Once upon a time, I was a young English student…

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Once upon a time, I was a young English student at Exeter in Charles Causley’s days there. Nowadays, I’m both a Causley Trustee and an Exeter English postgraduate.

I didn’t know Charles Causley. I only encountered him, perhaps a dozen times over 25 years, always anonymously. He’d have no clue at all about me. Half those occasions were at Exeter in the 70s: he was a Visiting Fellow in Poetry; I was an undergraduate.

They were tutorials and seminars, plus a public reading or two of his recent poems. In packed lecture theatres, the effect of poems like ‘A Wedding Portrait’, ‘Ten Types of Hospital Visitor’ or ‘My Friend Maloney’ was remarkable.

English staff, and other visitors like Ted Hughes, gave different public readings. Yet Causley – low-key, diffident, almost entirely self-educated – always gripped the room with his poems’ worlds and ideas, their craftsmanship and striking inventiveness.

That all remains vivid, after nearly 50 years. I recall far less about those smaller-scale ‘close’ encounters, with ten or twenty students jammed into smaller rooms. A recording of one such session involving both him and Hughes would have been gold-dust – not least for their patience, and the quiet comedy of typical artsy students of the period utterly failing to appear cool or impressive. Yet Causley’s generosity and sensitivity towards students went rather wider. He dissuaded one from leaving the course (or worse), and saw him eventually become a schoolteacher. He even offered to read and comment on poems written by the teenage son of the Professor of Extra-Mural Studies.

I left Exeter to train and work in education: deeply fond of, and interested in, Causley’s poetry. I used it regularly with adults and young people. It always ‘worked’ – for me as the teacher or lecturer, but more importantly for the students. And I’m still astonished by how his poetry speaks to me, personally, despite my having virtually nothing in common with him or his life-experiences.

Our paths crossed just a few more times after Exeter – again, ‘anonymously’, at public readings. The final occasion was trivial and momentary. A week’s family break in North Cornwall finished the day before Causley’s 75th birthday. As we headed home, we diverted off the A30 to his house in Launceston: Cyprus Well. My 5-year-old son, having had ‘The Tale of the Trinosaur’ read aloud to him over the preceding nights, took a card to the door. The elderly man who answered, breaking off from some small gathering, gravely accepted the envelope. He then opened it, read the printed cliches and saw the scribbled signature. “Are you Alex? I don’t think I know you, but thank you very much, Alex. This is a splendid card, and a real surprise, too. I shall keep it.” That was Alex’s first and only time: an episode he’s now long forgotten. It was my last encounter, and I won’t forget it.

A while before that, I began itching to try the kind of postgraduate study I’d never managed. When I moved back down south for new jobs and later began approaching retirement, that idea returned. Connecting first with the old Causley Society and then the budding Charles Causley Festival in Launceston – both of them now merged very effectively with the Trust – was a further strong and enduring spur to that thinking. So: I got involved in both those organisations. These days, as a recently-appointed Trustee, I try to support its vital, successful work still more.

And as of September 18th, that work is at last rightly and properly going to be in full collaboration with Exeter University. I think Causley would be very pleased about that.

Discovering that Causley had left his archive to Exeter University clinched things for me, about the mature-student idea. So, I arrived back on campus almost exactly a year ago, and began work in the Old Library’s Special Collections Reading Room. Just recently, I’ve returned, after the University’s coronavirus hiatus, to studying those drafts, notes, clippings and correspondence.

I’m looking at how a lifelong, shattering thread of Causley’s life – war – emerges throughout his writing: his subjects and concerns, settings, stories and characters, his language and images. I hope this too will add to all the growing work and influence of the Trust and the University, helping maintain and promote the legacy and impact of Charles Causley and his poetry.

I’ll end by saying that back in early March, finishing my final pre-Covid spell in the Reading Room, I came across a box of cards amongst his personal mementoes. I was hoping to find some from Causley’s old naval comrades. I didn’t. But amongst it all, I did find one birthday card which had been hand-delivered by Alex.

Mike Cooper

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