare on my scalp, his fingers feeling their way through the jungle of hair, until he'd cry out "I've found it", and walk out, telling me he'd throw it down the lavatory. It always worked."

On Spanish women

"Over the years I saw them fight to become the individuals they'd have been had they not been submitted to that prudish upbringing, long repression and clipping of their wings. Unlike their mothers, who had a memory of the Republican days when women were encouraged to fight for equality, Spanish women of my generation had no memory of freedom."

On translating her father

"Every time I rendered one of my father's books into Spanish or Catalan, I could hear his voice as if he were talking to me over my shoulder, even in those last years, when he had stopped speaking and lived in a world of bewildering silence, having lost his grip on reality."

On her mother's edition of her father's poems

"I think for her, this work is the end of a journey that began in 1937, when she and my father first met in London - she an Oxford graduate with strong Socialist convictions, a sharp mind and a gentle nature, he, a man almost twice her age, living in the enchanted forest of poetry from which he never would emerge. Now, as she goes through each poem, she finds that her memories are folded in his words, in the pauses of every comma and in every question mark."

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