Ruthven Todd is a fascinating British writer who first visited Robert Graves in Deià in 1959. Like so many writers, he is today unfairly reduced to the status of a footnote in literary history The portrayal of him by Simon Gough in his book The White Goddess: An Encounter as a silly, clumsy drunk who constantly makes a fool of himself doesn’t help.
For example, when Beryl Graves, Robert’s wife, decides that a play is the best way to celebrate Simon’s 11th birthday, ‘In his excitement, Ruthven’s head jerked towards [Beryl] in a spasm, dislodging his spectacles. Unfortunately, he tried to catch them with the hand that was clasping his wine glass, and he threw the entire contents all over himself.’
(Putting on plays at the tiny amphitheatre Graves had created across the road from Canellun was a feature of life in the family and its circle for many years.)
Incidentally, I think Simon may have been creative with his dates. He places Ruthven in Deià in 1953 and not 1959. In 1953, Todd was actually on Martha’s Vineyard.
Who was Ruthven Todd?
He was born in Edinburgh in 1914 and died in 1978 in Galilea, a tiny village in the middle of the island with a church on a puig or mount at its centre. Like many of the best writers, Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) began as a copywriter and wrote poetry and novels on the side. He was involved in the legendary 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition and, in the 1930s, was friendly with writers who included Dylan Thomas and Wyndham Lewis.
A conscientious objector in World War II, Todd moved to America in 1947 and worked at a university in Iowa.
According to Robert DeMaria, who we’ll get to later, Todd shared an apartment with Dylan in London when they were young men and the two remained close friends. He with Dylan in New York in November 1953, the month Dylan died. Todd wrote an account of the events leading up to the poet’s death in a letter to the Irish poet, playwright and broadcaster Louis MacNeice. While the myth of Dylan demands that he drank himself to death, in Todd’s account this is definitely not the case.
To MacNeice, Todd writes ‘Dylan made only one short outing that day…to the White Horse, where he saw Len Lye for a moment and had a couple of beers. These were the only drinks he had all Wednesday.’
In the early 1960s, Todd signed a contract to deliver a biography of Dylan but, due to his personal problems and his feeling that he was close to him, never wrote it.
Len Lye, born in New Zealand, was a brilliant filmmaker, animator and kinetic artist. He had been a friend of Dylan’s since they met in London in the early 1930s. Lye also knew Todd well. He was a frequent visitor to Deià and great friends with Robert Graves and Laura Riding. Lye designed the dust jacket for the first edition of Graves’s Goodbye to All That.
Apart from two allegorical novels, Todd is best known as the author of an excellent book on Blake and for the 1950s Space Cat series for children. He was clearly a versatile writer though not perhaps one who was particularly focused.
I became intrigued by Todd when I read about his connection with Deià and Mallorca in one of the Graves biographies. When Peter Main, a writer working on a biography of Todd got in touch with me as a result of my post on Alston Anderson, another writer reduced to a footnote, I was able to find out more.
How did you become interested in Ruthven, Peter?
It came rather unexpectedly out of two bibliographies of the Peter Lunn and John Westhouse imprints I published some years ago. These were actually two arms of the same company. Ruthven wrote a children’s book for Peter Lunn and detective stories for John Westhouse, under the pseudonym R.T. Campbell. To check my facts, I tracked down Ruthven’s son and it went from there. The more I found out about him as a poet, William Blake scholar, writer and naturalist the more interested in, and impressed by, him I became.
How did Ruthven’s first visit to Deià come about?
Although he had met Graves briefly, via Laura Riding, in London many years before, he didn’t really get to know him until his 1959 visit. Apart from simply wanting to connect with the literary court that had grown up around Graves, the two men had a common interest in mushrooms. Ruthven was a very knowledgeable mycologist, and had made contact with the American mycologist Gordon Wasson regarding hallucinogenic mushrooms. [Perhaps it was these that inspired Space Cat.] Wasson was already in touch with Graves about mythological aspects of mushroom lore. But I think after that Graves and Ruthven just hit it off. They often went swimming together. Ruthven was also very fond of Beryl Graves, though not amorously!’
Why did Ruthven stay in Mallorca?
On his second visit in 1960, he became seriously ill with pleurisy and pneumonia and nearly died. He spent all the money he had, and more, on medical fees and found himself ‘stranded’ on Mallorca. He also found Mallorca much cheaper than Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts and arty enclave where he had been living. He lived in Mallorca for the rest of his life – in Deià briefly, then El Terreno in Palma and finally Galilea.
What was life for Ruthven like on the island?
A bit of a roller-coaster. He was plagued by medical problems, mostly connected with being an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. However, he was quite resilient and had a wide circle of good friends who gave him support. He was very much liked by most people who met him. He was of an optimistic disposition, although he did have periods of depression over health and money worries. Also, his love life never seemed to run smoothly and he had periods of loneliness, and did yearn for domestic stability (something those who knew him only slightly didn’t necessarily realise).
What Ruthven say about Deia/Mallorca in his writing?
He liked Deia to begin with, and continued to visit the Graves family after he left, but latterly felt it had become spoilt by the arrival of the 60s drug culture. He then lived a very bohemian life style in Terreno, knocking around the local bars, but I think that after taking a partially successful alcohol ‘cure’ in 1965, he was quite relieved to leave it. He loved Galilea and remained there. He loved island life generally, and his papers contain an unfinished book called Love Letter to Three Islands, (the islands being Mull, Martha’s Vineyard and Mallorca). He was a very fine illustrator of flowers and mushrooms, and he did many beautiful drawings of those he found on Mallorca. There is hardly any friend of Ruthven’s I have contacted who has not been given at least one of his drawings.
Do you have any stories about Ruthven in Deià?
Here’s one I particularly like: When Graves went swimming at the Cala at Deia, he always removed his dentures and placed them in some safe spot on the beach. He often forgot where and Don Pedro, the Deia priest, would announce at the church that Don Roberto would be grateful for their return if found. One day, while swimming with Graves, Ruthven spotted some dentures in a crevice of a wall at the Cala. He slipped them into the pocket of his trunks, dived into the bay and shot to the surface holding them aloft. Graves was delighted and deeply impressed. Ruthven didn’t let on till years later.
Thank you, Peter, that’s a wonderful story.
After I’d interviewed Peter, I reread something Todd had written that Tomás Graves had given me. This was the introduction to a book by Duncan Wallace called The Mountebank, published posthumously in 1972.
Todd was a friend of Robert DeMaria, an American who taught at Dowling College on Long Island. They first met in 1964 in the bars of El Terreno, then the closest thing Palma had to Soho or Greenwich Village. Robert had been in love with Deià since first visiting the village in the early 1960s. He managed to set up The Mediterranean Institute of Dowling College in Deià and invited Todd to teach a course called ‘Man and the Poet’. This covered Blake and other poets Todd had known like Dylan Thomas and considered how their lives had affected their poetry. (The story of The Mediterranean Institute is fascinating and I’ll attempt to do justice to it in a later post.)
While he was teaching at the Institute, Todd became friends with Duncan, a serious young man living at the Villa Verde in Deià and determined to be a writer. According to Todd, Duncan was not enrolled at the Mediterranean Institute. After Duncan had given Todd one of his short stories to read, he adopted the older man as his writing mentor.
Duncan would take the 7.30 AM bus from Deià to Palma and wander around the city until it was time to catch the 2.30 to Galilea from the city. He very rarely stayed overnight, waiting only as long as it took for Todd to critique his work. But sometimes Duncan did stay over. One morning, Todd found him recovering from some kind of seizure.
When Duncan drowned in late August 1970 while swimming alone far out in the sea off Cala Deià, it was apparently a result of having had a seizure in the water. In Todd’s preface to The Mountebank he describes feeling a ‘sullen black and hurtful anger’ at the awful waste of Duncan’s life and talent.
This is the only piece of Todd’s writing I’ve read, apart from a few of the poems. It’s heartfelt and adroitly written. He comes across as a decent man and no fool, a far cry from the character in Simon Gough’s book. Duncan was lucky to find him.