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Dannie Abse: Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve

Dannie Abse’s first novel is clearly autobiographical. Indeed, it seems to be an autobiography rather than a novel but he calls it a novel so who am I to argue? No doubt he used a fair amount of poetic licence in describing the events of his youth. Whether novel or autobiography, it does not give the impression of being written by a poet, which is what Dannie Abse primarily is, in that it does not use flowery or overly descriptive language. Where it does show a poet’s sensibility is in the observations of young Dannie. For example, early on he goes to have tea with his friend Keith Thomas. He seems to be smelling around. When Mrs. Thomas asks him whether there is a smell, he says that he was expecting bananas and ice cream and was smelling for them. (He does not get them.) Later, he will notice the smell of alcohol on Mr. Thomas’ breath. By the way, the title comes from T S Eliot’s Little Giddings.

The story is set in the mid-late 1930s. It starts in 1934 when Dannie is eleven. His family is Jewish and they live in Cardiff. He has two older brothers. Leo is a committed communist. He almost goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War (at Dannie’s suggestion) but ill health prevents him from doing so. (He will later became a Labour M.P.) Wilfred will become a psychiatrist. At the beginning of the book, young Dannie seems to spend much time fighting. He generally loses and runs off to cry in secret. He seems to get his fighting habit from his Uncle Bertie, who is always getting into fights. One day Uncle Bertie gets into a row with Ken Williams, who sends his brother, Jake, to fight Bertie in a proper eight round fight. Uncle Bertie is quite keen, particularly when he meets Jake who seems quite small. Everyone bets on Bertie, till Jake is introduced as Killer Williams, lightweight champion. Dannie fights Keith Thomas but once Keith moves to near Dannie, they become firm friends. Much of the story describes events in their lives. For example, a man approaches the two boys and puts his hand on Keith’s shoulder, offering the two boys ice cream. They decline and then threaten the man with the police but, afterwards, Dannie teases Keith, saying that, as the man touched him, he now has the Black Curse. Keith believes him and will not, for example come swimming with Dannie. This continues for a while, till it gets serious when Mrs. Thomas has a stroke and dies soon afterwards. Keith blames Dannie because of the Black Curse.

Abse is good at building up the suspense. He tells us of an outing by the two boys to Barry Island but warning us that something ominous is going to happen. He tells us of other auspicious events that month – the deaths of Ernst Röhm and Dollfuss and the rise of Hitler. The weather is very hot but the boys enjoy themselves at Barry Island, playing on the beach. Eventually, the key event does happen but it is relatively minor, though somewhat traumatic for the boys. On the train home a man sitting opposite them has an epileptic fit and wets himself.

They grow older and, as they grow older, they become interested in girls. Dannie’s father is, of course, adamant that Dannie should focus on his studies, but he is more interested in Lydia Pike. She likes him more than the other boys, as he keeps his mouth closed when he kisses. He is surprised at this. Is there any other way to kiss? One day, his mother tells him that she met his girlfriend and his mother and had invited them around to tea. He is mortally embarrassed but particularly surprised when the doorbell rings and it is Nancy Roberts and her mother and not Lydia Pike.

Dannie is Jewish and, apart from Keith calling him podgy Jewboy before they are friends (he retorts with Podgy son of a whisky man), there is little anti-Semitism. He does go to synagogue when younger but he is not too enthusiastic. He finds the synagogue frightening when it is empty but is happy enough to go when there are people there. However, he loses his faith. There is an episode where he has to go to see the rabbi, Rev. (sic) Aaronowich to deliver a package from his mother. The rabbi has grown absent-minded and forgetful and insists on calling him Michael. He also keeps losing track of the conversation. He tries to persuade Dannie to come back to his faith but with not too much enthusiasm. It all ends when the rabbi’s son, whom he has not seen for seven years, as he married a non-Jew, arrives. Dannie does have a fantasy about a man called Grynszpan, a Polish Jew who goes to the German Embassy in Paris, with a view to assassinating the German ambassador. He is partially successful. However, on the whole, his Jewishness is not a key feature of his life.

The book goes up to the beginning of the war, with bombs falling on Cardiff and neighbouring towns. Dannie is still too young to fight but his brothers are not, though Wilfred is in India. Overall, Abse tells a lively and highly enjoyable account of the five years 1934-1939 of his life, from being a boy to being a young man, dealing with all the problems of growing up, somewhat eccentric friends and relatives, and wondering what he will do in life. Indeed, having considered a career as an assassin and, we must assume, rejecting it, he seems to favour being a poet and a doctor, two careers we know he carried out admirably. As a writer, this book shows he made the right choice.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Hutchinson