The Cornish laureate
PUBLISHED: 21:00 13 June 2013 | UPDATED: 22:24 13 June 2013
Cornish poet Charles Causley is celebrated for his genius worldwide, but drew inspiration from his home; he lived nearly all his life in the Duchy’s old capital Launceston. Admired by contemporaries John Betjeman, Ted Hughes and Roger McGough, Causley’s work frequently embraced his local area, as well as broader Cornwall and its plentiful legends. But he also told tales of working people, simple stories at first glance, and the conflicts they experienced in an often tough world.
Charles was born in his grandmother’s small cottage by the River Kensey, along from Launceston’s St Thomas parish church; his passion for poetry grew as a schoolboy. Unexciting day jobs and evenings struggling to write was followed by naval service abroad during the Second World War. Home in one piece, Charles trained as a teacher but continued his poetry, inspired especially by WH Auden, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Success finally arrived in 1951 with publication of the collection Farewell, Aggie Weston, wartime recollections by turn exhilarating, sombre and bleak. Charles compiled several more anthologies, attracting admiration from writers as diverse as Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Edith Sitwell and John Wain. In the 1970s he began writing children’s poetry, verses of innocence to charm young readers sometimes by their very sounds. He also produced short stories, plays and opera librettos.
A modest man, appearing at an Edinburgh Festival Charles shared the bill with his early hero Auden: “It was wonderful for me; I don’t know what it was like for Auden.”
In 1967 he was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, later the CBE. During 2000 the Royal Society of Literature made Charles a Companion of Literature; his reaction at 83, a gentle-humoured, “My goodness, what an encouragement.” Roger McGough said of him: “He sits at the foot of England and tickles its toes.”
Malcolm Wright chairs Launceston’s Charles Causley Society and is a long-time admirer; he also helps organise the town’s annual literary event, the Charles Causley Festival, which this year takes place over the weekend of 7 – 9 June. Malcolm explains: “We held our first festival in June 2010, and it’s been growing ever since. Charles was primarily a poet, but he was also an accomplished musician and dramatist, and the festival reflects all these aspects of his artistic talents.”
Each year sees visits by poets, writers and musicians with live performances, talks, book-signings, exhibitions and workshops. Even guided tours are available, bringing Charles’s Launceston alive to visitors; people enjoy seeing the places mentioned in his work.
Visiting this year will be Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate. Sir Andrew, patron of the Charles Causley Trust, will read from his new collection The Customs House, with a question-and-answer session together with a book-signing; he’ll be at the Town Hall on Friday from 4pm. Friday night will feature five contemporary poets: Matt Harvey, Simon Williams, and the Dead Chough Collective otherwise known as Alan Kent, Les Merton and Mick Paynter. At the Lawrence House Museum on Saturday, Alan will be launching his new collection of Charles’s theatre works, along with a talk and book-signing.
Until recently, Launceston resident Richard Graham ran the town’s bookshop; years ago the poet was among his customers. A great fan, Richard says: “As well as his work for adults Charles wrote a great deal of children’s poetry.
He wrote for children as equals and never talked down to them. He didn’t believe in age distinction in poetry.” This year, among young readers’ events will be BishBashBosh Productions’ Beast of Bodmin Moor, a puppet show based on Cornwall’s mysterious big cat and how it came to wander the wild landscape. Over the weekend too, The Story Republic will be invading medieval Launceston Castle, small groups of storytellers armed with Charles’s poetry to enchant children and adventurous adults.
With most events held in and around the town’s centre, it’s easy to stroll between them. As you walk, Charles’s Launceston comes to life. St Mary Magdalene church appears in the ballad Sir Henry Trecarell as well as Mary, Mary Magdalene while the school where the poet taught is featured in Salt and Pepper, recalling a crusty colleague. Launceston Castle lends the backdrop for Mr Pennycomequick, a cautionary children’s verse about an intrepid amateur parachutist. Other poetic landmarks are Tom and Tim, the Guildhall’s quarter-jacks, as well as Zig Zag Hill and the Eagle House Hotel’s fine pair of avian statues.
Among non-fiction writers appearing this year, Caspar Henderson will talk about his Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a compendium of real creatures often more astonishing than anything dreamed of in a medieval bestiary. He’ll be at Liberty House (Jericho’s) on Saturday. Sunday sees Dr Michael Sparrow share adventures from medical life, again at Liberty House, from 1 pm; the stories, captured in his books Country Doctor and Repeat Prescription, would be entirely unbelievable if they weren’t 100% true.
Musical events will include Devon folk-singer Jim Causley; he’ll be launching his new CD featuring Charles’s poetry on Thursday 6 June at the Town Hall, as the Festival gets underway. Sunday’s music features Launceston Live, again at the Town Hall from 6.30 to midnight, with acts including Issy Paul and The Ukeladies. The evening’s headlined by Dalla, Cornish Celtic music’s first supergroup, renowned for their performances taking Cornwall’s melody and song throughout the Duchy and beyond.
But at the celebration’s heart will be Charles Causley himself. His poetry is treasured by a diverse audience; its traditional forms, clarity and universal themes have an enduring quality. Malcolm Wright sums up: “The real glory of Charles’s work lies in its variety, from the sombre tones in Six Women to the humour of When I Was a Hundred and Twenty Four, and the observational skill in Timothy Winters. Charles is one of the best-loved poets of the second half of the 20th century; he stands alongside Hughes, Larkin, Heaney and Betjeman.”
Richard Graham adds: “Charles had a natural rhythm and cadence to his writing, perhaps made more natural because he was also a musician. His poetry is very readable, understandable; he talked in a simple way. ” Another admirer was Ted Hughes, who wrote: “Before I was made Poet Laureate, I was asked to name my choice of the best poet for the job. Without hesitation I named Charles Causley … a poet for whom the title might have been invented afresh.” n
For information on the Charles Causley Festival, visit charlescausleyfestival.co.uk/