Tomás Graves is an author, musician, graphic designer and printer. He lives in Majorca and is the son of poet Robert Graves. His books include Tuning Up at Dawn and Bread and Oil: a celebration of Majorcan culture.
Photo credit: Philip Rogan
You’re of British origin but have lived most of your life in Spain. To what extent do you feel you belong to either culture?
I was born in Majorca in a time when not only the Franco Regime ostracised the regional languages of the country (basque, galician and catalan, as well as the romany language, caló) but in Majorca most urban families considered Majorcan, a variant of Catalan, to be “hick” and didn’t want their children to use it in public. Of course, that meant the kids would use it in the school playground, often getting a cuff from any teacher who overheard them. So I was brought up in three cultures: English (in the mornings, my mother would home-school me following the PNEU curriculum) and in the afternoon I’d attend the village school in Spanish, while my neighbours and their children spoke among themselves in Majorcan, which at that time was differentiated from Catalan inasmuch as it wasn’t taught in school and nobody could write it nor realise that, in its written form, it is basically the same language.
When my parents were away I would stay with a family from Murcia who had settled in the village, spoke good Spanish and listened to Juanito Vallderama and Miguel Molina singing flamenco-influenced popular music; at the annual village fiestas local folk dance groups would sing in Majorcan. “Regional dancing” was the only politically acceptable form of using minority languages during the Franco years.
So I really belong to three cultures though I went to a British boarding school at 11, skipping the adolescent bonding process which my elder siblings went through at secondary school in the island’s capital before going abroad; they had a more “insider” grasp of Catalan and Spanish. So Spanish and Majorcan weren’t part of my personal cultural baggage, of that cultural identity which marked me as different from my parents. That came later, when I had outgrown my teen rebellion.
I was wondering how to answer this question and the answer came unexpectedly: a friend found an Italian book of talks by Jorge Luís Borges and gave it to me yesterday. Borges had come to Mallorca in the 1980’s and a car and chauffeur were put at is disposal by a local newspaper publisher. He and his then secretary, Maria Kodama, drove up to our village to pay a visit to my father who by then had lost his memory. The car broke down and I offered to drive them back to the hotel. The only moment I’ve felt and resonated as a Briton was in the car when Borges asked me if I knew the Boewulf epic. I replied that all British schoolchildren have read it, at least in part. Then he launched into a recital of Beowulf in the original Saxon, as I’d never heard it from any of my teachers, and for several kilometers the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
In the Italian book Borges mentions that he asked me this same question and that I replied that I considered myself Mediterranean, as my father did. I’d forgotten that until now.
But curiously, although I can fool an Englishman that I’m one of his kind, my attitude and body language speaks otherwise to Mediterranean people. Once in a kebab shop on Shaftsbury Avenue, the Greek waiter asked where I was from. “You speak like a Brit but I can tell you’re not.”
Also, in Majorca, most locals who don’t know me will address me in Majorcan instead of using the lingua franca, Spanish, or trying out their English on me, despite my obvious foreign genes. Something tells them I’m a local.
Which language do you dream in?
I’d never been able to answer that question but just the other night I dreamed my childhood friend was singing an improvised Mexican corrida and he rhymed the Spanish lyrics with a final phrase in English. That moment the cat woke me up with the words still in my head, which I wrote down.
Are your British and Spanish selves different?
Culturally I feel British and whenever I have a “senior moment” and forget a word, my brain will reach for the English variant before it can find the Spanish or Catalan one. But in my relationship with the earth I think and feel in Majorcan. My Spanish self is divided between the intimate relationship with my wife (she’s from Segovia) and the more formal relationship with others. My daily to-do list will be in two or three languages. At home we speak in Spanish and I found it very difficult and self-conscious to speak to my daughter in English, which was the agreed-upon parental strategy. As my daughter went to University in the UK and discovered her British self, we began talking in English and now use it when talking on a one-to-one basis. She uses it professionally and has developed a slight American accent.
Perhaps the moments I feel a split personality is when I am faced with two different readings of the same event: the different views of the Falklands war, or the discrepancies between my Spanish and British history books over the Battle of Trafalgar and the Spanish Armada, or the different Anglican and Catholic interpretations of the Bible.
What are the greatest benefits from being part of two different cultures?
Lateral thinking, having a stereoscopic vision and the scope for humour that this provides. This is of course true for all bilingual Spaniards, which basically is more than half the population (and the most productive) but the political power resides in monolingual Madrid where these “Mickey Mouse languages” and their cultural references are ignored. The Madrid mindset is more averse to negotiation and compromise which are the great strengths of the Basques, Galicians and Catalans and have helped them prosper internationally.
Did your father (Robert Graves) encourage you to feel both British and Spanish?
Not overtly, but the household customs and superstitions drew from the British lexicon (avoiding passing under ladders, purposefully breaking crockery on Friday 13th, inviting a swarthy- complexioned person to be the first to cross the threshold in the New Year, saying “Rabbits!” on the first of the month) and the Spanish habits (calling upon San Antonio to help find lost objects, sitting down and counting to ten when you’ve had to rush back into the house to get the car keys when you’re in a hurry, to prove to fate that you aren’t). There were also lots of bilingual puns: “Turrons don’t make a right” (turron is an almond and honey confectionary) or “Have a happy Christmas and a very merienda!” (A merienda is the Spanish equivalent of elevenses or afternoon tea).
For my father’s generation, the classical education was much more important than for subsequent generations: Latin, Greek and the classical world was very familiar to them, perhaps explaining why the Grand Tour of Italy and Greece was, to them, what a Gap Year is to contemporary youngster. So my father felt very much at home in a Mediterranean, insular society which hadn’t changed that much since Roman times. Although I wasn’t encouraged to feel either British or Spanish, I was brought up with a very strong feeling of place. A trip to Israel with my parents when I was 6 marked my Mediterranean identity probably more than anything: visiting the Jordan and Dead Sea, Nazareth, Jerusalem… having seen the places whose names were so familiar to my neighbours who went to mass every morning, helped me feel part of their world.
How does your own cultural mix influence your writing and music?
I would say in writing, it is almost the raison d’être of evreything I wish to communicate. Being able to observe a culture from inside and outside at the same time, I felt the obligation to share my perspective with others in an attempt to facilitate cross-cultural understanding between foreigners and locals, but I also discovered that many people with one Spanish parent from the mainland and another from the island also benefited and told me as much.
I began a study of the effects of half-and-half children here in Majorca, interviewing, with many of the same questions you pose here, people in their twenties and thirties who had one Spanish and one foreign parent. What was curious was to see how one sibling would identify with the mother’s culture and another with the father’s. Then there were some, like me, who had two foreign parents yet felt identified with one or other cultures. One person, in particular, rejected his parents’ US background, became a total Majorcan inside a Li’l Abner body, avoided the foreigners in his village and even volunteered to do the Spanish military Sevice so he would be totally accepted. I have been happy to surf the waves, though I also find myself cringeing and trying to blend into the background when I sit next to a table of loud Brits or Americans.
In music, I have spent twenty years with a Majorcan singer-songwriter, playing in the local fiestas and fraternising with little old ladies, rabid young independentists and municipal employees; this is where in my early 20’s I recuperated my Majorcan language, which I had almost lost since my playground days; in my other musical formations I have worked with gypsies in the Spanish idiom and tradition, and for many years with local resident English rock ‘n rollers, though almost always to local audiences. Actually, we introduced a whole generation of Majorcan youngsters to early rock n roll (in Majorca, even toddlers are awake until very late during the village dances) and in the wake of that, many young rural Majorcans were inspired to form bands, playing that same repertoire: Elvis, Chuck Berry, early Kinks, Stones and Beatles.