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Jerry Dowlen on... Daniel Abse


 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

‘White Coat and Purple Coat’: remembering the writer and poet Dannie Abse (1923 – 2014)

 

I sometimes imagine that all the British poets live together in one grand house. I envision a high Palladian front: inside, a villa where the poets wander, draped in togas and garlanded with laurels.

 

If I am right, a vacancy has now arisen for the post of Father of the House; for alas, on 28 September the venerable Dannie Abse has passed away at the age of 91.

 

Described by his publishers Hutchinson as “the wonderful Dannie Abse” the Cardiff-born poet lived much of his later life in North London. He was a senior and popular local resident there. Two of his neighbours, the poetry-loving mother and daughter Miriam and Ruth Halhamy, wrote in 2009 of their “following Dannie Abse around Golders Green like groupies.” To the local community publishing house Hearing Eye he gave his poem ‘Dog on the Beach’ for a 2003 anthology; for a later one in 2009 he dispensed some witty doodles. One of my favourites is this one: “In old age we become ourselves but more so.”

 

In this personal tribute to Dannie Abse may I highlight some episodes from his life that especially touch or amuse me.

 

‘A Poet in the Family’ (Hutchinson, 1974)

 

Dannie Abse’s autobiography revealed that his mother was originally the poet in the family, for she would recite Longfellow from memory. Later, of course, Dannie would excel as a poet. He was awarded the CBE in 2012. His older brothers Wilfred and Leo achieved eminence as doctor and MP respectively. Dannie also entered the medical profession.

 

The catalyst for Dannie to start enjoying poetry was the Spanish Civil War, and a volume of heroic poems that he stumbled upon. He had not enjoyed poetry lessons at school, although one incident in the class room had stuck in his mind: the day when a pupil who could not pronounce his Rs was asked by a new teacher to recite Chesterton’s ‘Before the Romans Came to Rye’. This was the resultant catastrophe:

 

Before the Womans came to Wye or out to Severn stwode,

The wolling English dwunkard wode the wolling English woad …

 

Getting Started … Poetry & Jazz

 

After receiving the encouraging news in 1946 that Hutchinson had agreed to publish his first-ever book of poems, Dannie had to fidget and fret for more than a year before even the first proofs were forthcoming. His publishers blamed paper shortage for the delay. “They told me I just had to be patient. It was a time of Ernie Bevin, Denis Compton, Billy Cotton, Stanley Matthews, clothing coupons, food rationing, and shortage of paper.”

 

When the book ‘After Every Green Thing’ was at long last published and Dannie saw it in the window of the Swiss Cottage bookshop: “I felt like a virgin deflowered. I moved swiftly away from the window in case anybody saw me looking at my own book. I was pleased, of course, only I wished that the proprietor had not added the printed card beneath my book that said Local Author. I wanted to be an International Author.”

In those post-war years the London district of Swiss Cottage was evidently a magnet for Jewish emigrants from Europe to live in rented accommodation and to establish a community of artists, musicians, poets and writers. In their midst of jazz-addicted beatniks the young Dannie Abse was quite a curiosity to them, being a “Velsh Jew’.

 

Fellow actors, writers and poets with whom Dannie fraternised in the 1950s and 1960s included the likes of Eleanor Bron, Laurie Lee, Alfred Marks, Spike Milligan, Vernon Scannell and Stevie Smith. He

recalled a typical poetry-reading event at Hampstead Town Hall in 1961: “I was late getting up to the stage, and the concert had already started. Spike Milligan was saying to the audience: ‘I thought I would begin by reading you some sonnets of Shakespeare – but then I thought, why should I? - he never reads any of mine.’”

 

‘White Coat and Purple Coat’

 

Dannie Abse spent most of his medical career as a radiologist in the chest clinic. After settling in Golders Green with his wife and an eventual family of three children, his daily commute took him on the Northern Line to a big hospital near Goodge Street. His autobiographies and poems include a good few medical anecdotes – some of them rather gruesome! His short poem ‘White Coat, Purple Coat’ addresses the difficulty of combining the two vocations of doctor and writer. The title originates from a notion of “white being the clinical colour while purple, metaphorically, refers to the mysterious, the poetical and the magical”:

 

White coat and purple coat

   a sleeve from both he sews.

That white is always stained by blood,

   that purple by the rose.

 

And phantom rose and blood most real

   compose a hybrid style;

White coat and purple coat

   few men can reconcile.

 

White coat and purple coat

   can each be worn in turn

But in the white a man will freeze

   and in the purple burn.

 

The critic Peter Porter praised “the persistent note of humanism throughout the poetry of Dannie Abse … which is never wishful thinking or mere scepticism.”

 

The Times critic Robert Nye declared that “Dannie Abse is a story-teller in verse, a poet who keeps his ears and eyes open and offers item after item which ring unmistakably true.”

 

Dannie Abse wrote (in 2009): “Poets need to live on the borders of the Ordinary and look both ways.”

 

‘The Presence’ (Hutchinson, 2007)

 

I like some of Dannie Abse’s poems but his autobiographies are his tour de force I reckon. His book ‘The Presence’ (Hutchinson, 2008) makes extraordinary, touching impact with its luminous, cathartic content. For anyone suffering in bereavement this is a book that must make compelling though not necessarily comforting reading. It is prose but it contains many poems.

 

‘The Presence’ is, I contend, his masterpiece – although not in circumstances (the death of his wife Joan, in a car-crash) that he would have asked for. ‘The Presence’ might be called an autobiography, but the author himself is nearer the mark when he describes it as ‘a journal / memoir / anthology’. Choosing each day to jot down his activities and inner thoughts in the lonely aftermath of losing his wife Joan in 2005, he frequently recalls incidents from his past.

 

Self-evidently this moving and absorbing journalwas a cathartic exercise to help the author to cope with his grief. A surviving spouse is commonly overwhelmed by loneliness and a sense that there is no purpose in continuing to be alive. For example: “the malice of ordinary things such as that unused toothbrush in the bathroom.”

 

I went to her funeral.

I cried.

I went home that was not home …

 

Towards the end of the book, Dannie Abse pondered the likely effect of it when read by someone who is neither family nor friend, but simply a stranger. He concluded: “Should the reader be a new or old widow or widower, one left abruptly not so much in darkness but in a different place and alone as never before, then perhaps my book, like a radio playing a distant room, may provide at least some frail consoling company. I would like to think so.”

 

Father of the House

 

So now our own Dannie Abse in turn has passed away. Who is to become British poetry’s Father of the House now? My own nomination is Roger McGough. I see many Dannie Abse qualities in the genial, avuncular McGough: a rebel too, when a young man, but nowadays a modest, unassuming and respected dispenser of wise and witty verse. I think in particular of his famous line: “I am your father, and I am sorry but this is the way things are.” (Viking, 1999).

 

Most of all though, my nomination of Roger McGough is motivated by the following comment that I saw in the Daily Telegraph’s obituary of Dannie Abse: “Dannie Abse was a poet, novelist, playwright and doctor whose blend of myth, clinical clarity and political conviction did much to revitalise poetry after the Second World War.”

 

Fast-forward to 1967 –the colourful ‘Summer of Love’ – and it is my firm opinion that the lively new Liverpool Poets (Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten) likewise gave British poetry an enduring shot in the arm. They opened up poetry to a much wider and younger generation of people.  And now as Roger McGough (age 76) nears what Dannie Abse called “this exile called old age” may the baton of British poetry’s Father of the House be rightly passed to him.

 

Jerry Dowlen

October 2014

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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