When I interviewed Dannie Abse for Wales Arts Review (Vol. 2, Issue 18) he recounted his horror at finding his ‘most successful book’ Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve classified as autobiography:
People have come up to me, after reading that book, saying, ‘I’ve read your autobiography,’ when in fact my actual autobiography is Goodbye Twentieth Century. And it’s a shame really, because I want people to read the autobiography that is actually my autobiography, and read Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve as a novel, because it is a novel.
Of course, one of the more intriguing aspects of Abse’s novel is the fine line it treads between autobiography and the novel, between fact and fiction. The central character of its bildungsroman narrative is a young Welsh-Jewish boy named Dannie, growing up in Cardiff during the nineteen-thirties, whose older brothers just happen to share the names of the author’s brothers Leo (the campaigning MP) and Wilfred (the eminent psychiatrist). Also, embedded among the fictions of Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve are real-life historical episodes imagined with a poet’s eye. The novel situates the intimacy and warmth of semi-autobiographical recollections within a wider historical and political context that includes the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II. Rarely has a book captured the relationship between the personal and political in such poignant detail – when Dannie plays Cowboys and Indians he always chooses to be an Indian ‘because my brother Leo had told me that Cowboys were Imperialists.’
I first read the novel during my GCSE studies, when the author’s tender reflections on his vanished childhood were rather lost on me. What I did respond to, however, was the urgency and fervour of the political idealism – keenly felt by the young Dannie under the influence of Leo – in response to the economic iniquities in South Wales and the fascist menace both at home and abroad. With the post-Thatcher consensus prevailing throughout the late eighties into the nineties, and the ‘end of history’ brought about by the end of the Berlin Wall, I wallowed in a red-tinged nostalgic yearning for the days when one might take up a rifle and volunteer for the Spanish Republic, knowing who the enemy was and what had to be done. Abse’s novel is richly evocative of those years of the pre-War popular front, and its name-checks of figures such as John Cornford held a somewhat romantic appeal for my teenage self.
Rereading Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve twenty years later was an even more rewarding experience. Leo and Dannie’s political radicalism had not lost any of its power to move me, but now the corresponding portrayal of childhood innocence – endless summer holidays and the tumultuous mystique that seems to emanate from the opposite sex – suffused the novel with an added strain of melancholic loss. The novel is redolent with staccato playground exchanges of one-up-man-ship, on topics ranging from the best seaside beaches to preferred methods of killing each other, and references to boyhood heroes who play football for Cardiff City and cricket for Glamorgan. Abse wrote the novel during his medical studies, completing it in 1954, and it often reads like an attempt to desperately hold on to a childhood, which had only passed recently but that was about to slip away for good. As one character in the novel puts it, ‘A man has to keep his roots or he’s lost.’
Any tendency there might have been for the novel to lapse into sentimentality is averted by Abse’s stark observations on the anti-Semitism that plagues the young Dannie, who faces the immediate threat of schoolyard bullies who call him a ‘pudgy Jewboy’ and the globalised threat of Nazism and homemade fascism. When the family sit around the radio and listen to a ranting Oswald Mosley claim that ‘We English… are being throttled and strangled by the greasy fingers of alien financiers,’ the young Dannie grimly perceives that ‘he was talking about Dad and Mam, Wilfred and Leo, me and Uncle Isidore.’
A particular highlight of Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve is an imagined account of the assignation, by the young Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, of Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris on 7th November 1938. The episode has no direct bearing on Dannie’s life whatsoever, other than he and Grynszpan share a Jewish identity that is being shaped by a future threat of annihilation. Gwyneth Lewis shrewdly describes this section of the book as a proto-poem, in which Dannie, the poet in embryo, empathically visualises Grynszpan entering the lobby of the German Embassy and noticing the ‘grey-coloured luxurious carpet’ that serves to highlight his sense of futility: ‘The carpet was so thick that it disturbed his balance organs, he walked over it like a drunkard, but with no noise.’ Writing of this acuity transforms mere historical record into indelible art.
In the novel’s final, tragic section a major character – I won’t spoil the book for future readers by revealing who it is – meets his death during an early wartime bombing raid. It is a sad, unheroic death in a conflict that will do the same for millions of similarly innocent people. The great achievement of Abse’s novel therefore, is that he’s able to place the petty anxieties and tribulations of childhood, and the global wars between the radical left and far right, between democracy and tyranny, within some form of universal field theory of human experience in which both the microcosmic and macrocosmic are shown as being important to the growth of Dannie in a myriad of interconnected ways. It is a novel that is undeniably Welsh, in accent and location, but one with broad international horizons.