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Shaking hands with poetry: when Roger McGough met Robert Graves in DeiaJune 18, 2015

English poet, children’s author and broadcaster Roger McGough has been coming to Deia every year since the 1980s.  In conversation with David Holzer, he talked about how he came to the village in the first place, what keeps him coming back and an encounter with Robert Graves.

Roger McGough

When and why did you come to Deia in the first place, Roger?

I’d been to Majorca in the 1960s but never made it to Deia. I remember doing a gig in London with Sunna’s father, Ronnie Wathen, when he was playing his Irish pipes and doing his poetry, and hearing about Deia, where Ronnie had lived for years. I think Brian Patten – fellow Liverpool poet – had already been. I decided to go, with my wife Hilary.

How did you meet Robert?

I met Pauline Scudamore, biographer of Spike Milligan, and a great friend of Beryl, Robert’s wife. She introduced me to Robert.

You have a terrific story about your encounter with Graves.

It was 1984. We were having tea with the family. All the children were there. It was lovely. Robert didn’t say much. It was towards the end of his life. He just sat there in his big black Spanish hat, covered by a rug, looking out to sea.

When it was time for us to go, Beryl said “Robert, Roger’s going”. To me, she said “Give Robert your hand”.  I did. He took it and wouldn’t let go. And he had a very strong grip.

Beryl laughed. “He always knows a poet’s hands,” she said.

I wondered if, actually, he thought he was holding a woman’s hand – one of his muses, perhaps. And, it has to be said, I do have rather a slender, shapely hand. But then I realised I was holding the hand of a man who’d met Thomas Hardy and Hardy had shaken hands with Tennyson and so on, back through the centuries.  That was something.

Having this connection with Robert got me into the poetic magic of the place, as you can imagine. It was very much Robert’s town then. He liked to see the stars clearly at night so there were very few lights. Unfortunately, this also meant that people were always falling over.

Would you say Deia’s a magical  place or is it the people?

I get a thrill every time I turn that first corner into the village and see the church perched on its peak. I love the way the moon hits the mountains, the way the light changes colour, but for me it’s the people.

I do go to other places. Poets are invited to nice places and to festivals but I feel a link to Deia. We go at the same time of year and see the same old friends. Sadly, people die off but you make new friends. I find the sense of repeating myself rather nice. I like moaning about prices and the new buildings that are going up.

So, do think Deia’s changed?

Of course. But it’s also much the same. I never make comparisons with the past or I’d never go back. Change is inevitable. Naturally, I’m pissed off that the people are younger and more beautiful.

How often do you come back?

Every year.

What do you like to do most?

It’s always nice to do some work. I’ve started and completed books in the village. I do all the things everyone does, I suppose. I go down to the Cala, to Sa Fonda. Deia warms me and I warm to it. I’m also in search of the perfect tumbet but it gets harder and harder to find, being a cheap peasant dish that restaurants can’t charge the earth for. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about tumbet with Tomás Graves, like his pa amb oli book.

(Salivating editor’s note: tumbet is a traditional Mallorquin dish of baked vegetables. It’s delicious.)

What are you currently working on?

I have a children’s book coming out in October called Poetry Pie. I’ve just written some sonnets for a book in honour of Shakespeare that comes out next year. You know, the usual stuff a poet does. I’ll be in Deia at the end of July.

Thanks, Roger, and good luck in your search for the perfect tumbet.

Roger’s autobiography Said And Done, in which he describes meeting Robert Graves, is published by Random House. A reviewer for The Independent newspaper called Said And Done “a warm-hearted book about the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man”.

Graves’s somewhat unlikely friendship with Spike Milligan resulted in a fascinating correspondence. Their letters were collected in Dear Robert, Dear Spike, edited by Pauline Scudamore and available from all good…


Roger’s website

David Holzer is a freelance writer who has been coming to Deia for almost 20 years. Apart from loving the village, he is fascinated by the – without being too pretentious – cultural history and significance of Deia.


Patrick Hill is co-founder, and co-owner, of Charles Marlow with his brother Charlie. He was the first to come from the UK to Deia to start the company. Today, Patrick continues to help set the strategic direction and splits his time between the UK and Mallorca

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