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'I didn't just bury the past, I buried it alive'


In 1960, aged 17, Simon Gough went to Majorca to stay with his great uncle, the writer and poet Robert Graves. It was a golden summer that saw his world fall apart ...

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. So begins The Go-Between, the story of a boy used as a messenger by an aristocrat and her farmer lover who is caught up in a tragedy that haunts him for the rest of his days. Simon Gough's life has more than an echo of LP Hartley's classic tale, and not simply because, in a twist of fate, his father, Michael, starred alongside Julie Christie in the film of the book.

Today, Gough is 70, and dying. In 1988, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and given five years to live. That awful deadline made the former actor close his antiquarian bookshop and retreat to a barn near his home in Norfolk and begin to write.

For the best part of 24 years, he has defied his cancer and written furiously, rediscovering the traumatic events of 1960, when, aged 17, he went to stay in Majorca with the poet Robert Graves, who was his grand-uncle. ("Great is for ships and railway lines, grand is for fathers, uncles," Graves instructed.)

It was a golden summer that saw Gough's world fall apart.

Gough's first memory of Graves is of "this vast, horrifying thing leaning over my pram with a very nice great-aunt attached to it", but he was transfixed by the beauty and passion he found at the poet's home in Deià, Majorca, which he first visited as a 10 year old, seven years before the fateful summer of 1960.

Graves, the shell-shocked war poet and author of Goodbye to All That and I, Claudius, "was this cross between a Roman emperor and a prize-fighter, a true alpha male", remembers Gough when I meet him and his wife, Sharon, at their home close to where The Go-Between was filmed (no coincidence either, as the couple settled in Norfolk after visiting Gough's father on set in the 1970s).

In a memoir that Gough calls an "autobifantasy" – he admits his memories are no more reliable than anyone else's – he describes how he forged a close bond with his grand-uncle, "a man of favourites". Gough's parents were divorcing and Graves became a kind of father figure "because I didn't rate mine very much for many years," he says.

In contrast, Graves "treated me like an adult from the first moment, and if you had some empathy with something he was thinking about and could express yourself, you were his man. I loved him, I listened to him. And he loved to be listened to." They were also close, says Gough, "because we were thrown together into such an extraordinary Gordian Knot."

When Gough returned to Majorca at 17, he found it inhabited by artists and writers, beatniks who were discovering drugs and living by alternative moral codes. Graves's own code was particularly complex. In some ways quite conservative – sternly warning Gough away from drugs while himself taking magic mushrooms – Graves lived with his second wife, Beryl, and their children, but also kept a muse, Margot Callas, a beautiful young woman who was accepted into his home by Beryl. Graves also demanded great loyalty from those around him, and insisted that no one must have any secrets.

Instructed by Graves to look after Callas, Gough hung out with her – she was only 24 – made her laugh and fell madly in love with her. Callas felt increasingly oppressed by Graves' dependence on her for his poems, and took a break in Madrid, where Graves's best friend, the Scottish poet Alastair Reid, lived with his wife and young son. By coincidence, Gough was beginning a degree at Madrid University and departed to the Spanish capital with strict instructions from Graves. "He'd given me a task, which was to keep an eye on Margot and tell him if anything happened that he need know about. He made that absolutely clear – to send him her address and to be a guard," remembers Gough.

Reid, who was in his 30s, was another father figure for Gough, and they, with Callas, went on adventures together in Franco's Spain, including one memorable episode where Gough robbed a grave of a skull in an attempt to impress Callas.

Helplessly in love, Gough did his best to reassure Graves, even when he spotted a pile of Graves' letters, unopened, in Callas' flat and realised all was not well between poet and muse. Gough glimpsed the difficulty of being a muse, telling of conversations in which Callas struggled with feeling trapped by Graves' insatiable dependence on her for his creative process. As Gough relates in his book, when he told Callas that Graves needed her, she replied that Graves needed poems. "Whatever he wants from me … I give, and the poems pour out of him," Callas told him, "but everything inside me just drains away."

His loyalties divided, Gough completely missed the affair under his nose until, finally, Reid revealed that he and Callas were to run away together, after Callas returned to Majorca to tell Graves. Fearing the worst, Gough followed her back to the island but, somehow, Callas packed up and left Majorca for good without telling Graves.

The teenager was left sitting on an awful secret, fearing that Graves or Reid would kill him if he revealed it. Finally, Gough cracked, and told Graves everything, except for the small detail that he had also been in love with Callas.

For the poet, Gough's failure to warn him or tell him immediately of the affair was treason against his family, and the 17-year-old had to pay by being cast out of the family.

Reading Gough's unsparing account of these traumatic days, the rage Graves directs at the teenager, the messenger who failed to deliver the message and family member who failed to live by Graves' code of no secrets and absolute loyalty, seems horribly misplaced. But surprisingly, Gough says he has never felt angry at Reid and Callas for their betrayal, or Graves for making a scapegoat of him. "It was my fault," says Gough. "The betrayal was my falling in love with Margot. She was his muse. She was nothing to do with me. That was the first part of it. My only anger was at my own stupidity and my own inability to shine, somehow. The anger was turned against myself, and quite rightly."

Gough was banished from Graves' kingdom, an artistic idyll of which he craved to be part, and went to live "in an attic in France" for two years.

"I'd lost everything – I'd lost Margot, Alastair as a close friend and my family, except for Beryl, who insisted I would never lose her," he says.

One thing that appears to have troubled the young Gough most of all was his inability to express his love for Callas. "Robert had the huge advantage of being able to communicate his love for Margot. I had no means of expressing it at all – I could hardly write, I could hardly draw, and the deeper one felt the more one wanted to weigh her down with the presence of oneself.

"If only Robert had opened the door of the taxi when I came back to Majorca [at 17] and said 'Fuck off', none of this would have happened."

Does Gough really believe he is the cause of the betrayal of Graves by Callas and Reid? It seems not. "I was the go-between, the pawn, the message-carrier. If I hadn't met her, it would have ended very abruptly and rather grubbily," he says of Graves and Callas' relationship.

Graves recovered from Callas' departure, and continued to write prolifically, guided by other young muses. Alastair Reid, who is still alive, has enjoyed a long career as a poet, a writer for the New Yorker and an acclaimed translator of South American poets, but his devastating affair with Callas did not last. Callas, who married (and later divorced) the American film director Mike Nichols, was later reconciled with Graves in a series of meetings arranged by Beryl.

"Beryl loved Margot. We all did. She was incomparable. She was magical and mystical, and we couldn't do without her. She was by far the most productive of his muses, and inspired by far the best of his love poetry," says Gough loyally. Graves and Callas reconstructed a friendship but she was never his muse again.

Like the plot of The Go-Between, the adult protagonists seemed to have done fine but the messenger-boy is left scarred. A few years later, Gough met Callas with Nichols at the Savoy and "it half-killed me" he says. Decades later, when he met Callas again at Beryl's memorial service, his children guessed who she was and burst into tears. "It's indelible. Just as I have a place for Sharon, I have a place for her. The differences in love are so extraordinary and the ages of love are so extraordinary," says Gough. He wrote to both Reid and Callas to offer them his book but received no reply.

Would he like to see them again? "Christ, I'd love to," he says, "but I think they've moved on. They have that wonderful gift of being above anything that's said about them."

Some time after his banishment from Majorca, Gough, too, was reconciled with his grand-uncle, thanks to Beryl. Gough seems haunted by the fact that he could not express his love for Callas at the time through glorious poetry, as Graves could, and his writing of the great betrayal is in part a desire to "turn the ghastliness into something worthwhile" and also a celebration of his grand-uncle's work. But it is more than that, and more too than a need to understand how the betrayal made him who he is today. Writing has been a way of repelling his cancer.

When he was confronted by the illness, "I went back to find the bruise, the cause, and kept tripping over these hands sticking out of the earth. I didn't just bury the past, I buried the past alive and I simply had to go back."

Gough found a letter written by his 17-year-old self, petrified that Graves or Reid would kill him, and felt he needed to rescue his teenage self. "It was as if the 17-year-old who wrote that letter was trying to link hands with me and pull himself out of the labyrinth in which he'd got stuck," he says.

He is not at peace because the last two years of chemotherapy have been difficult and he is racing to finish the final volume of his memoirs, and tell the full story of his reconciliation with Graves. But he feels he has at least rescued his 17-year-old self. "He's beside me now," says Gough. "He's no longer lost in that awful emptiness where he was when he lost his nerve at 17 and fled Deià."

The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough is published by Galley Beggar Press, £10. To order a copy for £8, including free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

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