This is the only complete biography of Charles Causley even now, nearly 20 years after his death and nearly 10 years after this biography of him was published. As he is one of the greatest Cornish poets, and the best Poet Laureate we never had, the paucity of material seems a shame. Especially given the existence of the Charles Causley Trust. Even the Wikipedia entry for Causley dwells at more length on the poetry competition the CCT runs annually than it does on the man himself.
But this is the biography that we have. And there is much interesting material in it. For instance, I did not know before reading it that Causley wrote many plays throughout his creative life.
Unfortunately the biography bears the marks of the author having been turned loose in a fresh patch of Causley material and not really sieving it properly. There is no focus, no extrapolation: it is all simply thrown at the reader, sometimes repetitively, especially his war service, for which obviously a lot of rather anodyne letters survive.
The book is a modest 200 pages. We are over half way through it by the time Causley is demobbed from the Royal Navy after the war. At this point he has been tinkering with poetry, but is rather far from being ‘a poet’. So those ensuing 57 years of creativity are stuffed into less than 100 pages. And quite a lot of that is taken up with the author telling us about his atmospheric walks in Causley’s landscape.
There are two or three determined assertions of the never-married Causley’s heterosexuality based on scant evidence. (Patrick Gale has a different take, and I’m with Gale on this.)
And there is very little poetry. Lines, and occasionally stanzas, glossed but nevertheless taken out of context, are all we get. In one case a meagre quotation is given as evidence for Causley having suicidal thoughts when he was living in Peterborough doing his teacher training.
However, as I say, this is the biography we have. It is short, which is often a blessing with biographies, which can run on rather (the Bullock biography of Hitler makes a good doorstop: as a biography it is far from alone in this) and the second half – when Causley begins to write seriously – is often fascinating. The author obviously knew Causley well (although I’m not sure he ever intrudes himself enough into the book to tell the reader how that has come about). Perhaps he knew Causley too well to ask the hard questions.
There is, however, plenty of room for another biography of Causley: one that deals more with the poetry, and shows the reader more of how that came to be.