Dannie Abse was interviewed on BBC Wales news recently, marking his 90th birthday and the publication of what he is describing as his final anthology of new poetry (although he hasn’t ruled out editing future collections of work in the future). The warmth of character, quiet wisdom and still-sharp wit displayed throughout the interview (you can see details here : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-24046366 ) reminded me how much I have enjoyed reading (and re-reading) Abse’s first novel “Ash on a young man’s sleeve” over a period of almost thirty years now
The book was first recommended to me by Mr Rees, an inspirational A level English teacher at Llanedeyrn High School, who gave each of the five of us in the class what would now be described as a ‘bucket list’ of books to read to supplement the set texts for that year’s syllabus. To be honest, I initially plumped for “Ash” because it was a relatively slim volume, and because it was set in places that were very familiar to me (Abse was born and brought up in the Roath area of Cardiff, and the book describes his early life living in that leafy suburb, with additional insights into trips to far-off Ogmore, and the Rhondda Valley above Pontypridd). But if those were the reasons for starting the book, what drew me into it (and what has prompted me to go back to it at least once every two to three years since) is the beautiful lyricism of the prose, and Abse’s ability to evoke the drama and tension that often everyday activities assume when seen through the eyes of a somewhat precocious, pre-pubescent boy with a somewhat over-active imagination
Set in the 1930s, in the period immediately before the Second World War, the book is a brilliant social commentary on what it is to be young in a provincial city at that time. Abse describes the friends (and enemies) that grow up alongside him, emphasising what they have in common whilst at the same time wryly acknowledging the differentness that his Jewish heritage bestows on his family and the minority of other Jews in the area. There is an innocent naivety in the narrative that is all the more poignant when viewed through the lens of the events that were starting to unfold across mainland Europe at the same time
My initial intention when starting this piece was to include some ‘taster’ quotations and paraphrases of key incidents, but I realise that to do so would both reveal my own lack of skill in adequately capturing the richness and colour of Abse’s prose, and diminish the impact of the individual passages of text by removing them from the wider context of the book. All I can really do, therefore, is to encourage you (if you haven’t already done so) to get hold of a copy; and if you haven’t re-read it for a while, to do so again very soon!