“So many painters live in the village of Deià, and have
since the Catalan Modernista Santiago Rusiñol at the
beginning of the 20th Century, that it is known as
el pueblo de ya pintado, the village already painted”
I was recuperating from a dose of a sexually transmitted disease, epididymytis – a nasty little bug that gets you in the testicles, you can’t move without excruciating pain – in a house in the tiny village of Lluc Alcari on the Costa de Deià. The getting justified the giving, a rare tribute to the donor of such a dubious gift. But right now, I’m remembering, with astonishing clarity seeing how long ago it was, a painting that hung on the wall of the room in which I lay, immobilised, in agony.
It wasn’t a particularly good painting, no masterpiece, but painted with skill, and something else – verve, passion? I think it was signed by the woman who owned the house, a woman I never met, who lived in Los Angeles, and worked there as an animator. At least it wasn’t an olive tree painting. Olive tree paintings in Mallorca, like green Asian ladies in Sydney used to be, still are, so prevalent that it sometimes seems a wall won’t do its wall work without one hanging. This was a sea view, out across terracotta rooftops to the coast below where I lay, on a windy day.
The winds, I learnt later, had names. The tramuntana, named for the mountain range that runs along the northern coast, a cold and violent wind from the north; the nor’easter is the gregal; the llevant comes from the east; the xaloc which causes temperatures to drop rapidly from the south east; the llebeig is also from the south east, but it brings with it rain and hail; the ponent from the east and another nor’easter of different character, the mestral. Wind has deep and ancient significance to the Mallorquin people.
Robert Graves’ study of the origins of the poetic in mythology, The White Goddess, offers his theory on the origins of the siurell (he spells it xiurell) the white pipe clay figurines decorated with red and green stripes with whistles behind them. According to Graves, they depicted the goddess Daiera (Aphrodite), Dionysus himself and others. These original siurells were connected with the winnowing festival, and the whistles were used to whistle up the winds, winnowing the only time when the Mallorquin farm, largely arboricultural, welcomed the wind. A small Dionysus (like the one above) sits on my desk as I write this (he has lost one horn and his whistle over time) and we also have an updated siurell, a nativity scene. But it was the wind – and the White Goddess herself – to whom these figures were dedicated.
A Mallorquin could look at that painting and identify the wind. But not me, not even then, after two years on the island. It was a painting, but a painting that had its own significance for me.
It was predominantly blue, ultramarine, with white flecked waves, the palms tossing their heads like frightened horses. It was impressionist in style, but it fixed, probably by accident, on canvas, in acrylic paints, and perhaps only for me, because of the circumstances – the disease, we were about to leave the island after two event-filled years – what made this stretch of coastline so special. The intense blue of the sea against the milky blue of the sky at the horizon: the contrast between these blues and the greens (olive dusty, pine sombre, palm shining) of the coastal vegetation: the pitted rocks that tumbled into and reared out of that sea. And something indefinable, unpaintable was caught too, at least, again, for me. On such days, when the wind tossed the pines and palms and olive trees and whipped up the sea, it felt as if every breath was somehow more life enhancing. That your very existence on the planet was more meaningful, more useful. It was on such a day that we arrived in Deià.
As I see the painting now, in my mind’s eye, it takes me back to that time, that place, to that first day and night in Deià , the first, in many ways, of my life, so important was the discovery of this island to me. Because now, after God knows how many visits, I know its streets and tracks so well, my brain is so crowded with memories of its corners and stories of its citizens alive and dead, that it’s difficult to recapture the innocence of that first time, and not to see it through the cynical scales through which I now see the place. To pronounce the word, Deià, or to see it in print, was, once, enough to excite in me the same thrill of place names as Ozymandios, Timbuktu, Zanzibar. Now, it makes me feel a little sad.
We had arrived there, without knowing it, on the last day of October, the day on which Pedro and his family would close the summer restaurant and bar they operate from a cave on the Cala de Deià : Deià Cove. This Cala, we also had no way of knowing then, is a far more important littoral landscape than its size indicates. It is the public space, the plaza, that Deià doesn’t, unusually for a Spanish village, have. When the foreigners began to move in, it became the summer meeting place where friendships, alliances, love affairs and marital breakdowns all occurred. It has just occurred to me that, in that way, it is very similar to Sydney, where the beach is also the public space where so many dramas are played out.
It’s a good three kilometres drive down a tarred road that starts just outside the village, or a trek along dusty walking tracks through olive groves and orange orchards, tracks that begin where the streets of the village peter out to the north, that skirt the edge of shallow canyons, lead through deserted orchards, across olive wood sties, tracks that I got to know so well I can still see clearly their fences and rocks and individual trees.
When you do get there, it’s not much of a beach. Especially to an Australian (where life’s a beach). There is no sand, only pebbles, pebbles which are prized – and pinched – for garden paths, but a bugger to walk across. To swim, you must pick your way gingerly to the water’s edge, or hurl yourself off rocks which jut out over the water.
But stand back, and take a wider view of the Cala as landscape, and it is so beautiful, you understand the persistent mythology that has grown up around it. On the north western coast of the island, the mountain range, the Serra Tramuntana, marches along the very edge of the Mediterranean. To the south and south east, high cliffs, once dry stone-terraced as olive groves, originally in Moorish times, then (and still) in disrepair, tumble down to the bay and occasionally, especially after a battering of the coast by storm, dump dirt and rocks into the narrow crescent of the cove.
To the west, the torrente – creek – runs down from the mountains to enter the sea. In summer, it is a dry stony bed, but in winter, it can be more like the English sound and Latin birth of it’s name – a raging torrent, gushing into the sea, carrying with it, even then, battalions of plastic detergent bottles (Mistol was the brand of choice at that time) and other castoffs from what was then, in Spain, the early days of the disposable society. Across it, a collection of stone houses belonging to the local fishing family, the same honey colour as the surrounding rocks and cliffs, but broken down into very large pebbles and studded into cement of a similar colour, as were all the houses on the island. A curious and very attractive effect, like a ramshackle of cave houses with curved terracotta tiled roofs cascading to the sea.
One of these has been turned, by the fishing family, into a café with a cane shaded terrace overlooking the cove, on which all summer long you’ll find the serious chess players of the village. Chess was and is very important among the expatriate artists, many, like Duchamp, having all but given up their art for their chess. Beyond that, a wooded headland, the Punta de Deià, juts out and cuts off a view of the beautiful coast leading down to Valldemossa.
To the east, a craggy headland meanders out and around towards the tiny village of Lluc Alcari. It’s not so long as the point, and devoid of trees. There’s a boathouse set into the rock, with a little boat ramp constructed of seaworn olive branches leading into the cove. One overhanging vaguely house-shaped rock on this side is famous for being the rock from which Robert Graves leapt every morning of the summer for his swim to the point and back.
It is a beautiful cove, one which has been extensively painted, most famously by the Austrian super realist painter and long term resident, Mati Klarwein. One of his Cala scapes appeared on the cover of the Santana album, Abraxas. And written about: Deià stories appear in both Anais Nin’s volumes of erotic stories, Delta of Venus and Little Birds (“Whenever I went down to the beach in Deià, I saw two young women, one small and boyish…..the other, like a Viking……”), and generally celebrated as the sort of place where, in the space of a morning, you might run into more important figures from the European and American worlds of art and letters lying half naked on the pebbles than you would in a month in the streets and salons of New York or London.
That first day, we were met at the main café in the village by my friend Bob Jones (ho is still there) and an expatriate New Zealander then living with him, Richard Tapper, and taken, immediately, in a shabby little Citroen Mahari (a plastic imitation of that ’70s icon, the Mini Moke) to the Cala.
My first sight of the Mediterranean was on a day when the bag of winds had been opened. That day it was grey and white capped rather than, as in the painting, a brilliant blue sea that smashed against the rocks, hurling sprays of spume up into the air. It certainly wasn’t the calm, cerulean pond of the travel brochures. The revellers huddled together, glasses in hand, ill dressed against this first blast of winter.
I guess even then the mythos of the Med had entered into my consciousness and I remember realising that this, my first encounter with it, was an important moment. Ignoring the wine guzzling clump, I found a climbable rock, sprinted up it, and stood there, staring down and out at the wild waves. The wind was howling down from the north. It had the same effect on this ‘absurdly small sea’ (Lawrence Durrell’s memorable phrase for it) as a hand rocking a baby bath, whipping up irregular, high pointed waves that moiled and rolled erratically.
Because in popular imagination it’s perennially summer on its shores, we forget the Mediterranean can be a vicious and dangerous sea. “The sea also becomes hostile in winter” writes Fernand Braudel, who goes on to enumerate the “….Spectacular wrecks….. (that)….. occurred every year to remind men of winter’s powers.” I’m glad my first encounter with it was on such a day. It stripped away layers of expectations, and allowed me to see it from the first afresh. I stood for a while with the wind whipping through my hair and across my face watching the sea turning on the land after a season of lapping warmly against it, before scrambling down and joining the party.
The party. My first Deià party. There were to be more. In a way, despite its being outdoors, this one set many of the ground rules. The first person to greet me was one John T Fisher, a large American with elephantine feet and tombstone teeth. These teeth were exposed to me as he thrust his hand forward – a hand with fingers each the size of sausages, flattened at the ends – and said “a pretty fine way to meet the island, friend. I like the way you clambered up that goddamn rock and took the storm on the chin.” I hadn’t realised it but there was general approval of my entrance. John T Fisher was from California, as the teeth proclaimed. He wears a suede coat and a flat black Peruvian cowboy hat with a coloured ribbon round the crown. “I would kill my father rob my mother rape my sister break a blister for a San Miguel” he booms out over the wind. He is very drunk on this day, but still tender and his grey eyes still penetrated when he spoke to you
I also met Del Negro, an actor, mostly in spaghetti westerns, although you can see him in Werner Herzog’s tedious film Aguirre; The Wrath of God. He has a non-speaking part and was chosen, I am sure, because of his extraordinary face. He is tall and dark, with a saturnine face, black and brooding eyes who looks, when he wishes to, tough and mean.
The day disappeared in a haze of booze. Thus was the pattern set for Deià parties. I remember talking too much to many strangers, faces appearing and disappearing, and the growing feeling that I had stumbled upon something exciting that I wanted desperately to be a part of, that desperation perhaps increasing my intake.
Without knowing it, I had stumbled into one of the planet’s artists colonies. I knew only that I was excited, and stimulated by my surroundings, by my companions. Later, as the sun disappeared behind the mountain I now know as the Teix, we all clambered into the Mahari and roared up to the village, where we drank even more in the café. Even later, after dark, and by now my memories are very hazy, we drove up to Son Rullan, the ancient half wrecked finca that was to be our home for the next eight months.
Of that first trip, I remember only the impossible road, more like a washed out goat track up through the olive groves, the huge olive wood front door and the refectory table in a long dining room with a smoking fire. We ate, what, I was too drunk to remember. Bob and I caromed around the room drinking wine and smoking dope, making no sense at all, Jones too pissed to play his guitar. The smoke from the fire stung our eyes and we coughed and spluttered. Eventually I staggered off to bed, where Susie already lay asleep. I lay next to her, no doubt farting and snoring. The next morning provided us with a soberibg introduction to Franco’s Spain.