On July 22, 1916, Colonel Crawshay, the commanding officer of the 2nd battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, sat down to compose a letter. It was the same perfunctory note he had already written so many times in the opening weeks of the Battle of the Somme.
“Dear Mrs Graves,” he began. “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss.”
The Graves he referred to was the young Captain and poet, Robert, struck by an exploding shell a few days shy of his 21st birthday. The shrapnel had pierced his lung, and the Army medics who found him on the battlefield presumed he would not last the night.
But 6ft2ins and with a toughness that belied his poetic verse, Graves survived that, and the subsequent jolting hospital train ride to Rouen; even if he arrived in such a terrible state that doctors described him as a “hopeless case”. By the time his obituary appeared in the British press, Graves was homeward bound and healing, writing letters to redress the premature news of his demise.
From that moment until he finally lost his faculties and died aged 90 in 1985, the poet continued to furiously scribble; his work never done. And now, in the same house on the same Spanish island where Graves lived for most of his adult life, his son strives to continue that legacy.
“As far as I’m concerned, what he did during his life didn’t matter as long as his works are remembered,” William Graves says.
The 76-year-old is striking not only for the startling resemblance to his father (he possesses the same high forehead, full lips and shock of greying hair) but also for the fact that he and his siblings represent the very last surviving direct links to the poets of the First World War. Siegfried Sassoon’s only son died in 2006, while the likes of Richard Aldington and Ivor Gurney never had children of their own in peacetime. Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke were killed during the war.
Of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a stone in Westminster Abbey, only Graves, and the lesser known Herbert Read and Edmund Blunden, are still survived by their children.
William Graves is tanned and slim from a lifetime spent on Mallorca. Strolling in the afternoon sun past lemon and plum trees in the grounds of the home his father built in 1932, he recollects a treasure-trove of stories of Graves’s eccentricities, celebrity companions, affairs, and cruelty.
Graves called this place on the outskirts of the village of Deià, high up in the towering limestone range of Serra de Tramuntana, Ca N’Alluny (The Faraway House), but even here he could not escape his demons. The horrors of what he had seen during the war and which he had documented in his 1929 biography, Goodbye To All That, remained seared on his consciousness.
As he became racked with dementia during the last 20 years of his life, he retreated ever closer to the trenches. William recalls his father cowering from loud bangs and putting his stick out to try and halt his wheelchair if pushed too fast.
“The last 10 years he didn’t know who anybody was,” he says.
William, who calls his father Robert, first spotted the start of this decline in 1963 when he received the same letter twice. Soon his father, then in his late 60s, started losing his glasses and struggling to write.
It was at this advanced stage of life, William says, when his father began to adopt his “muses”, young international pseudo-intellectuals that he hosted in the marital home.
“He started needing more input for his poems and that is when he started having flirts with young girls,” William says. “So long as they behaved badly then he could write poems.” Did he sleep with them? “He’d just had a major prostate operation so it wouldn’t have done him much good.”
Even before his formidable mind began to be undone, Graves had already passed a colourful life. He married twice; first to painter Nancy Nicholson, who produced four children before he left her for the American poet Laura Riding and eloped to Spain.
In 1936 they were forced into exile by the Spanish civil war. Riding eventually fell for another man and Graves met his second wife, Beryl Pritchard, a dark-haired Oxford University graduate 20 years his junior. During World War Two they rented a house in Devon and had three children, William, Lucia and Juan (who died last year). Their fourth, Tomas, was born in Mallorca in 1953 after they had moved the entire family back at the end of the war.
William, who has two grown up children of his own, recalls an idyllic youth playing with the offspring of his father’s famous friends. An eight-year-old Stephen Hawking was an early pal – he remembers him delighting in setting off stink bombs – and he once provoked the fury of Alec Guinness after taking his teenage son Matthew to the beach and plying him with strong local wine.
While his father revelled in the exotic company, William remembers his mother as a quiet Victorian presence. “She was very closed,” he says. “If you started talking about anything personal she would start talking about cats. It was that generation.”
What, then, did she make of his muses? “As long as he kept quiet and didn’t rock the boat she didn’t care. Well, she cared, but realised there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.”
William, who combined his career as a geologist with running a hotel in Deià with his Spanish wife Elena, recalls “vicious” arguments with his father later in life.
In his own autobiographical book, Wild Olives, published in 1995, he describes the bizarre scenario of his father trying to plant marijuana in the hotel to get them into trouble with the local constabulary. “You were either with him or against him,” he says.
When Graves died in December 1985 William says he was “amazed” to learn he had been appointed an executor of his estate. One of his first acts was to publish an anthology of the war poems which Graves had suppressed during his life, deeming them “juvenile” and uninteresting. The Imperial War Museum retains a number of the poems in its archive including one which still bears a muddy imprint of the writer’s thumb.
Following the death of his mother in 2003, the family decided to sell the house to the local government and have it preserved as a living museum to Graves’s life and work, of which William is unpaid director. Today everything remains in situ.
In his study his notes are still attached to the clipboard he used to carry wherever he walked. The ancient coins and Neolithic axe-head Graves once rubbed for inspiration are still on the mantelpiece. The Georgian candlesticks and tins of Colman’s mustard and Cadbury’s Cocoa show that even in exile Graves never lost his innate sense of Englishness.
The village itself, though, has changed beyond recognition. Celebrities followed the bohemians to Deià and Bob Geldof, Michael Douglas and Andrew Lloyd Webber now keep holiday homes in the mountain. Most recently, the Tom Hiddleston series The Night Manager was filmed here.
William says the culture change was enough to make him and his wife sell up their own home in 2007 and move to the Spanish mainland (although they still keep a flat in nearby Palma and his sister Lucia remains in the village).
Modernity wearies, and he does not know for how much longer he will keep coming here and dusting off the ghosts of his past.
But for now, like his father before him, he remains driven to keep his own history alive.