Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Keep yourself to yourself [Charles Causley].

This line of poetry, quoted in the epigraph to Mother’s Boy, was written by Charles Causley – a poet born in the small town of Launceston in Cornwall – and is indicative of his life in that he was a very private person.  The line is also indicative of this rather constrained re-telling of his life from 1917 when Charles was born through to 1948 some 55 years before his death in 2003.

His poetry was noted for its simplicity and directness – and was often associated with folklore and magic.  Ted Hughes – Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998 – once said of him: Among the English poetry of the last half century, Charles Causley’s could well turn out to be the best loved and most needed.  Charles was immensely popular in Cornwall and was described in his hometown as ‘the greatest poet laureate we never had’.

 Charles was born to Charlie and Laura Causley both of whom were in domestic service.  Charlie who had fought in World War I died of war-related injuries in 1924 when Charles was seven.  Following the death of his father and until he joined the Navy during World War II, Charles remained with his mother in Launceston to where he returned after the war and continued to live for the rest of his life.

In 1931 – aged about 14 – Charles wrote his first poem in response to a challenge issued to the class by his English teacher.  Charles won the challenge and, by doing so, quite unexpectedly won the respect of the class – short-lived respect as it turned out because ‘nothing was celebrated for a shorter time than poetry’.  However, when Charles later re-read his poem, he realised that ‘in some way, he was present in the poem, all his thoughts and feelings of the morning’ [146]; and perhaps more significantly, he discovered that the poem ‘locked his thoughts and feelings safely in a place where only those granted a key would ever access them’ [146].

Also locked away was any acknowledgement to himself – and others – of his sexuality.  There are subtle allusions throughout the book so clearly it was a significant part of his life even if unacknowledged.  When in the company of his childhood friend Ginger, Charles says ‘familiarity and friendship had done nothing to dim his … this thing he would not name even to himself’ [165].  This secrecy – or even repression – echoes the line above taken from his poem ‘Never Take Sweets from a Stranger’ which he expressly excluded from his Collected Poems published in various editions from 1975 to 2000.

While obviously reflective of the man himself, the reticence in the author’s telling of Charles’ life leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied.  Any sense of Charles as a poet or a man lies just outside the reader’s grasp and perhaps that is how Charles wanted it to be.

The strongest writing in the book occurs when describing Charles’ experiences in the Navy.  He joined the Navy in 1941 and was ordered to report to Skegness as a coder; and later after training, he was assigned to the naval ship HMS Starburst.  Although references to Charles’s ongoing sea sickness seem interminable [he went nowhere on the ship without his ‘gash’ bucket] there are also vivid descriptions of the continuing terror of being attacked at any time from the air, from the sea and from beneath the sea.   Fear at the rumbling approach of enemy bombers … the shriek of diving fighter planes he had learned to dread [269].

Overall though, Mother’s Boy is a somewhat disappointing book.  It contains much of the minutiae of Charles’ and his mother’s life in Launceston – their day-to-day activities, his school days, the impact of wartime evacuations on the town – but little of his development as a poet and writer.  There are references of course to both but there is no sense of his poetry.  The author has described him as ‘one of the few great poets of the Second World War’ [398] but it is only in the Author’s Note at the end of the book that the reader catches a glimpse of Charles’ greatness.

While the author does not claim that the book is a ‘scholarly biography of a great man’, it is clear that that is a book still to be written.

Patrick Gale has written a number of books including A Perfectly Good Man; Notes from an Exhibition; and A Place Called Winter which was short-listed for a Costa Book Award.

Mother’s Boy

[2022]

by Patrick Gale

Hachette

ISBN 978 14722 5743 7

$32.99; 406pp

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