Abse was born in Cardiff, youngest of four children in a Jewish family. His father part-owned and ran cinemas. He studied medicine, briefly at the University of Wales, and then, in London, at Westminster Hospital and King’s College, becoming a specialist chest physician. During the latter part of the war he volunteered with other medical students to help, but was not sent abroad. He published his first book of poetry in the late 1940s, and in 1951, he was called up for National Service. That same year, he married Joan Mercer, a librarian at the time for the Financial Times, and an art historian. They moved to live in Hodford Road, Golder’s Green, north London, and had three children.
By this time, Abse was part of the London poetry scene, giving poetry readings, and being likened to his fellow Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, though he soon brushed off the latter’s overwrought style. A second collection of poems followed, and then his first autobiographical novel Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve (1954) brought him some early literary success. Many other poems, readings, books followed, as he managed to live life as a celebrated poet at the same time as pursuing a medical career.
In 2005, Joan was killed in a car accident, and Abse himself suffered injuries. He continued to write, and, in 2012, he accepted a CBE for services to poetry and literature, saying, at the time, that many people more left-wing than he had taken the award. He died just over two weeks ago, on 28 September. Wikipedia has a short biography, but there are also several detailed obituaries online, at The Telegraph, for example, The Guardian, the BBC and The British Council. There are several older interviews and articles by Gerald Isaaman, ex editor of the Ham and High, for Camden New Journal. And there is a Dannie Abse website, with information about his books.
My mother, Barbara Lyons, who died in 2007, also lived on Hodford Road, and would often see Abse in Childs Hill Park as they walked their dogs. I don’t think they ever talked, but they would nod a greeting as they passed, in some vague way acknowledging that they had known each other in the 1950s. Indeed, according to my father, Frederic Goldsmith, Dannie was one of his best friends in those days. They were both part of a group of musicians, artists, writers, German refugees (Frederic had arrived in London as a child in the 30s, his family escaping from Hitler’s Nazi Germany) that would meet in The Cosmo, on Finchley Road. Also part of that group was: Peter the Girl, now in her mid-90s, who was a friend of my parents, and remains a friend of mine to this day: Uncle Bondy, who took us on holiday to his primitive villa in Bandol, France, at least once: and Peter Vansittart who married my aunt, Johnnie.
Around the time Dannie was getting married, Frederic met my mother, and I was born the following year. The marriage between my parents didn’t last long - in contrast to Dannie’s which lasted a lifetime and very happily so, according to all reports. Frederic, the cad, ran off to the US, not to return for 20 years. And when he did return to London, he thought it would be funny, in an ‘old times’ sort of way, to show up at Dannie’s house in the middle of the night. But Dannie didn’t find it funny, and, effectively, rejected his old friend. Peter the Girl, out of loyalty to Frederic, never forgave Abse for that - indeed she called me the day after he died to remind me of the story. Ironically, I was out of the country when Frederic made that visit to London - ironic because every year through my childhood he had written to me saying he would come visit soon!
Fast forwarding, to the year 2007, Frederic long since dead, and my mother just gone too, I met and fell in love with Harriet Gordon (often known as Hat). Her parents, too, had died in recent years: Giles Gordon, literary agent, and Margaret Gordon, children’s book illustrator. It turned out that her father had been Dannie Abse’s agent, and friend, for many years. Hat and I moved in together, and have two children now. Along the way, we wrote to Dannie, thinking he might be intrigued by the coincidence. He wrote back, saying that is one ‘helluva coincidence’, or rather ‘a heaven of a coincidence.’
I feel justified in contributing a piece on Dannie here, to The Diary Review, because he published several books which were either compilations of diary extracts and/or were given the title ‘journals’. In fact, in his first collection of ‘journal’ pieces - Journals from the Ant-Heap (1986) - Abse mentions both my father and Hat’s father, but in very different contexts. The so-called journal entries, though, were written to order, on Gerald Isaaman’s suggestion for a column in the Ham and High (see below), and are only dated by month. Similar kinds of later autobiographical notes were put together with Journals from the Ant-Heap in a single volume called Intermittent Journals.
Here is Abse’s explanation of how he came to publish Journals from the Ant-Heap.
‘Gerald Isaaman, the editor of a local newspaper in London, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, affectionately known as the Ham and High, is a great admirer of George Orwell. In December 1983, recalling Orwell’s once lively column for Tribune entitled ‘As I Please’, he decided that, during 1984, he would like a similar series to grace the pages of the Ham and High.
George Orwell, alas, was not available. So he cast around other writers, shortlisting a number of them, no doubt alphabetically, for soon he telephoned me. I could not mimic Orwell. I could only write my own kind of prose. Gerald did not seem to mind and I agreed to offer him a fortnightly autobiographical column for one year only. He was to call my non-Orwellian ‘As I Please’ ‘ABSE’s 1984’. He proved to be an ideal editor. He only occasionally made suggestions and never changed my copy.
In March 1985 it was suggested to me that I protract my journal so that it could be published in book form. I could continue writing it, of course, as I pleased, and more importantly, when I pleased. I cannot pretend that I have not enjoyed conjugating occasional autobiographical items while I have been based in London or in South Wales. And I hope they will amuse like-minded readers. They are not private diary entries but were written, as all journalism is, as a public secret.’
Abse dedicated Journals from the Ant-Heap ‘To Margaret and Giles Gordon’ (Hat’s parents); and here is one extract from the book, in which Abse reflects on the Cosmo days, and mentions Frederic/Fred, my father - approximately 20 years before Hat and I were to meet.
‘We decided to dine out to celebrate the arrival of an advance copy of my new book of poems, As the Bloody Horse. We chose to eat at The Cosmo in Swiss Cottage. Joan and I had not visited that Viennese café for years but suddenly, in nostalgic mood, we wanted to make a return journey to 1949. In the post-war years, when I was a medical student, instead of studying in my ‘digs’ in Aberdare Gardens, NW6, [. . .] I often spent an evening gossiping and arguing with other Cosmo habitués.
Because of the refugees who had come to live in small rooms scattered across Swiss Cottage, this area had become a corner of Vienna with a distinct café life. Soon, young British writers, artists, musicians and burglars, joined the refugees and found the party-going, cigarette-smoking laden atmosphere of The Cosmo congenial. Generally Joan - then Joan Mercer - and I sat in the annexe over one cup of coffee all night but there were occasions when the annexe was too full and its occupants overflowed into the large main restaurant where they had laid white linen table-cloths over the tables in order to encourage their clientele to eat something!
It was to the main restaurant that we now repaired. It had hardly changed. There was something old-fashioned about the place, something outmoded, as if the clock had stopped not so much in 1949 but in pre-war Vienna. [. . .] It was odd to gaze around the restaurant and observe not one person known to us. Where were the novelists, youthful once more, Peter Brent, Bernice Rubens, Peter Vansittart? Where the sculptor, Bill Turnbull? Would not Emanuel Litvonoff, Cherry Marshall and Rudi Nassauer come in at any minute? Was Ivor M in jail again? Were Keith Sawbridge, Fred Goldsmith and Old Bondy next door in the annexe arguing the toss? I recalled Jack Ashman, somewhat manic, and Theodore Bikel with his guitar - and the prettier faces of Penny, Noa, Betty, Jacky, Peter the Girl, Nina Shelley. I looked out of the window. Across the road where once had stood the elegant facades of fire-blitzed houses reigned instead W. H. Smith and MacDonalds.
Soon Joan and I were talking about the most remarkable ghost of The Cosmo, Elias Canetti. Canetti, some twenty years older than us, used to insist we called him Canetti, not Elias, since he did not care for his first name. [. . .] Canetti would sit in The Cosmo regularly, often with pen in hand. When questioned on what he was writing he made it clear that it was a masterpiece. He had been working, he told us, on a book about Crowds and Power for more than a decade. When asked when he would publish it he quite seriously commented that there was plenty of time, that he did not wish to make the mistake Freud had done - contradict himself. ‘I have to be sure,’ he would say passionately. If ever a man believed he would one day receive the Nobel Prize for Literature that man was Elias Canetti. And he was right.’
After Joan’s death, Abse’s output was, understandably, focused on his grief. Apart from poems, he also published a diary - The Presence (Hutchinson, 2007) - he had kept in the year after the tragedy, and this turned out to be more of bona-fide kind of diary, kept day-by-day, than anything he had published hitherto. The blurb describes it as ‘both a record of present grief and a portrait of a marriage that lasted more than fifty years’. ‘It is an extraordinary document,’ the publisher says, ‘painful but celebratory, funny yet often tragic, bursting with joy as well as sorrow and full of a deep understanding of what it means to be human.’ Here are a few lines from the first extract.
22 September 2005
‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness. It rears up provoked by something overheard or a scene, a place, an object, a tune, a scent even. It is inescapable. But I think how I must count my blessings, though it would have been better if Joan not I had been the one who had crawled out of that capsized car. She would have been much more self-sufficient. Count your blessings, son, my mother used to say. A cliché. At times of stress, clichés, family sayings, proverbs, are drawn to the mind like a magnet. I do count my blessings: at night, though I don’t sleep well, I am unable to lie on my right side now that the stress-fractures of the right thoracic cage have healed; the scar on my chin and neck are hardly visible; my left thumb, though oddly angled, is less troublesome and it is no bad thing that I’ve lost a stone in weight. Presumably the latter is due as much to my increased metabolic rate as it is to the lack of Joan’s tempting and nutritious cooking. At least I hope I haven’t developed an over-active thyroid. I take my pulse and note it is raised though not alarmingly so. Do I write all this down as an aide-mémoire for my future self?’
Finally, I turn to my own diaries, and find but one significant mention of Abse - yet another synchronous connection.
30 May 1977
‘Who is Dannie Abse? Yesterday evening my mother showed me a book of his poems, an old friend of Frederic, I was told, before I was born. A poem ‘Epithalium’ [this should be ‘Epithalamium’ - a poem for the bride on her way to the marital chamber] was pointed out - ‘Today I married my white lady in a barley field’. This evening I walk in to Pentameters because I have nothing else to do. The man himself is reading tonight. I am anxious to meet him.’