Mother’s Boy is a fictional account of the great poet Charles Causley (1917-2003), perhaps best known for the poem “Eden Rock”, a striking admission of his own impending mortality. Deceptively simple in structure and language, his poems have a clarity and lightness that belies their profundity. He wrote for both adults and children, never differentiating between the two.
A lifelong inhabitant of Launceston, Causley’s poetry continues to be honoured in Cornwall, but his work has fallen out of favour in recent years. Backed with impeccable research, fellow Cornishman Patrick Gale has imagined his life for the reader, from the daily round of existence in a small provincial town to being trapped on the deck of a warship, under terrifying attack in the seething Atlantic Sea.
Gale is the most English of writers, showing acute insight into social codes and a clear-eyed exploration of class and sexuality, such as the unhappy encounters between the fictional Charles and his on-off lover, the loathsome Bucknall. His empathetic feel for the warp and weft of complex, often painful relationships (including his complex symbiosis with his mother, Laura), keeps the reader on their moral mettle and their nose to the very last page. Nor does he flinch from empirical themes, whether it is the casual sexism, misogyny, and snobbery that a working-class woman might experience in the early half of the twentieth century, or the structural racism rife in the American military, where black and white soldiers are segregated into different camps outside Launceston as well as at local pubs and dances.
Both Causley’s parents were born in the workhouse and went “into service”, his father survived World War I but came home with a mortal case of TB. Brought up single-handedly by his indefatigable mother, Charlie became an owlish child with a musical soul and an incredible ear for the poetry of everyday language.
The novel moves seamlessly between Laura and Charles, the twin consciousnesses of the novel, and Laura’s devotion to her son forms the emotional backbone of the story. While Charles is the creative, uncertain, sometimes unhappy force in the story, Laura finds fulfilment through work and friends. It’s not just Charles who’s dependent on her kindness and certainty – others, too, are drawn to her generosity of spirit, whether its Amos the black soldier or Helmut the refugee, who brings her the surprising gift of twins Terry and Jerry. These relationships see her through the most difficult times.
Clever Charles, on the other hand, is bullied at school and struggles to make friends, his sexuality adding to his sense of difference. We are led through a series of encounters, like pearls on a string, with school friends such as Joe Luke and Ginger; a homo-erotically charged moment at a seaside lido is pivotal in Charles’ journey to self-awareness.
Charles joins the navy in World War II, enduring a traumatic time at sea, both physically and mentally. After becoming a “coder”, he finds recovery and creativity back in Launceston as a teacher and poet. But the emotional crux of the novel relies on Charles’ relationship with Cushty, a fellow seaman, friend and lover – who Causley admitted had inspired his astonishing poem, “Angel Hill”. This is where the novel takes flight before Charles is crushed by events, societal expectations and self-denial.
I like to think of Patrick Gale writing in his own “bright glass cabin” where, as Causley describes it in ‘The Seasons of North Cornwall’:
“All Cornwall thunders at my door,
And the white ships of winter lie,
In the sea-roads of the moor.”
And to misquote from the novel, how grateful we should be that he has handed us this vivid and powerful version of Causley’s life and story.