Launceston’s most famous son gets the recognition he deserves this month with a festival marking the centenary of his birth. Abby Driver finds out more about Charles Causley…
Often described as ‘the greatest poet laureate we never had’, Charles Causley was a true poet of place and people. Known for clarity and a penchant for rhymes, his poems were popular with a huge and varied readership making him, in the words of his friend and fellow poet Ted Hughes, one of the ‘best loved and most needed’ poets of the last 50 years.
His work is revered because it’s a joy to read and yet accessible in a way that poetry often isn’t. ‘And who says that being simple, straightforward and accessible is a bad thing? It shouldn’t be like that; poetry shouldn’t be out of people’s reach,’ says Rita Skinner, one of the organisers of the Charles Causley Festival.
Born in Launceston in 1917, Charles lived most of his life there and indeed his work often touches on local places and faces. ‘His memory and work is still held in such high regard by poets and artists across Cornwall. There is a real feeling of wanting to keep his work alive,’ says Rita.
And so the Charles Causley Festival was born.
Given the name attached to the festival you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all about poetry. It’s not. ‘It’s not a poetry festival. It’s one of the downsides of having that name,’ explains Malcolm Wright, another of the festival organisers. ‘The argument we use is that Causley did have a very broad interest in the arts. He was a poet, a playwright, he wrote short stories, he was very keen on music and he had an interesting collection of paintings.’
The result is an eclectic celebration with something for everyone interested in the arts. ‘It’s all about bringing joy and fun to Launceston while promoting Causley’s name,’ says Rita. ‘There’s an economic benefit too as it brings lots of people in who stay locally and spend money in local businesses. They get to enjoy the town and tell other people about itt’
Now in its eighth year, the Charles Causley festival is barely recognisable from the first iteration which was just a one day event. ‘There is an awareness of the festival now and general anticipation and expectation around it. We’ve been very blessed with good weather every year, so the atmosphere is happy because the sun is shining and there’s lots going on. The shops get involved with window displays and bunting; we try and bring the whole town into it in some way,’ says Rita.
This year most of the festival events will take place between Thursday 1st June and Monday 5th June with some extra pre and post festival events taking place too. The festival will open on Thursday, 1 June, with everyone’s favourite shanty singers, The Fisherman’s Friends. Rita tells me tickets for this event are already selling fast.
Music plays an important role in the festival and there are plenty of interesting acts to see. Duende features the poetry of Lorca, Neruda, Dylan Thomas and others, composed and performed by Keith James. I also like the sound of ‘Riff-raff and a Rickenbacker’, a performance by beat poet Jeff Cloves and singer song writer Tony Poole.
Those attending with children might like to catch ‘Cautionary Tales for Children’ which is performed by the poet, author and broadcaster Murray Lachlan Young. He’s giving a second poetry performance for adults in the evening which will see him live up to his nickname as the ‘rock n roll poet’.
Folk singer Jim Causley, a distant relative of Charles (‘you have to go back four generations on Jim’s side and down two on Charles’ side,’ says Malcolm), will also be performing an evening of songs. This will include some of Charles’ poems for children set to music.
This isn’t the first time Jim has set Charles’ poetry to music. In 2013 he released Cyprus Well, a collection of Charles’ poetry mostly recorded at the poet’s home, Cyprus Well, in Launceston. ‘He got a couple of friends involved with the album; in particular a lady from Wales called Julie Murphy who is an established singer with an outrageously beautiful voice. Then there was a lad called Ceri Owen-Jones who played the amazing combination of harp and trombone. It was quite critically acclaimed, it was reviewed in the national press and it sold very well. He’s just had it reprinted,’ says Malcolm.
The festival will also see a wonderful mix of varied talks taking place. Author Michael Jecks, known for the Templar series of medieval murder stories (the longest running crime series by any living author), will be giving a talk about that series and more.
For those wanting to dig deeper into Charles Causley and his work, Barry Newport will give a talk on Charles Causley: the Man and His Books. Poet Rory Waterman will be discussing Belonging and Estrangement in The Poetry of Philip Larkin, R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley. John Lawrence and Gaby Morgan, the illustrator and editor of Charles’ recently re-issued Collected Poems for Children, will also give a talk to discuss their work and time with Charles.
For something completely new, be sure to check out the English School of Mongolia performance. Mongolian players and actors from the school will perform Hector McDonald, an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. They will also be performing a dance and music set, showcasing traditional Mongolian dress dances and musical instruments. While Launceston is looking forward to their visit, so are they: ‘Apparently they’ve never seen the sea before and they are staying in Newquay!’ says Rita. I wish I could see their faces when they see the sea for the first time.
Throughout the festival you’ll also find art exhibitions (I’m intrigued by the sound of From Eden Rock to Brexit), film screenings, guided walks and tours, a flower festival and a food and drink fayre in the town square. For more details on events and timings visit the website (www.charlescausleyfestival.co.uk). Tickets are on sale via the Cornish Riviera Box Office website (crbo.co.uk) or from Launceston Tourist Information Centre (01566 772321).
If you can’t make the festival but still want your Charles Causley fix, fear not. The festival is just one of many events organised throughout the year to celebrate 100 years since the poet’s birth. The Charles Causley Trust is planning a whole calendar of events under the ‘Causley 100’ banner beyond the festival dates.
August is particularly packed with Causley 100 events around Launceston, including the opportunity to visit his home, Cyprus Well. On Thursday, 24 August, which was Charles’ birthday, Launceston will celebrate with a family-friendly event which includes performances from Jim Causley, a screening of Jane Darke’s film ‘The Poet’ and readings and recitals from a number of artists and performers.
See the full programme: