“Charles Causley is probably the least sexy poet in the English canon,” says Patrick Gale. “There were no scandals. He had no suicidal wives, he engaged in no alcohol or drug abuse. There was no bad behaviour at all.” Official biographies of Causley – best known for the poems Timothy Winters and Eden Rock – are brief and quiet. “They say he was born in Cornwall in 1914,” Gale continues, “served in the navy during the Second World War, then went home to spend the rest of his life working as a primary school teacher and living with his mother. They say he died a virgin in 2003. But I think my research proves at least one ‘fact’ isn’t true…”

Careful study of the late poet’s letters and diaries left Gale in no doubt that Causley was gay and probably had an affair with a fellow officer during the war. Although the novelist is wary about the language he uses, recently telling the Guardian: “I’d only say someone was gay if I feel they’re comfortable with who they are. The sadness is, I don’t think Causley was ever comfortable with who he was.”

Speaking with infectious enthusiasm on the phone from the Cornish home he shares with his sculptor-farmer husband, Aidan Hicks, Gale explains that the goal of his seventeenth novel, Mother’s Boy, is to “give an emotional life to a man who worked very hard to make all traces of his emotional life disappear. Curious behaviour for a man whose poetry was so passionate. But I think it was because he was terrified of his sexuality.”

Sixty-year-old Gale knows something about men hiding their attraction to other men. He didn’t. But his father did. When he was 22 and had just written his first novel, The Aerodynamics of Pork (1986), his mother told him that when she was pregnant with him, she’d discovered a sheaf of “passionate” letters her husband had written to another man. Terrified, she burned them all. In a 2017 article, Gale wrote:

“She never told him what she had discovered. She simply never let him in her bed again – encouraging the adoption of separate beds under a single hypocritical quilt, and then separate bedrooms. Thinking herself, as the wife and daughter of prison governors, well versed in such sordid matters, she assumed the revelation meant he was a paedophile, so thereafter saw to it that he was never left alone with any of us. I did not have a single private moment with my father until my teens, when he retired, and I began to have tentative encounters with this near stranger, now present at weekday breakfasts.”

No wonder, then, that the theme of Gale’s novels has been the things we don’t – or can’t – tell each other. As the youngest of four siblings he tells me he grew up aware that his noisier brothers were “hoovering up the parental energy” allowing him to fly under the radar. “I was quiet. Which meant I got away with reading books I shouldn’t have read and eavesdropping on adult conversations I shouldn’t have heard. Like a spy!”

As an adult, he has used tender, propulsive fiction to fill in the mysterious spaces in the historical record. He made his own family history the subject of his 2015 novel, A Place Called Winter, describing his great-grandfather Harry’s sudden emigration to Canada in the early twentieth century, trying to make sense of why he left his wife and daughter behind. He tells me his next novel will be set in 1953 when Harry “horrified my grandmother by announcing he’d sold the farm in Canada and was coming home to his ‘little girl’, who had [herself] just become a grandmother.”

Between the two dramatic bouts of family history, Gale was driven to make sense of Causley’s strange story. “When I first moved to Cornwall,” he says, “I was thrilled to hear this semi-famous poet lived just up the road. I knew that other poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Ted Hughes had been fans. People kept trying to introduce us, but I was always too shy.” It was only after Causley’s death that Gale’s obsession took root.

“He’s special because he’s working class, almost entirely self-taught” says Gale. “He didn’t go to university. So his voice is completely his own. It hasn’t been moderated through studying Virgil, which means it’s very approachable, narrative based. He could easily have been a novelist if he hadn’t been so afraid of self-exposure.” Gale’s theory is that Causley’s work on military code in the navy “taught him that language can carry other meanings, that you could hide things in it.”

At the end of Mother’s Boy Gale includes a complete poem, Angel Hill, which he believes to be “a coded confession of a real visit from a former shipmate who asks, repeatedly, ‘Do you remember what we used to do together?’ All the way through the poem the writer is denying him, like St Peter denying Christ.” Gale suspects “the key to the truth of it is that Angel Hill is the street on which he grew up. “He’s saying ‘this is me’. Hiding in plain sight. And lines like ‘I bound your wounds and you bound mine’ are pretty out there, pretty sexy stuff. At the end of the poem the visiting soldier says: ‘You always said that if we got to the end of the war and you didn’t have a wife or son, you would give to me my own.’”

The novel swings between “etiolated” Causley’s perspective and that of his “sweating, labouring” mother. “She was completely uneducated,” says Gale, “and worked as a laundress. That was incredibly hard work before mod cons. In photographs she has enormous biceps from pounding away, day after day, in hot water. Because she was widowed when Charles was still very little, she raised him single-handedly and was an enormous influence on him. I think her voice comes through in the poems. I suspect the wry country wisdom you hear is hers. But as a young man I think he felt quite burdened by her emotional needs and his diaries are filled with accounts of their arguments. He had a kind of breakdown after her death and spent the rest of his life recreating the relationship with a series of married or emotionally unavailable women, with whom he could gossip and take day trips.”

When Gale first realised he wanted to write about Causley he approached the Charles Causley Trust to seek permission and was delighted when they gave him their blessing. They had realised that the reason Causley was slipping from the school curriculum was the lack of narrative attached to him. They were thrilled by Gale’s attempt to flesh him back out.

Listening to Gale talk, I’m aware of how rapidly attitudes to homosexuality have shifted. I think of my twelve-year-old son’s utter bewilderment in the face of the homophobia he hears from family members two generations above him. I also remember how important fiction was to my own gay friends, who found courage and company on the “gay fiction” shelves of suburban bookstores.

Gale says he is “so happy when I find there’s still a gay section in huge bookshops, so children and teenagers know where to go.” However, he sighs, “one bookshop manager told me they’re forever having to retrieve the gay books from other parts of the shop, because children don’t want to be seen loitering by the gay shelves.”

Back in his youth there were no “gay shelves”. The closest he got to that experience was “going into Smiths to get a copy of Playgirl from the top shelf and racing with it to the modelling and motorsports section.”

Educated at Winchester College, he feels “incredibly lucky that, even in 1975, I had a great gang of five gay friends at school. We were all more or less out. All more or less accepted. Winchester was an insanely antiquated place, but we were there during a liberal period with a good handful of secretly gay teachers who were very supportive. They encouraged me to read Gide and Orton. I vividly remember the publication of Forster’s Maurice when I was about thirteen. I rushed out to buy a Penguin copy and was bored to tears!”

“Books like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room did help,” he says, “and I hope books will always be the way teenagers discover themselves, when they’re not on their phones.” He recalls how his friends: “got hold of a copy of Gay News every now and then and through that we learned there was a shop called Gay’s the Word in Bloomsbury.” Gale first ventured into the shop in his late teens and “didn’t dare speak to anybody or buy anything. But just going into the shop and seeing the books was incredibly valuable. The very sweet staff let me browse without pestering me. I still know some of the staff there and I continue to tell them how grateful I am for their unwitting support when I was so young.”

However, he doesn’t think Causley would have approved. “He would have been appalled by how openly gay I am. I think he’d have found me slightly nightmarish.”

Most of his readers are straight women, Gale notes. “But I often get a gay, lesbian or trans person come up to me at a signing and tell me their mother told them to read my books. I’m very grateful to those straight women for carrying the flame!”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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