As a tribute to Dannie Abse, Adam Somerset takes a look back at the Abse’s autobiographical work, historical prose which carries poetry within it.
Parthian 2011, 578 pp
The 2011 edition of Goodbye, Twentieth Century re-publishes Dannie Abse’s earlier autobiographical writing as part of the Library of Wales imprint. Abse took his place alongside authors such as Arthur Machen, Emyr Humphreys and Raymond Williams. For the re-issue, a third section, ‘Entering the Twenty-first Century’, was written.
This third part, sixty-seven pages, is the life in old age. Its inevitable centre is the calamity of bereavement. It came brutally in the form of an instant late night car collision. The couple had been returning from a Porthcawl dinner with Robert Minhinnick and wife. As both doctor and poet Abse knows the ways of the body and the small consolation of words. He quotes Doctor Johnson: ‘Grief is a kind of idleness.’ He spurns the suggestion of counselling and begins a journal. ‘I cry, therefore I am’ is its first entry.
This last part opens with another tale from life’s winter. An exhausting lecture tour in America sends him to London’s Royal Free Hospital, the doctor in him knowing the right word: ‘angioplasty’. Old age brings acclaim for late work, the pleasure of old friends and comrades and the curious bustle of the literary life. He looks deep for meaning into the life he has made. The claims he once found for the nobility of poetry, those of Shelley and Eliot, no longer carry much weight, ‘hollow post-Auschwitz and Hiroshima.’
A galaxy of poets gather to celebrate his eightieth birthday. The Presence wins the Wales Book of the Year Award for all the comically bungled ceremony. After a lecture given by Jan Morris a fan tells him how much he has enjoyed the biography of Philip Larkin, not that he has written one. Sombrely, brother Leo dies: ‘He can rightly be termed Britain’s top reformer of the twentieth century, having inspired nine Private Member’s Acts.’ All have been ‘designed to heal troubled personal relationships… eschewed by more timorous politicians.’
Goodbye, Twentieth Century is a work of prose that is suffused with poets and poetry. For his first script for television Abse stands beside the Thomas grave in Laugharne. In front of a bust he sees an ‘astonishingly wild and haunted Dylan head staring into space, his tie awry, a cigarette drooping between his lips. ‘The dead,’ he says, ‘can sometimes come alive for a moment.’ He says he has learnt much from Rilke, particularly his Book of Hours. He remembers the first poem that he ever learnt by heart. It was done voluntarily and John Cornford’s ‘Huesca’ ‘moves me still, its piquant directness, its sad music, its silence between the quatrains…’
The influence of Dannie Abse the poet spills over into the prose. On arriving in the great metropolis: ‘It takes a long time to like London’s secret ways, her modesty… London disappears down smoky evenings, resenting your familiarity.’ In Llandaff Cathedral he sees the niches filled with gold-plated wreaths of wild flowers. He is reminded that Welsh has dozens of flowers that are named in honour of the Virgin. He honeymoons at Ogmore, ‘that lark-high, seaside village which overlooked the crinkling, silver-paper shine of the estuary below.’
With the poetry comes the literary life. In a restaurant Dannie Abse finds himself sitting between Freddie Ayer and William Coldstream. In a gloomy 1944 London he goes to a lecture by Edmund Blunden and offers him his own poems. He is in the audience to see Stephen Spender jump to his feet and denounce Emanuel Litvinoff for insulting Eliot.
He inhabits that great émigré centre, the Cosmo in St John’s Wood and meets Elias Canetti. On a flight out of Heathrow a security guard is puzzled to find that Ted Hughes travels with the tooth of a tiger in his pocket. In the grandeur of Princeton he is confidently told he obviously cannot be famous. ‘If you’re famous, you haven’t got time to spend on students.’ As often the writer has to suffer the perception that the fruits of the imagination are the life undiluted. In the case of Ash on an Old Man’s Sleeve even the publisher connives, promoting it as plain autobiography.
Abse’s age of poetry pre-dates that in which the poet is by default part of the promotional package. ‘Poetry readings,’ he writes, ‘used to be deadly dull. Until the 1960s too many poets mumbled or read at 100mph or chose poems that were entirely unsuitable for public recital.’ Roy Campbell appears for a reading visibly drunk. Abse’s own rising public profile raises press attention. The Poetry Society is gripped by feuding. A few lines of conversation with a Royal is gruesomely inflated and misrepresented by London’s evening paper.
Poetry does not pay. When Blunden commends the first verse, father is on hand to comment: ‘He can’t be much of a critic. Besides you should be studying medicine hard, not wasting time composing poems.’ From childhood the young Abse has been aware of ‘the processions of the unemployed’ and ‘the TB that was rife in the valleys.’ The medical life dips in and out of the book. The nervous beginner finds that symptoms are vague in description – ‘this funny feeling I get here, doctor, moves from place to place.’ The diseases presented rarely match the descriptions in the textbooks.
Briefly in obstetrics Dannie Abse witnesses ‘the most astonishing smile’ that follows birth. He cites a French medical proverb to the effect that ‘there are no diseases, only sick people.’ The sick people he sees are sufferers from TB, bronchiectasis, sarcoidosis, lung cysts, Hodgkin’s Disease. He goes back to Robert Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus and overhears a patient saying ‘TB, doctor? That stands for totally buggered, doesn’t it?’
Goodbye, Twentieth Century is history, and history weaves in and out of its long length. The London he inhabits is thickened with exiles. He describes the refugees in their single rooms with sputtering gas fire, heavy furniture, frayed carpet, a photograph of a vanished relative, and their cafes, the Cosmo, the Dorice, the Glass Hosue and the Swiss. They are the tiniest fraction of those who have survived; a cloud of dread hangs heavy over them.
He recalls the terrible fear when the V1 rocket’s engine dies and the interval before the explosion elsewhere that means normal life may resume. He has a mild National Service at a mass radiography unit in Carrington. ‘What’s kind of station is it?’ he asks an airman. ‘Shit-hole,’ is the reply. And the medical service? ‘F***in’ ridiculous.’ Decades on he is on a charity panel with a forceful young MP. The Chair turns to him to field a question about Auden. Before he can utter a word the MP has her word in: ‘When I was at Oxford with Auden…’ she kicks off. The panel co-member is the formidable member for Finchley.
Goodbye, Twentieth Century is a long, rich and satisfying read from Dannie Abse, its place in the Library of Wales well-earned.
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In tribute to Dannie Abse, Dai George takes a look back at one of the writer’s most well-loved poems, Return to Cardiff, and finds within it a sense of recognition.
Adam Somerset is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.