|Photograph by Jillian Edelstein
Laura, an impoverished Cornish girl, meets her husband when they are both in service in Teignmouth in 1916. They have a baby, Charles, but Laura's husband returns home from the trenches a damaged man, already ill with the tuberculosis that will soon leave her a widow. In a small, class-obsessed town she raises her boy alone, working as a laundress and gradually becomes aware that he is some kind of genius.
As an intensely private young man, Charles signs up for the navy with the new rank of coder. His escape from the tight, gossipy confines of Launceston to the colour and violence of war sees him blossom as he experiences not only the possibility of death, but the constant danger of a love that is as clandestine as his work.
Mother's Boy is the story of a man who is among yet apart from his fellows, in thrall to yet at a distance from his own mother; a man being shaped for a long, remarkable and revered life spent hiding in plain sight. But it is equally the story of the dauntless mother who will continue to shield him long after the dangers of war are past.
Patrick Gale answers questions from Jon Appleton, Adèle Geras, Linda Newbery and Celia Rees
Celia: What attracted you to Charles Causley as the focus for a novel?
Patrick: He intrigued me. I loved the poems, in particular the ones which snatches of narrative which show a novelist’s gift for thumbnail characterisation or the ones which are downright spooky in what they suggest but don’t quite spell out. I wanted to piece together myself what shaped the man who wrote them. Whenever he was asked why he didn’t write his memoirs he answered that “it” was all in the poems. So in large part what this novel does is to go back to the poems in search of “it”.
Patrick: I could but the danger then would have been that he’d have become even more chilly than he already is and she would have been reduced to his view of her, and early in life, at least, his view of her could be both patronising and dismissive. Also I found the challenge of telling such a private woman’s story utterly addictive, and not just because I’m a laundry obsessive…
Patrick: I’d settled on it from the start. This was partly because I always need a few unanswered questions to energise my fiction and the more I saw of Laura, in old photographs, the more I needed to know who she was. But it was equally because the more I found out of Charles’ character – which in many ways was chillingly like that of an expert spy, different things to different people but withholding his essential self from all – the more I realised I’d need to balance his story out with one that was warmer and kinder, more approachable.
Patrick: I deviate very little from the established facts. I made Laura’s employers unmarried siblings, because that appealed more than the wealthy family of drapers who she actually worked for, but the accident with the boy and the cart that opens the novel actually happened to the Teignmouth doctor Charlie worked for. Beyond the two ships he was on, and the two “ stone frigates” where he also worked, Charles’ war story is largely cloaked in official secrecy so I was able to play with the facts to ensure that he and Ginger went to Malta on the incredible operation immortalised in C S Forester’s The Ship. The trips to Liverpool Playhouse are extrapolated from theatre programmes he’d retained from that period and the affair with a fellow officer is extrapolated from a letter he kept all his life, whose wording I barely alter. Laura’s adventures are made up in their details but she did have evacuees live with her, a black GI was murdered in just the way I describe and POWs did indeed construct a playground right outside her cottage on Tredydon Road. The dogs Jack and Wang were real but the kitten at the end is a simple prefiguring of the several cats in which Charles measured out the rest of his life.
Patrick: I was painfully aware of the temptation simply to “gay” Charles, to claim him for my team so I resisted it at every turn by trying to remain truthful to what he confided in his secret, minutely written diaries. These give a powerful sense of a young man who doesn’t fit the accepted mould of manhood, who knows himself to be special or different and who flinches from the sexual expressions of those around him. Then I found a letter he had kept to his dying day which I believe is proof that he had some kind of affair with a fellow officer when stationed at HMS Cabbala, one of those chilling “we need to put all that behind us now” letters probably all too common between men in the 40s and 50s. I will still correct anyone who says Charles was gay, as I think that word implies an acceptance of a sexual identity and, whatever fulfilment he may have found on British Council tours later in life, there’s no evidence that Charles ever arrived at such a self-acceptance.
Jon: From Rough Music on, the dynamics of mother-son relationships have featured prominently in your novels. There’s a very strong sense in Mother’s Boy that Charles and Laura’s relationship isn’t instead of a marriage but a sexless marriage itself. Is this something you’ve noticed in families you’ve encountered, or was it specific to the Causleys?
Patrick: Scary, isn’t it? I’m still nervous that Mother’s Boy will give offence. So many men and women are powerfully protective of Charles and his memory! My main rule was that I knew I was never going to flesh out the characters of anyone with living descendants, which is why Laura’s numerous siblings barely figure. I also knew I had to honour the known facts, however inconvenient. But it was always a novel, never a biography, so I felt free to combine Charles’ real boyhood and wartime friends into totally fictitious amalgams and to ensure that his tragically doomed ship (in real life HMS Eclipse not my HMS Starburst) played a small but heroic part in the incredible operation to break the siege of Malta.
Adèle: You live in Cornwall and one of the striking things about the book is the way you bring places to life. Launceston, Laura’s house, ships etc. Did you walk through all the places you describe? Would you ever write about a place you’d never been to?
Patrick: Place is crucial to the way I write. Once I’ve settled on a setting for a book I have to go there and immerse myself because I know it’ll become a character in the book. I already knew Launceston well, from my first ten years in Cornwall, when it was just up the road from my house, but to see it through Charles and Laura’s eyes I was lucky to spend a week living in their little house, Cyprus Well, taking daily walks they’d have walked, and working to imagine the bustling industrial town it once was. I’ve never had the sense to set a novel in the Caribbean or Venice or wherever. This novel involved a research weekend in Skegness and my next one will immerse me in Liverpool and Durham!
Patrick: I turned sixty in January, which places me squarely in the generation that grew up with bombsites and air raid shelters still very much in evidence. Our parents’ attitudes were so shaped by the direct experience of world war that inevitably that shaped us too. But I didn’t set out to write a war novel; I set out to explore what made Charles and Laura tick, and it rapidly became clear that two world wars were going to form a big part of their story. But I think these things are often accidental in writers’ lives. An idea will just catch and refuse to be shaken off. I’ve promised that my next novel is a sequel to A Place Called Winter, and it is, but I’m realising it’s actually a novel about my mother and grandmother and their marriages.
Patrick: It was very hard as I was never one of nature’s war comic readers or war film watchers. But I ended up using that, realising that Charles wasn’t remotely in his comfort zone either when he shipped out on Eclipse. From his diaries I knew the books he was reading, I knew he was a swot and would have swotted up on how to be a sailor. I spent time in Gibraltar and Malta tracking where he’d have gone and what he’d have experienced. The hardest part was the coding, as that part of the war story was kept so obsessively secret for so long that physical material relating to it hard to come by, even in the Imperial War Museum archives. Happily these contain a few relevant bits of recorded testimony from old men recalling their coding training which I could combine with surviving manuals and wonderful details from Charles’ unfinished wartime novel.
Jon: I can’t imagine a Gale novel without music being described in a visceral way – but what was it like to write about a writer?
Patrick: I think I cheat a bit in that this is really a novel about someone becoming a writer. For much of the period described, Charles was primarily a musician, which gave me a crucial way into understanding him. He went to war a playwright and returned a poet, and I think that transformation was partly down to the interplay of his rigorous coding training with his earlier training as a pianist.
Adèle: The book reads as though it cost you no effort at all but just poured on to the page like a spring gushing from the rock. How much rewriting/ editing do you do?
Patrick: You’re very kind! I do an awful lot of mental churning around and notetaking and try not to start writing the actual text until I’m really clear who my characters are and what their stories are going to be. In this case I benefited from the amazing, if relatively sparse, Causley archive held at Exeter University and spent a lot of time reading through that and trying to join the gaps. The challenge then was to decide both whether there was enough “story” for Laura to balance out Charles’ adventures, and to decide where the novel should end. From there on the process has always felt to be one of painstaking accuracy rather than one of making things up. Very early on I realised that what I was doing was inspired by his poem Angel Hill and seeking to unlock whatever story lay behind its writing and that gave me a great momentum.
Linda: Now that you’ve finished writing the novel, have the real and fictional Charles Causleys merged in your mind, or do you see them as two separate characters?
Patrick: I fear they may have done a bit. The same happened with my great grandfather when I turned him into the hero of A Place Called Winter. The difference here is that we have this incredible body of poetry (and some wonderfully atmospheric prose) left by Charles along with recordings of his voice and I ventriloquised that to such an extent that I’m now having to make a big effort to remind myself what I made up.
Linda: Do you find yourself thinking differently about his poems now that you’ve been inside his head, as it were?
Patrick: I don’t, but only because his poems were my constant guide as to who he was. I had a lot of fun not fleshing them out, exactly, but lifting names and scenes and places from them in ways I hope will reward readers who already know them well. His unfinished novel about his time on Gibraltar, his naval short stories and his numerous autobiographical prose sketches are so vivid that at times I almost felt I was taking dictation and not making things up at all.
Linda: I am struck by the ending of Eden Rock. Do you think Causley is referring to the distance between him and his parents as one brought about by time and death? Or do you think he is regretful that he could never have (or never allowed himself to have) such a close relationship with another person?
Patrick: Eden Rock is a masterpiece, I think, because it packs so much into so few lines. I believe it was inspired by that moment that comes to us all when our parents have died and we sense most of our life is behind us. He has a sense of his own looming death and of how seductive it is then flinches because he’s not yet ready. But buried inside there is also, I think, the strange dichotomy of the only child – at once confident that they are loved and yet forever left on the emotional sidelines by the love their parents have for one another. Several women of his generation have insisted to me that Charles longed for a family of his own. They say that, irrationally, as though such a longing would be quite alien to a man who also longed for the love of another man . I’m sure he longed for a family because it’s natural to want to belong and a family is a concrete proof of fitting in whereas, whatever his sexuality may have been, he remained always on the edge of things, on the outside looking in.
Celia: What do you think Charles Causley would have made of his fictional self?
Patrick: I think he’d have been appalled. As would Laura. They were both deeply private people who didn’t put themselves forward. I hope he could see, though, that it’s a book driven by affection and admiration and from a desire that more people should visit Launceston and seek out the amazing work he left behind him there.
Celia: How much of the novel is Charles Causley, how much Patrick Gale?
Patrick: That’s very hard to answer, so I won’t even try!
Patrick: Not from me, although he cries out for a scholarly, critical biography which has yet to be written. He needs a Hermione Lee! He lived to be very old but I have a powerful sense that he was a man who created a public persona behind which he could remain intensely private and in a way my job here is done if I’ve managed to suggest what he felt that persona was necessary and what the events were that led to its construction. I’ll be very happy if it simply leads new readers to his poetry, where they can make their own minds up about who he was.
Mother's Boy is published by Tinder Press.
See also: Notes from an Exhibition reviewed by Julia Jarman