After forty or so years spent in Deià, Frances Baxter moved back to her birthplace of Australia three years ago.
She now lives in Brunswick Heads, a beautiful seaside town on the New South Wales coast where she spent many of her formative years, not far from her son Patrick and his family. Her other sons, Brendan and Llewellyn, live in Deià. Brunswick is close to the famous Byron Bay, Cape Byron being the most easterly point in Australia. And, yes, it is named for the poet.
Frances Baxter was one of the first people I met when I came to Deià in 1996. Even now, when I think of the village, I automatically remember her and her husband and life partner Juan, who passed on in 2015.
Today, at a time when I’m marooned in Hungary until July, my heart is lifted a little by the self-portraits, still lives and life studies Frances posts on her Instagram feed every day.
I wondered how Frances felt about Deià as she contemplates the village she called home for so many years.
How did you come to Deià in the first place, Frances?
In 1976, my mother and father were killed in car accident. I’m one of six daughters and we were all totally traumatized. I was married to Paul, Patrick and Brendan’s father at the time. When something like that happens, it either brings you closer together or pushes you further apart. The death of my parents put a distance between Paul and me. I decided I would get away for a couple of years.
I thought about going to London to stay with friends. But I was talking to another friend one day and he asked why I was going to a city where it was cold. Why didn’t I go somewhere warm like a Mediterranean country? This had never occurred to me. It was a scary thought.
My friend lent me a book. I started reading about Spain and Greece and couldn’t decide between the two of them. Spain or Greece. Spain or Greece. Then I read about the Balearic Islands. I knew that Mallorca was somewhere the English went so I guessed they would be accustomed to English speaking people.
The writer of the book advised readers that, if they were in Palma, they should take a little daytrip up to Deià. He said it was very beautiful, that lemons and oranges grew on the same tree and that lots of painters and writers lived there, including the poet Robert Graves.
When I read about Deià I instantly felt this is it, this is going to be the place for me. It plucked my heart strings.
Ten minutes after I’d read that and was still absorbing what had just happened to me, another friend popped in. He asked me how my plans were going. I told him about the book.
He said, “Does the book mention Mallorca?” I said it did. “Does It say anything about Deià?” I nodded. This is just ten minutes after Deià had gone zing with me, remember.
“A friend of mine named Judy King who I went to art school with has lived there for the past seven years,” he said. Judy was married to a guy called Rick Gruen at the time and they lived in a house just a bit up from where Juan’s brother Tomás had a house.
Everything the guy told me consolidated the feeling, made Deià feel even more solid for me. The guy wrote to Rick – Judy was in Thailand or Sri Lanka at the time – and Rick told him all about Deià, from the price of potatoes to how to rent a place.
I booked tickets for me and the boys on the SS Canberra, the P&O liner that was doing its last round the world trip. I knew I couldn’t travel by plane. It would be too fast. I needed to adjust.
The other amazing coincidence was that I’d already booked a summer painting course at the university in Armidale, where I lived, that year. I was setting off on my travels after this. My tutor was a wonderful guy named Frank Hodgkinson, an abstract painter who’d been a war artist in WWII. On the very first day of the course, we were talking about my going to Spain.
I told him I was going to Mallorca but I didn’t want to say Deià in case I burst the bubble. He said “I think you should go to Deià. It would be just perfect, and the people would love you.”
It turned out he’d lived in Deià for many years. His wife was very good friends with Robert Graves’s wife Beryl. Juan knew Kate, Frank’s daughter.
Frank was my teacher of note. After summer school was over, he said “You’ve got the equipment now. You just have to go and do it.”
It took five weeks to get to Mallorca. Travelling by boat, you go through gradual time changes. By the time I got there, I was psychologically ready to start on the next part of my life.
After you’d had this magical introduction to Deià, what was the place like?
I thought it was the most wonderful place, deeply poetic and aesthetic. It wasn’t as polished around the edges as it is now, but it didn’t look much different. Although places that are now car parks and so on were orange and lemon orchards.
Unlike now, there wasn’t the stark contrast between summer and winter. Our social life was wonderfully vibrant all year round.
Why did you decide to stay?
I thought a couple of years would settle my trauma. In the meantime, I met Juan and, you know, life develops. I became so deeply happy in Deia, I wanted to stay longer. I didn’t know how but somehow it happened.
After some time spent living with Juan, Pat and Bren up at Son Coll – Juan’s house on the path to Soller above the village – I decided to go back to Australia with the boys, to give Juan the opportunity to be free again in his own house. I figured that if he wanted me to come back, he would ask.
The boys’ father now had the means to take care of them properly for the next part of their lives, at the time when they needed him the most. I rattled around Australia for a bit until Juan asked me to come back and I did.
Why did you leave?
The shortest answer is to be a Grandmother and in so doing reconnect with my son Patrick, the father of my three beautiful grandsons and with my Aussie family whom I have seen very little of in the previous forty years: sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews old and young. Juan is no longer physically in Deia, I carry him in my heart wherever I am, (We all do). I have carried him and Deià to these three little boys. They know Grandpa Juan through me and they know their Granny through my presence. And of course I get all the Granny hugs!
Do you ever think about what you might have been like if you hadn’t spent all those years in Deia, if you hadn’t been the person you are?
It’s an interesting question. Because of my time in Deià, knowing Robert and Beryl – who was a wonderful mentor – and being involved in the poetic lifestyle of the village, I became the me that I am. Looking back on it, going to Deià, where the streets are built to respect the land and run all higgledy-piggledy, does something to your soul. The grid system imposed on this beautiful land of Australia also does something to you but it’s not poetic.
Before the British, of course, there were no roads. The Aboriginal people had “Song Lines” to take them from one side of Australia to the other. Each rock, each tree, each waterhole had its own song and as you walked along you would sing its song and it would appear before you. You were given hospitality from those who knew your songs, which were taught to you from infancy by your mother. That, to me, is pure poetry.
Forty years in Deià showed me things I’d never have realized if I hadn’t spent a lifetime in the village. One was the beating heart of poetry.
Robert used to say that the Mallorcan people are a race of poets. I feel like that about the indigenous people of Australia. It’s how the land is cared for and revered. Here where I live is Arakwal land. I’ve come to know and painted a portrait of an inspiring Arakwal woman, her people have been caretakers of this land for tens of thousands of years.
What of Deià do you carry with you?
That’s an emotional question. But I’m thrilled to be emotional about it. It’s nice to have things you can be emotional about. Apart from the fact that two of my sons are in Deià, I carry the place with me. I carry it in my heart all the time, every day, every moment. It’s never away from me. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful Deià is to me and always will be. It has made me the person I am, absolutely. You could even say it’s in my DNA and when I mind my grandchildren, when I have dealings with people, my experience in Deià influences all of that.
Although I didn’t know this when I arranged to speak with Frances, if COVID-19 hadn’t come along to turn our worlds upside down, she would have been in the village right now.
I’d be there as we speak but Corona says no. Pat and I were both coming. I would have arrived on the 28th of May and I was going to stay for the next two months. I would have been there on Juan’s 5th anniversary. But then so many people have had to put their plans on hold. That’s not a bad thing.
I never normally miss Mallorca because I always know I’m going to be there. But now I’m dreaming of the sea, of putting my feet in the water for the first time.
I’ve never seen the water look so beautiful. I accept the wisdom of how things are and to not go against it and to take from that what you can take. I accept that it’s happened, and I can’t be there now and I think, you never know, perhaps there’s a hidden agenda there that’s making life better for people in some unknown way.
I couldn’t help get into the analogy of Covid coming along like your mother, mother nature, saying “OK, everybody go to their rooms and think about what you’ve done.” It felt like that, during the lockdown.
All that’s happened with Black Lives Matter, I believe, is a direct result of people having almost been in meditation for some time and thinking about what they’ve done. That has to be a good thing.