Charlotte Rogers reflects on Dannie Abse’s There Was a Young Man From Cardiff, a story told through several narratives which capture the landscape of Wales.
There Was a Young Man From Cardiff is certainly a personal narrative. The total text tells the story of one man’s life, though each individual narrative portrays wider concerns of the world. Each of these narratives is in some way a part of the landscape of Wales, and despite the changes he perceives in his country, it is always a solid part of Dannie Abse’s life. Amongst the turbulence of growing up and trying to navigate the adult world, it is the permanence and comforts of Wales that are always present. Though Abse owned property in Wales as an adult, sojourning from his permanent abode in London, where he worked as a doctor, to reside at his holiday home in Ogmore-by-Sea with his wife, it is the tales of his Cardiff childhood that seem to offer the most unabashed and innocent love of Wales, and the comfort it provided a young Dannie is evident.
Often reading more like a diary than a novel, this collection of interlinking stories displays Wales as it is fondly kept in Abse’s heart. From secretly writing poetry as a teenager, to later following in his uncle Max’s footsteps and training as a doctor in London, Abse’s love of his homeland is always at the forefront of his stories, and, it seems, his life.
For a Welsh reader, or any reader familiar with the Welsh school system and its children, this novel immediately immerses its audience into their childhood, and brings back memories with its use of the familiar syntax and particular slang of Welsh children speaking in English. The references to ‘Bog Boys’ classes, and exclamations of ‘Duw!’ hearken to a time in Abse’s life, and indeed in all of our lives, when grown-ups were a strange and alien race, and the most important issues on our minds were whether swapping a cigarette-card collection for a wooden pencil box was a wise decision. Despite these now-trivial childhood tribulations clearly being an affect of a somewhat safe and privileged life, Abse also interjects these stories with shorter narratives detailing issues that have touched his own life, but that seem to have a far more concentrated effect in other parts of the world. For instance, the first of these short ‘Focus’ narratives, entitled ‘Focus: Vienna 1938’, details the story of a Jewish man who has converted to Christianity, and is continually having to live with persecution because of his Jewish heritage, despite his conversion. This interlude is in stark contrast to the previous four stories, in which the Jewish religion of the Abse family is mentioned casually, and without any apparent evidence of personal persecution. This juxtaposition of experiences highlights how differently one aspect of a person’s heritage can change how one is treated in different parts of the world, and how lucky British citizens are in comparison to many others. This ability to live his life as he pleases is another, perhaps less obvious, note of love from Abse to Wales.
As the novel progresses, so does the writing style. The childlike descriptions and use of slang evident in the early stories gradually makes way for a more serious form of writing, and by Part Two, the problems that a still-youthful Abse is finding himself up against have moved on as well. From how to hide evidence of a pilfered pencil box, to rumours of parental infidelity, by the time we hear of a fully grown Dannie Abse in Part Three, he is encountering issues as great as death, as described in ‘An Old Friend’.
It seems that the novel as a whole is largely concerned with the passing of time, and how new phases of life are seemingly thrust upon us without our consent. Many of the stories feature trains, or images of the sea, both of which are common emblems of change in literature. In kind, many of Abse’s concerns within the novel are associated with liminality, and the existence of the ‘in-between’. In Part One we are presented with a young boy on the cusp of growing up, dealing with adolescent issues such as girls, the embarrassment of parents, and the desire to study and grow into an accomplished adult. Part Two presents us with a newly qualified Dr. Abse, and the struggle of navigating both the personal and professional aspects of life as an adult. In Part Three, Dannie is a grown man, but not an old man, existing on the precipice between his prime and his full retirement. In ‘An Old Friend’, the concern with change is given voice by a friend of Abse’s in Ogmore, Wyn Phillips, who complains to Abse that
So many things are changing here in Wales […] A man is what he is partly because of his surroundings, right? But they’re putting up new buildings, tearing down old ones, building new bridges, new roads, so that the old familiar places become bloody well unrecognisable!
However, Abse does not seem as concerned with how times change, but rather seems to accept it quietly as an eventuality. This is evident through Abse’s use of literature. For instance, as well as physical images of liminality such as trains and the sea, the importance of story telling is apparent as a way to express change and development. From hearing the classic epithet of childhood stories, ‘Once Upon a Time’ in school, to his later career in writing and publishing his own creative work, versions of reality, influenced by life, but distorted through story-telling are ever-present. In fact, Abse himself exists in this very category within this novel. In his author’s note to the text, he claims that the stories are not in fact strictly autobiographical, that he has ‘deleted [his] past, and, despite approximate resemblances, substituted it with artifice’. He is then, somewhere between the real and the unreal, the fictional and the factual.
In the same way that Abse has recreated himself through his story-telling, he has in fact categorized himself together with the land that he loved so much. Wales is the land of song and myth – we are proud of our beautiful and very real land, yet we have a mythical creature on our flag. We are the inhabitants of the truly liminal – lying between the ancient and the modern, the whimsical and the effervescently real. And we love all of it, Mr. Abse included.
original illustration by Dean Lewis
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Dannie Abse has produced a body of work with few parallels in Welsh Literature, at least in terms of its sustained levels of high quality poetry and prose across a career spanning six decades. In this, his ninetieth year, his latest volume of poems Speak, Old Parrot is published by Hutchison. Wales Arts Review caught up with him as he prepared to give a poetry reading, accompanied by students from the University of South Wales, as part of the Caerleon Arts Festival. Love, loss and memory are constant and prominent themes in Abse’s work, so I began by asking him about his brothers; Leo the campaigning Labour MP and social reformer, and Wilfred, the eminent psychiatrist.
Charlotte Rogers is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.