A MAJORCAN MEMORY
As a friend and admirer of Laura Riding, I am aware that some people have felt justified in being angry with her for their own reasons. I don’t intend to insult her by writing an apologia, but I think it is not always realised that Laura had something to say; the “sense of her own importance” with which she has been charged comes from her knowledge of the importance of her message. She is human, so when she is misunderstood and hurt she lashes out. Being an outstandingly intelligent and strong woman she lashes out with intelligence and strength.
text-indent 30px That such understandable reaction should form the basis-often by those who have never met her-of vicious and hurtful mudslinging is outrageous. Everything that it implies is a lie. And since the only weapon with which to confront a Lie is Truth, what follows is my personal experience of the Truth about Laura.
Of Laura Riding the poet I have little understanding. When the meaning of a poem shines through I feel I am glimpsing something wonderful. But I am not intellectual and to me the main body of her work is a mystery.Of Laura Riding the woman, however, I have a memory of a friendship which, though brief, still enriches my long life.
We met in 1934 as a result of my husband, Gordon Glover, putting his big toe through a bed sheet. We were renting a house in the Majorcan village of Deya. The arrangements had been made by a local agent and it was not till we had been there for some time that Catalina, who “did” for us, let fall that our landlords were the foreign Senora Laura and her friend Don Robert Graves.
We were intrigued. Robert was already well known for Goodbye To All That and a little known for his poems. From literary chat in London we had heard that the American poet Laura Riding was Robert’s friend/inspiration/muse. We could hardly wait to meet this interesting couple. But how was this to be done? Then, the tom sheet. What luck! My formal note of apology received an immediate answer from Laura. Never mind about the sheet, use it for rags, and would we care to come to tea on … ? (No doubt she was much amused by our obvious little ploy.)
We didn’t, of course, know what to expect as we set out for Canellun, the house Laura and Robert had built just outside the village. We had had brief sightings of a big handsome man, topped by a sombrero, buying vegetables in the market, and of a small, vivacious woman sitting outside Marghuerita’s cafe, talking and laughing with villagers and young foreigners. Catalina said the Senora was charming, muy si mpatica, and strong in character. Don Roberto was cheerful and friendly, always ready with the daily greeting of Buenos! As Fame carries a certain awe, it must have been with trepidation that we entered the garden with its stream and aloe tree that we were soon to know so well.
Robert greeted us at the door with slightly nervous affability and led us to his little library where sat Laura behind a tea tray, smiling with a certain reserve.
At this time Robert had reached what seemed to us the advanced age of thirty-nine. Even Laura seemed elderly. Thirty-three, I think. (We were twenty-three.) Her appearance was stunning. A cloud of brown hair framed a face whose skin was pale and clear, the lips rather slim, the nose long and well-shaped, the eyes of a compelling vividness. Her body was shapely, clothed in Majorcan style; a long gathered skirt over a frilled petticoat, a simple blouse gathered at the throat, a tight-fitting jacket or waistcoat. She was probably wearing jewellery. Perhaps a necklace of lozenge-shaped gold beads such as formed the dowry of Balearic girls, and pretty buttons that Robert had found in Palma.
Memories of sixty years ago don’t come easily, but I clearly remember that afternoon.
Over tea our conversation faltered its way to an easy flow. Laura asked if we had met the other young English people who lived in Deya. We said no, but we had seen them around. Notably, a beautiful girl with red-gold hair who wore a green cloak and pushed a baby in a pram.
“Mary Burtonwood,” Robert informed us, ”and baby Tony.” He added that Mary’s partner was George Ellidge. ”Then there’s Eirlys Roberts and Jacob Bronowki. They live next to the other two, in the Vina Vieja. There are others we don’t know so well … ”
Laura looked mischievous. “They’ve seen you around too.Jacob thinks Honor looks a bit common.” Her gaze met mine.How was I going to take this?
I muttered something about my long earrings. “Perhaps I oughtn’t wear them.”
“Perhaps not,” said Laura gently.
Her voice had no trace of an American accent. It was distinct, precise. She had a certain way of pronouncing” ou.” “Yew,” she would say, “trew,” “blew.”
We spoke of books. Rather a worry. Robert’s shelves were packed with volumes well above our level – many in Greek or Latin. We ventured the information that we were rather excited by Virginia Woolf.
Robert said, did “we know that Virginia Woolf went about biting babies prams?” At which Laura hunched her shoulders slightly, pressed her lips together, and giggled. Robert beamed at her approval. Impossible not to notice that his eyes scarcely left her, that she had his trust and gave him confidence.
We tried again. Gordon mentioned a popular book on philosophy from which we were trying to learn what was on offer.
“And what is your philosophy?” Laura asked.
I don’t remember Gordon’s reply. Mine was that I had my own philosophy. Happily I was not invited to enlarge on this. Laura and Robert exchanged smiling glances. I had given the right answer, presenting myself as an uncluttered mind ready to receive ideas.
Time to go. We rose. “Thank you so much,” etc ….
“We usually meet the others about now,” Laura remarked. “Castor brings our letters to the cafe and we have drinks. Coming?”
The friendship had begun.
For the happy few in the Laura/Robert group, life had two main elements: hard work and fun. Each of us had our own pursuits; research, criticism, fiction. Only Gordon and I followed the modest calling of free-lance feature journalism. Inevitably, under Laura’s guidance, some of us tried to make poems. Every few days she would devote an afternoon to helping us, one at a time.
I have a clear memory of Laura’s work table. It was carefully arranged, she did not indulge in arty disorder. There were jars of pens, ruler, writing paper; books and manuscripts were held down by stones from the beach. A watch lay face downward, hiding its information on minutes and hours. Laura used timepieces only when necessary.
“Every minute for itself,” she wrote in one of her poems,
There’s no more sixty,
There’s no more twelve,
It’s as late as it’s early.
My mind-picture shows, lying in front of Laura, a page of poetry on which every line has been altered, almost every word changed. It is one of my poems. We have talked about it, worked and re-worked it, bringing the right choice of words and clearer thought to my careless statements. It is now a poem which, though virtually written by Laura, says what I wanted it to say, so that it is more my poem than it was before.
It was during these sessions that we learned something of what Laura stood for. My impression was that she felt she had come into our lives to tell us of the end of history. All that happened from then on would be a winding-up, an epilogue. All activity that aimed at a future was meaningless. Sex, for example. We did not discuss these things among ourselves and I don’t know how strongly – or not – Laura’s outlook was shared by her friends. I think she knew that even if we did not understand we trusted her, and understanding would eventually come. I remember one occasion only on which her view was referred to publicly.
“Laura,” said Mary Burtonwood when we were having supper at Canellun, “if you’re against people having sex, what do you think about us? We’re doing it all the time!”
Amid laughter, Laura admitted that sex wasn’t only for making babies. It was fun. And fun was important to her. It would begin at the cafe when our day’s work was done and the postman Castor gave us the letters he couldn’t be bothered to deliver on steep terraces. There would be many letters. Robert was receiving bundles of cuttings in praise of his novel, I, Claudius, recently published. Laura’s post included letters from America and England, from universities, from agents and reviewers, from admirers she knew and admirers she didn’t, from friends such as the artist John Aldridge, the poets James Reeves and Norman Cameron, from Len Lye, Tom Matthews …. the rest of us heard from our families. We discussed the news over drinks (for just a few pence for a round of coffee and cognac, wine, liqueurs). Our conversation brought in Marghuerita, Deya’s mayor, Juan Gelat, Cator and anyone who chose to draw up their chairs.
After an hour or so Laura might ask two of us to supper.
“Mary and George, you’re invited to eat at Canellun. But: here’s a snag. I want Mary to do some typing.”
George: “We’re delighted to accept. But there’s a snag. Mary won’t do any typing.”
“Oh! Never mind. Come all the same.”
After the meal, in reply to “Thank you for a delicious supper,” Laura would say, “Thank you for eating it.” This response became one of my family’s traditions.
But the “letters” gathering was more likely to end with Laura saying, “Let’s have a party! Have we enough wine, Robert? Perhaps you’d better get some from the estanco.”
We walked along the darkening road, many such evenings fused into one memory. With a few drinks inside us we were gay, in the real sense, and we sang as we went. “Falling in Love Again…” “Let’s do it, let’s fall in love … ” Laura broke into a dance. “Come on, Honor!” Her arms went round my shoulders, mine round her waist. I could hear the little sounds her petticoats made, feel her soft firmness. “She’s lovely!” I thought.
Back at the house all doors stood open to the warm night with its scent of flowers and pines; rugs were rolled back, the gramophone wound up, and we danced over shining white tiles, overlooked by Len Lye’s wall-hanging of sea creatures. Laura usually danced on her own, perhaps fluttering her own special scarf. It was of silk with a batik design of the scar left on Laura’s back after a serious operation. Very effective.
Meanwhile Robert, who was no dancer, prepared a meal. Slices of tuna and sausage; loaves of flat, unleavened bread; oil; and salads of suspicious originality, sprinkled with herbs and unlikely leaves. Breathlessly, we subsided round the refectory table; wine flowed. Robert, who had eccentric tastes in food, picked a flower from a bowl of nasturtiums and ate it.
“Shall we play a game of something? Charades or Book Titles or something?”
We played (The Truth Game was Laura’s favourite) and we danced and we laughed and we sang till the small hours. Yet for everyone the next day started at the usual time and involved normal work.
To the people of Deya we seemed a source of amusement and astonishment. What strange ways we had! Only one wedding ring among us and it was not on the hand of baby Tony’s mother. We never went to church. Didn’t foreigners believe in God? But we were friendly and they were quite prepared to be friendly back. But for Laura they showed affection. Her Spanish (Robert’s too) was a great advance on the fractured mixture of Spanish and Majorcan attempted by the rest of us, and she took a genuine interest in their lives. She helped to tend them when they were ill. Her eyes would be clouded by their worries and shine delightedly at their gossip. They knew she was their friend, that she was concerned for them – as she was concerned for us.
“Poor! poor!” she would say in answer to some sad confidence.
“Oh, poor! poor!” She was teasing us out of making too much fuss.
But we were anxious not to offend her. Any deviation from her standard of right behaviour brought a chill. When Gordon wrote a novel in which he caricatured a conventional Englishwoman who had lived in Deya for years, Laura demanded icily, “Did you have to do that? She’s a decent little person, she never did you any harm.”
Perhaps wariness in avoiding Laura’s displeasure sometimes resulted in our keeping a feeling or opinion to ourselves. (I do not remember this happening in my case.) It did not, however, deter Jacob Bronowski. There were disagreements. He and Eirlys left Deya. Gordon and I also left, feeling we should renew contacts with our editors.
Shortly after our arrival in England, Gordon fell in love with another woman. I wrote a distraught letter to Canellun. The response was a telegram. “Come out immediately.” At Palma harbour I saw Laura and Robert on the quay, Laura with arms outstretched. I flew into them. She said, “You’ll be all right now.”
And so I was.
During the months preceding the birth, in England, of my son Julian, I was cherished. My pregnancy was cheerfully accepted, a jail accompli rather than the “Shall we or shan’t we have a baby?” which Laura disliked. I was given a room that looked to sea, garden, and mountains. My work table was set ready, with typewriter. When Laura heard me moving about the house during the night she left her sleep and made hot drinks. She gave me presents-jewelled buttons, a Tudor ring. Laura loved giving presents.
I remember afternoon walks along the winter cliffs, the sky littered with pink and grey clouds. Laura pointed out a grey cloud shaped like a modem sculpture.
“I’d like that one for my mantelpiece.”
“Laura! That’s the sort of thing Beverley Nichols would say!”
“Yes, but he’d choose a different cloud!”
Sometimes I walked alone with Robert. He was writing Antigua Penny Puce and I heard it chapter by chapter. Back at Canellun, Laura, lovely in petticoats, would be sitting on the settle by the fire.
“Come and get warm!” She looked at my face enquiringly and gently drew me down beside her.
How well I remember such evenings in that quiet room! The window that framed the fading day, the scent of burning olive-wood. I was not happy, but with Laura I lost my panic, my fear of childbirth – of the future. I felt safe.
There is a portrait of Laura Riding by John Aldridge. It shows a resolute, unyielding countenance, not her charm, her kindness, the softness of her hair, the smile of “Poor! poor!” and “Thank you for eating it.” To some viewers the portrait is unpleasing, even ugly. To me it has the uncompromising beauty of a tree in winter, no adornment of tree or leaf, just the naked outline of what it is.
It is a portrait of which Laura approved.
[Photograph of Honor Wyatt by courtesy of Prue Anderton. Reproduction of the John Aldridge painting of Laura Riding by Cornell University. Thanks also to William Graves and Julian Glover for their help.]