In his short autobiography My Brief History, Stephen Hawking devotes two or three pages to his time in Deia and says he “had a wonderful time”.
It was March 1950 and Stephen was eight and a half years old. He came to Deia with his mother Isobel and his two sisters for roughly four months while his father, head of the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, took one of his lengthy periodic trips to Africa.
Isobel was at St Anne’s College Oxford with Beryl Graves, Robert’s wife. The two women had been, as Beryl’s son William put it in conversation with me, “lefties before the war, which was quite normal for those days”.
The family rented the house which is now the Hostal Villaverde, a charming pension on the road that leads up to Deia church.
Stephen Hawking shared a tutor, the American poet W.S. Merwin, with William who was ten. Merwin, Stephen writes, “was more interested in writing a play for the Edinburgh Festival than in teaching us”. He set the boys to reading a chapter of the Bible every day and writing a piece on it. They got through all of Genesis and part of Exodus before Stephen left.
According to William, Stephen’s family were in Deia from March to June. It must have been rather grim for a boy thrilled at escaping the English weather to have been trapped in such a deadly dull exercise.
No wonder Stephen was apparently quite the prankster. “He used to have itching powder, stinkbombs and what the English call bangers – small fireworks that, as the name suggest, do nothing other than make a loud bang,” William said. “My father didn’t appreciate this. He’d served in WWI and loud bangs unnerved him.”
Being tutored by Merwin brought out Stephen’s intellectual tenacity. Merwin told Stephen that he shouldn’t begin a sentence with “And”. When Stephen pointed out that most sentences in the Bible began with “And” he was told that English had changed since the time of the King James Bible. “In that case, I argued, why make us read the Bible?”
Stephen appealed to Graves for support, but this was during the period when Graves was working on The Nazarene Gospel Restored, a controversial book that attempts to “untangle the distortions and age-old problems of the original texts to consider the truth behind Jesus’s words and actions”.
I asked William what his memories were of Stephen Hawking. “His arrival rather upset my routine,” he told me. “He was a year and a half younger than me, which is an age for small boys. Also, my friends were the village children and I was used to speaking to them in Mallorquin, which Stephen didn’t speak – of course.”
Did William keep in touch with Stephen? “I did but not so much. When someone’s having a hard time communicating, you don’t want to put them under extra stress.”
Sadly, Stephen Hawking never came back to Deia. But given the amount of space devoted to his time here in his brief autobiography, it must have made an impression on him. I like to imagine him as a preternaturally inquisitive little boy staring up at the stars in the night sky, which always seem especially close in Deia, and, in the words of Wordsworth, “voyaging through strange seas of thought alone”.
RIP, wherever you are, Stephen Hawking.