Born: 6 January, 1931, in Sussex. Died: 26 August, 2015, in Gloucestershire, aged 84
PJ Kavanagh was a poet of rural England with an outstanding humanity that often reflected his own experiences. A Single Tree draws on the maturing of his children, In Thanks expresses a feeling of gratitude for life and, in Dome, he explores what it is to be alive – poignantly concluding that it is “not homely but it is my home”.
His first literary success came in 1966 with The Perfect Stranger, which was largely autobiographical, dealing with the death of his wife in 1958. The Perfect Stranger was never sentimental or mawkish, and showed evidence of a refined sense of humour that helped Kavanagh come to terms with his bereavement.
The book was turned down by five publishers but became a classic. Richard Ingrams described the work as “one of the best memoirs I have read”. Kavanagh’s own reflections on his wife’s death were succinctly put: “The rest of my life, any sense I can make of it, is a memorial to that.”
Patrick Joseph Gregory Kavanagh, who wrote as PJ Kavanagh, was the son of Ted Kavanagh, the celebrated script writer of the hit war-time radio show ITMA – It’s That Man Again. He firstly attended a local convent school then a Benedictine public school before learning French in Switzerland. He had already become an avid reader of poetry, especially the works of Yeats and Francis Thompson.
Kavanagh worked as a Red Coat at a Butlin’s camp before doing his national service in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was commissioned and volunteered to serve in the Korean War. He was an early casualty and returned home severely wounded and read English at Merton College, Oxford.
In 1955 he taught at the British Institute in Barcelona and the following year married Sally Philipps, daughter of Wogan Philipps and Rosamond Lehmann, and the two went to Indonesia where Kavanagh had a post with the British Council.
His wife died in 1958, having contacted polio. He returned bereft and found work as an actor, notably as one of the hosts on BBC’s Saturday night satirical programme Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, the successor to the hit That Was The Week That Was.
For two years from 1964 Kavanagh co-hosted the programme with David Frost and the comedian Willy Rushton. The programme’s director Ned Sherrin admitted in his autobiography that he had made “a foolish attempt to lighten David’s (Frost) load by giving him the two co-hosts. David didn’t want his load lightened and Willy and Patrick had little enthusiasm for the job.”
But it allowed Kavanagh time to concentrate on his writing and he produced three successful volumes of poems and won a deserved reputation for contributing articles to the Daily Telegraph’s Magazine and The Spectator. He also proved an enlightened host of Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Poetry remained his passion and 12 more volumes were published before the final New Selected Poems in 2014.
In 1985, along with his friend James Michie, Kavanagh published The Oxford Book of Short Poems, which was widely praised for the variety and informed choice the editors made. All the poems were under 14 lines and represented a kaleidoscope of the greatest poems of the English language, from Chaucer to Philip Larkin. The Guardian called it “one of the best of Oxford anthologies”.
Kavanagh was also a renowned novelist and, in A Song and Dance, set in the Swinging Sixties, his keen eye for narrative and descriptive writing much enlivened the story. The characters all reflected the liberal decade and their illicit relationships were captured by Kavanagh with a deft understanding. He wrote three further novels (notably Only By Mistake) and two novels for children.
One of his strangest assignments was his appearances in BBC’s hit sitcom Father Ted. He played Father Seamus Fitzpatrick, the collector of Nazi memorabilia.
For more than 40 years Kavanagh and his second wife Kate lived in a converted barn near Cirencester. He wrote every day in a cottage in the garden which he called “my private kingdom”. He loved the country life and was happiest smoking his pipe and admiring the Cotswold countryside.
Kavanagh was an exceptional wordsmith and invested his poetry with a love of nature and curiosity about life. There was a freshness and energy about his writing that was invigorating in everything he penned. As Kavanagh himself declared with a robust, but characteristically modest, certainty, in Not Being a Man of Action: “I assert my triumphant uselessness, and sing.”
Kavanagh is survived by his wife Kate and their two sons.