Obituary: Charles Causley

Highly regarded poet and children's writer

Writer and broadcaster Charles Causley, who has died aged 86, was a poet of place, so much so that it is almost possible to trace his travels through his poems; they act as a kind of gazetteer.

Catherine of Aragon's tomb in Peterborough cathedral gave him the subject for a fine ballad (published in the collection Union Street, 1957), written while he was at teacher training college in the city. He imagines the farmer's boots treading on the queen's cold stone chest. Another grave, that of the writer John Clare, inspired the line "And the poetry bursting like a diamond bomb," in which poet speaks to poet.

The many strange and exotic places he visited while serving in the navy also became settings for his short stories and poems. In his book of short stories, Hands To Dance (1951, revised and enlarged in 1979 as Hands To Dance And Skylark), there is little about the sea; the sailors' adventures (or, chiefly, misadventures) happen on shore: in Gibraltar, Malta, "Alex" and Australia.

An only child, Causley was born in Launceston, inland Cornwall, and lived most of his life in the town, with absences for extensive travel. His first home was his grandmother's cottage by the little river Kensey, which was inclined to flood. This worried his mother and, when she saw a rat in the house, she decided to move; and so for the next 10 years Causley lived higher up in the town in a tenement house hung with Cornish slates. The tap was outside and they shared the lavatory with three other families.

He drew inspiration from his native area. A visit to Teignmouth, Devon, where his parents met, led him to write the moving Keats At Teignmouth, which was published in The West Country Magazine, edited by another Cornishman, JC Trewin, who found the poem "much the most exciting I received," and published several more in the magazine and, when he was literary editor, in the Observer.

Although he was too young to remember the first world war, it was a constant shadow during his early days. His father, a private serving on the western front and invalided out in 1919, never recovered his health, and died of tuberculosis in 1924. He had worked as a groom and gardener for a doctor in Teignmouth. His mother, a Cornishwoman, worked as a domestic servant next door to the doctor's.

While at elementary school, Causley began to write a story influenced by the romantic novels his mother read; but a love of poetry was beginning to burgeon. He liked the sight of a few lines of verse standing out "like a little island in a sea of prose". At grammar school (to which he gained a scholarship) he was given 10 out of 10 for a sonnet, and on his first visit to London he found a copy of the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon in a Charing Cross Road bookshop. These helped him to gain an insight into his father's war.

He was 16 and had just taken school certificate when his mother announced that she had got him a good job in a builder's office. He felt trapped; it was, he wrote later, the end of the world. Gloomy years of working in offices followed; all the time he was struggling, unfruitfully, to write.

When he registered for war service in the autumn of 1939 he chose the navy. Memories of his father's pitiful condition and, while on holidays spent near a barracks, the sight of endless drilling and marching put him off the army. By this time, the poetry of Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen had made a strong impression.

He was called up to a shore establishment - HMS Royal Arthur, formerly a Butlin's holiday camp; it was surprisingly comfortable. They were billeted in chalets, two to each one. Drafted as a coder in the communications department, he resented the loss of personal identity produced by the uniform (square rig for coders). His first taste of the sea - in Scapa Flow - proved that he was a bad sailor, and he regretted choosing the navy.

But for almost six years, it was his life; he was promoted to ordinary coder and eventually to acting petty officer. He caught a glimpse of the enemy - a small group of captured Germans landing on Gibraltar - only once until he witnessed the official surrender of the Japanese in New Guinea.

Causley always regarded his life after 1946 as survivor's leave; the phrase became the title of a volume of poetry, published in 1953, and the war experience is also evident in other titles: his first collection Farewell, Aggie Weston (1951) and Union Street.

In her preface to Union Street, Edith Sitwell describes Causley's "poems of the morning in which one sees the objects with a morning clearness and freshness, some _ contain depths of tragedy". At first he became known for his ballads - his poem Timothy Winters has been widely anthologised - and there are many more. His descriptive poems are full of well observed details. In all his work he had, as a reviewer of his Collected Poems (first published in 1975) put it, "the power to enchant". He compiled several anthologies with original, wide-ranging selections.

In his Puffin Book Of Salt Sea Verse of 1978 (the "Salt" is typical) he included I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside and Fred Earle's Seaweed, which his mother had sung to him. She heard them at concert parties on the beach. He declared firmly in the introduction to The Puffin Book Of Magic Verse (1974): "All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism." He taught in a primary school until 1976, when he took early retirement.

In his books and plays for children he knew instinctively what they liked, and he became one of the leading children's poets, including his work for younger readers in his Collected Poems alongside his adult verse. His adaptation of The Ballad Of Aucassin And Nicolette was produced at the Exeter Festival in 1978 and was broadcast. He encouraged young poets by using their work in the BBC radio programmes he edited. He retained his native Cornish accent, which added a special flavour to the poetry readings he gave all over the world; at an Edinburgh Festival he shared the bill with WH Auden and Stevie Smith.

Retirement from teaching meant that he could accept invitations to be writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, the Footscray Institute of Technology, Victoria, and the School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta. A legacy of his stay in Canada, In The Dome Car, is a perfect example of his talent for detail. The journey is all there in a short poem.

Causley was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1967, and the CBE in 1986.

· This obituary has been revised and updated since Wendy Trewin's death

Christopher Fry writes: Away from platforms where he gave readings with apparent ease, Causley was a shy man. In conversation he was glad to talk about other people's work rather than his own. At large gatherings, which he disliked, he seemed eager to escape to his home in Launceston, which he loved. He was always willing to show people round the old town with its towering Norman castle. In Who's Who he gave as one of his recreations "the re-discovery of his native town".

· Charles Causley, poet, born August 24 1917; died November 4 2003

Wendy Trewin

The GuardianTramp

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