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Hello to all this – celebrating Robert Graves in style

14 September, 2018 — By John Gulliver

Lucia with Charles Mundye, president of the Graves Society

WHO would have the nerve to upstage the irrepressible Jean Moorcroft Wilson, whose launch of her latest biography of the poet Robert Graves I was attending at Bloomsbury publishing house last week?

I should have known, of course – her daughter Emma.

Bloomsbury’s editor, Jamie Birkett, was in full flow at the literary party listing the ravishing reviews that had come out that week about the book, mentioning the Observer, the Literary Review, Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Spectator and New Statesman when Emma chimed in… “and the Horse and HoundAngler Today.”

It was then that the writer of the night who was standing in front of the crowded room laughed: “There you are, my daughter trying to upstage me, as ever!”

Suddenly, the private ripples of family life were swirling about in public.

Then, in what became a two-way conversation, Emma replied: “Your daughter being envious” – her latest novel England’s Lane was published this year (see Review).

Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Then Jean Moorcroft Wilson, a flamboyant figure, always in the most vivid eye-catching costumes, held full stage describing how she laboriously gathered information about Graves, travelling to archives abroad, especially the US, and then she turned to her husband, Cecil – a member of the Virginia Woolf dynasty, and said: “I believe biographers are difficult to live with so I have to thank my family for being so patient with me, and my saintly husband Cecil who has been so encouraging.”

She is clearly enraptured by Robert Graves – she published a special sequence of his poems a year or so ago.
She had good reason to be in an exultant mood last week because her editor Jamie Birkett was still brimming with delight that the first print had already sold out, and presses were rolling for a second edition.
As for the party, it wasn’t typically arty. It brought together a roomful of the author’s friends or fellow academics – many middle-aged men, with tousled grey hair, some rather portly, and accompanying women, casually dressed, of a similar age, all chatty and pleasantly friendly.

Robert Graves. Picture courtesy of The Robert Graves Estate

One of them, now a historian, told me he became captivated by the First World War because his grandfather had fought in it, and one day started telling him about it. “He told me Graves’ memoir of the war, Goodbye To All That, was the best but it wasn’t accurate or worthy but funny, that Graves needed money and quickly wrote a popular book.”

Graves’ daughter Lucia told me there had been lots of books on her father but Jean had focused on him and his early life – and it was “always exciting to make new, even if small, discoveries”.

She had been three years old when the family moved to Majorca and the family home is now a museum. There she can “sit and watch people swim by to see where I grew up”.

Whenever I look in on literary dos in that part of Camden, for some reason I always think of Grahame Greene who lived in the Bedford Square area and risked his life in the Blitz as an air raid warden.

And so that night I left thinking of the magnificence of Graves, with memories of the TV series I, Claudius based on his novels – and, of course, of what had been a friendly get-together.


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