The Books Interview Charles Causley: Innocence and experience

Charles Causley has been a people's laureate for almost 50 years. John Walsh met him in Cornwall
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Charles Causley, a biography

Charles Causley CBE was born in Launceston, Cornwall in 1917. He served in the Royal Navy during the war, after which he became literary editor of two BBC radio magazines. In 1954 he was awarded a Travelling Scholarship by the Society of Authors and sat on the Arts Council Poetry Panel. He holds honorary degrees from Oxford and Exeter, where he is also an honorary fellow in Poetry. Awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1967, he later won the Cholmondeley Award (1971), the Kurt Maschler Award (1987) and the Ingersoll Prize (1990). He has edited several collections of poetry and countless anthologies. His poetic debut Farewell, Aggie Weston (1951) was followed by other collections, including Union Street (1957), Figure of Eight (1969) and Bring in the Holly (1992). Collected Poems 1951-1997 (Macmillan) was released last year.

You aren't going to ask me all about the laureate thing are you?" says Charles Causley with distaste. "I've had so many people ringing up from the papers and turning up on the doorstep, asking me what I think. And with poor Ted hardly cold in his grave."

He is mildly interested to hear about the Radio 4 listeners' ballot which made him fifth favourite after Wendy Cope, Benjamin Zephaniah, Roger McGough and John Hegley. (He quotes with relish Zephaniah's "Be kind to your turkey this Christmas", although he says he prefers Jackie Kay's work among the younger generation). News had apparently not reached his ears that William Hill are currently offering odds of 10-1 on his getting the pounds 100-a-year court position. He is serenely unbothered by the media free-for-all. Would he like to be Hughes's successor? "I've absolutely no idea", he says equably. "I'm not the sort of chap who'd think about that until it happened. But I think most poets would have a go, wouldn't they?"

He would, of course, be the perfect choice. For nearly five decades he has been a rare combination of the accessible and the critically respected. His jaunty, elemental, strongly rhythmical Muse has never dragged her feet or flopped by the roadside. His debut collection, Farewell, Aggie Weston, was published when he was 34. His Collected Poems 1951-1997, published for his 80th birthday last year, contained a spectacular crop of late- flowering elegies about his family.

He has had an odd life, the first 30 years full of movement, action and vivid sights, the last 50 a quiet post-war retrenchment. He left school at 15, became an office boy, and joined the Navy in November 1939. "I was terrifically unsuited, but I became a coder. I dealt in codes and cyphers. They created a special branch to teach it, in Skegness. I was top of the class." It is piquant to imagine the future master of the unsettling ballad, sitting among his encrypting equipment, creating and uncovering secrets. He had "a couple of close shaves" with the enemy, played Strauss waltzes on the piano while his luckless mates scrubbed out the mess, and was with the American commander-in-chief when peace broke out. After the war, he became a teacher and filled successive generations of nine-year- olds with poetic longings until he gave up teaching for full-time writing in his fifties.

Causley is famous as a children's poet (indeed, he's up for the "children's laureate" gig as well as the grown-up one) and has an easy familiarity with the poetic movements of the century, from Modernism to Nineties performance poetry. He himself, though, has always stuck to classic forms of ballad, lyric and sonnet, refreshing them down the years with his characteristic infusions of mystery and droll melancholy.

"I was terribly upset by Ted Hughes's death," he says. "He was a very good friend, like a brother to me." They met when they were both on the Literature Panel of the Arts Council. What was the beetle-browed Hughes like in committee mode? "Silent," says Causley, with a smile, "Sitting there wearing a huge ex-RAF greatcoat, as we all did in those days. That was where I met Philip Larkin, he was on the panel as well. And that chap who wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Sillitoe. We'd all meet up in the pub beforehand."

This matey recalling of Olympian gatherings turns up a lot in Causley's conversation. You'd never call him a name- dropper, but he reminisces about illustrious old friends to striking effect: "I was taken up for a while by Edith Sitwell. She was very good company, and not above self- deprecation. We were introduced by John Lehmann, the editor of Penguin New Writing, a very cold and aloof person. That grand American novelist who now lives in Rome was at the same party, Gore Vidal. Unfortunately we hadn't read each other..."

Causley is a delicate-looking chap with sleepy, Garfield eyelids and a rich chuckle. He is a little unsteady on his pins since suffering a stroke a few years ago, but recalls without effort the details and books of his childhood. "I was a great reader, even when I was tiny. I remember reading the newspaper aloud to my father at five and seeing how pleased he was. My mother would borrow grown-up books from the tuppenny library and I'd read them before she took them back. I became very familiar with what would now be called `women's novels'. One author was called Olive Higgins Prouty. She wrote a rather daring novel called Stella Dallas in which, I didn't realise until many years later, the main character was a whore. She seemed a rather nice lady."

We met at the cottage in Launceston where he has spent most of his life, a grey-painted retreat with a softly ticking grandfather clock, a walnut bureau, piles of just-published books, and a collection of Dad's Army videos, to which he is clearly addicted. Cornwall and its ways, elemental landscapes and superstitions, reverberate through his verse. "By St Thomas Water" refers to a stone outside the church door around which children would walk before applying their ear to it to hear the dead confide secrets. Reading the gorgeous Holy Family poem, "Ballad of the Bread Man", you're reminded that his mother used to bake the bread for morning Communion. The word used most often in his poetry is "stone", closely followed by "sea".

He was born in a smaller cottage nearby: "we were always being invaded by water. A stream from a well at the other end of town would rise up and come in through the kitchen window." He remembers hearing a "stag hunt" one night as he lay in bed: "a fearful noise. It was a procession of men, beating saucepan lids and blowing squeakers. If you were unfaithful to your wife or behaving in some improper way to your children, you'd be visited by this gang."

Had his mother told him Cornish legends? "No. Just stories about the family. When she was young she was sent to Teignmouth - which, in 1906, was like going to Australia - and was a servant to a great Liberal family. She remembered how, after an election, the Tories came and besieged the house and threw bricks at the windows. My father worked as a groom and gardener in the next house. That's how they met."

His father's life was hedged by tragedy. One of his sisters burnt to death at six, when the siblings were playing with matches and her hair caught fire. Charles Snr went away to the Great War, returned with TB and died when Charles Jnr was seven. "He sent me a photograph from France in the war," he recalls, "a funny postcard of a duck laying a huge egg like a howitzer shell. And he took me to a point-to-point when I was a tiny boy. But I don't remember much about him."

After his death, Causley's mother cleaned houses for a living. Poverty and trauma were never far away. "The school was only 200 yards from the local tramps' lodging house and you'd see these poor deprived kids from the workhouse. They didn't know they were deprived, but they looked yellow, their skin was stretched, their clothes falling off their bodies, they were frightening. It had a powerful effect on me. And the town was peopled with chaps who'd been on the Somme but never said anything about it. We children would see them wandering about, still shell-shocked. When I was young, I thought poetry and art and music and literature were somewhere else. I didn't think it was under my nose all the time."

Causley's subject has always been innocence: the fragility of innocence; the rupture and brutalising and loss and death of innocence. In his poems, childhood's end, the betrayal of love, the rejection of God and the onset of cynicism are all part of the same sad, entropic tendency. Causley himself has been called "the innocent poet" (by Michael Schmidt in Lives of The Poets) as if his ballads and old-fashioned narrative forms suggest naivete. In fact, his interest in ballads came, not from English folklore, but from the most sophisticated poet of the Thirties. "It was my hero Auden and his ballads. It was quite an experience to open a magazine in the Thirties and read `O what is that sound that so thrills the ear / Down in the valley, drumming, drumming...'. You see, Hitler was only then coming out and showing his teeth. The ballad told me, at 15, what was up."

Today, having survived the publication of three Collected Works, he is the grand old man of English verse. He plays down his achievement (in one poem he remarks, of a young couple: "I know they've something/ Going between them better than / Collected Poems, a TSB account, / Twelve lines in Gems / of Modern Quotations / And two (not war) medals") but is in danger of being sought out and given his royal due. I asked why he had returned to classical poetic forms. "It's a good discipline not to go sprawling on," he says, with typical modesty. "People remember you better that way. And a poem has to match its subject. But really, the whole thing is just as much a mystery to me now as when I started."