Memories: Charles Causley CBE

by Tom Bowden

I am a Cornishman living in Bath and our most famous Cornish Poet, Dr Charles Causley CBE, of Launceston, and Wendy Cope, the popular poet with a comic wit, were giving poetry readings at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol on Thursday 11th July 1991, so I decided to attend. I have been a fan of Charles Causley for many years: ever since I first read his emotional poem “Timothy Winters” which is about a poor starving Cornish working class boy. I think it ranks with the best poetry ever written and he deserved to have been Poet Laureate. I also knew that Wendy Cope had achieved “World Best Seller” success with her first book of poems: “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis” and I thought listening to the author would be very interesting and amusing.

Charles Causley CBE

Charles Causley was born in Launceston on 24th August 1917. His father was a gardener who then became a private in the army during World War I and returned home with lung damage through German gas attacks. He died in 1924 when Charles was 7 years old. Charles left Grammar School early to go to work. Then he served in the Navy during the 1939-45 War and then trained as a teacher and taught at the Grammar School in Launceston. He wrote plays, short stories and several books of highly praised poems for adults and children. He was awarded Travel Scholarships by the Society of Authors in 1954 and 1956. He was then made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in1958, and served on the Poetry Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1962 to1966. He was also awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967 and a Cholmondeley Award in 1971.

When Charles retired from teaching in 1976 he took up literary appointments in Australia, Canada and America. He was then awarded a CBE in 1986 and he held honorary degrees from Oxford and Exeter, where he was also Honorary Fellow in Poetry. He also won the Ingersoll Foundation T.S.Elliot Award (USA) in 1990, and then in 2000 he was awarded the Heywood Hill Literary Prize.

Wendy Cope was born in Erith in Kent in 1945 and she read history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and then did post-graduate teacher training. She was a full-time primary teacher and became head of a school in the Old Kent Road. Wendy started her writing career in 1973 and then her first collection of poems: “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis” was published by Faber and Faber in 1979 and went straight into the bestseller lists. In 1987 she won a Cholmondeley Award for Poetry. Then in 1993 Wendy Cope was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1995 she won the American Academy of Letters Michael Braude Award for Light Verse. Since then she has published collections of poems: “Serious Concerns” and “The Funny Side” and then edited “The Faber Book of Bedtime Stories” in 1999.

So I arrived at the Academy in Whiteladies Road in Bristol in the afternoon and we had tea and cakes before the performance. Then I sat in the second row and found I was sitting next to Leslie Crowther and his wife, Jean. I was a bit taken aback by this but I introduced myself and we were soon talking about holidays in Cornwall. Like millions of people I had seen Leslie Crowther perform in many TV programmes: “The Ovaltinies”, “Billy Cotton Band-show” then “Crackerjack” in the 1960s, followed by “The Leslie Crowther Show” and “The Price is Right” with his catch-phrase “Come on Down!” You know him as that multi-talented performer hosting programmes, playing the piano, singing and cheerfully cracking jokes and carrying the show. In real-life Leslie and Jean Crowther were very courteous, good-mannered, and good company. What impressed me was that he was, like me, a fan of Charles Causley.

Wendy Cope came on stage and read some of her well-known humorous poems to the delight of the audience. I laughed along with the rest. She wrote about life as she saw it and the response from the general public has been overwhelming.

Then Charles Causley read some of his more recent poems and was also well received. He was a quiet gentlemanly person with a slight Cornish “burr” to his voice. I knew he could be humorous as in his “Betjeman, 1984” poem, but he was not seeking hilarious laughter. His was a more thoughtful and emotional approach. Unfortunately, he did not include “Timothy Winters” but had selected some poems like “Eden Rock”:

“They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twentyfive, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.”

I thought that despite all his achievements as a poet, Charles Causley still felt deeply the early loss of his father, and this was apparent during his readings. Perhaps his service in the Royal Navy during the war may also have influenced him. Meanwhile, Leslie Crowther responded to the readings of both poets with laughter and clapping at just the right moments. After the poetry readings I met Charles Causley and bought his book “A Field of Vision” and we talked about being Cornish and writing prose and poetry. He said that Leslie Crowther often attended his readings and his enthusiastic responses and perfect timing were a great encouragement to him.

At the end of the show we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Then, in October 1992 Leslie Crowther had a serious car accident on the M5 near Cheltenham and had extensive treatment and decided to retire from show-business. He was honoured with a CBE in 1993 in recognition of his work in entertainment and for charity and he died on 29th September 1996. I corresponded with Charles Causley and he was very encouraging about my writing. His health was deteriorating however and he died on Tuesday 4th November 2003 aged 86. Meanwhile Wendy Cope continues on her successful career. I often think about meeting these three very interesting people in Bristol many years ago.