Patrick Gale at Marlborough Literature Festival

It’s been a long time since I attended a literary festival in person rather than online. Four of us from my book club went along yesterday evening to the headline event of Marlborough Literature Festival. Marlborough is a pleasant market town in Wiltshire about 40 minutes from Newbury, and I’d like to get back to it sometime soon when things are open so I can explore its secondhand and plastic-free shops.

Patrick Gale closed the festival by speaking about his new novel (his 17th), Mother’s Boy. I knew it was a historical novel that covered the Second World War, but I had no idea that it was based on a real person, poet Charles Causley. With Andrew Motion, Gale is a patron of the Charles Causley Trust, which runs an annual poetry competition for children. I hadn’t heard of Causley, but Gale and some members of the audience recall memorizing his poems in school – like Roald Dahl’s, they can have a wicked sense of humour. Causley also wrote in the style of traditional ballads; my husband knows a version of one on a folk album.

Gale called Causley the “least sexy” of the war poets. He was from Launceston, Cornwall and left school at age 15, joining the Navy and later working as a schoolteacher for many years. He lived with his widowed mother and, if you believe the legend, died a virgin. However, Gale unearthed evidence that Causley was in fact a closeted homosexual and had sexual encounters with men during the war. He experienced survivor’s guilt because he escaped his ship’s explosion while he had an on-shore posting so that he could sit his exams.

Equally important to the novel is Causley’s mother, Laura, who grew up in extreme poverty and, after her husband’s death from TB, raised Charles in a slum on a laundress’ salary, even managing to buy him a piano. Launceston was decimated by the two world wars, and essentially colonized by the segregated U.S. Army. Gale made up a Black character named Amos, but gave him a horrific real-life story. Laura would have met Black soldiers and, later, German POWs through her working-class church.

Gale acknowledged that he had to make up more of Laura’s story, relying only on the information about her in Causley’s tiny appointment diaries. In response to an audience question, he said he thinks Causley would be “utterly appalled” at the existence of this novel because he was an intensely private person, but that he’s salved his conscience with the fact that the book is driving people back to Causley’s poems. He wrote this as a novel rather than a biography because he tends to “overempathize” with characters, and likes to go “behind the bedroom door,” as he put it – indeed, one (non-graphic) scene he read was of Charles’s conception, while the other was about Charles learning to read at age five and enjoying his father’s company though he knew he was ill.

Mother’s Boy is most like A Place Called Winter from his oeuvre, Gale remarked, in that it’s historical fiction based on real people – in that earlier case, his own relatives. Gale’s father was the governor of Wandsworth Prison and his mother the daughter of the governor of Liverpool Prison (where he oversaw many hangings). In fact, he’s now at work on a sequel to A Place Called Winter, about his grandparents and parents, and researching from letters.

I was impressed with Gale’s delivery: he spoke engagingly for 45 minutes about the book and its context, peppering in readings and recitations, with no interviewer to prompt him. It was clearly a practiced lecture, but he had no notes and spoke warmly and as if off the cuff.

Are any of these poem titles familiar to you? These were the ones mentioned during last night’s event. (You can listen to Causley reading some of them in his eighties – with his large cat purring in the background – on the Poetry Archive site I linked to above.)

  • “Timothy Winters”
  • “Rattler Morgan”
  • “Eden Rock”
  • “The Ballad of a Bread Man”
  • “Angel Hill”

I have a copy of Mother’s Boy on hold at the library for me to pick up tomorrow, and we fancy reading A Place Called Winter for book club soon – his Notes from an Exhibition was one of our all-time favourites that we’ve read together.

Are you a Patrick Gale fan? Have you been able to attend any literary events recently?

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10 responses

  1. Oh, I’d love to have been with you as I have just finished – and loved – Mother’s Boy. I have never read a dud from his pen, and hearing him speak would have been the icing on the cake. Lucky you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear you loved it. He has an extensive back catalogue for me to explore afterwards.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had heard of Causley and maybe even read a couple of his poems but a long time ago and I didn’t really remember him. I haven’t read the book yet, but am very interested in doing so. Hope you enjoyed the in-person event!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a large turn-out, mostly women of a certain age. If Marlborough was that little bit closer, or had a train station, I would have gone to multiple events.

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  3. I’ve never read Gale, but have always meant to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can certainly recommend Notes from an Exhibition, about a mercurial artist with a mental illness and how it affects her family.

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  4. Oh, yes… I am a BIG fan of Patrick Gale! He even agreed to friend me on Facebook and Twitter! His Mother’s Boy is really good, but I think I prefer his less biographical fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He seems like a nice fellow! I have lots of his work still to explore.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As do I. I have read most of his most recent works, though. But there’s a gap for me between the first book of his I read “Notes on an Exhibition” until “Ordinary Man”.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds like such a great event to get to attend in person! I went to the American Library Association meeting this year, but things like that still definitely feel out of the ordinary to me after avoiding large events for so long.

    Liked by 1 person

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