"A magnificently conceived work." —Guardian
Goodbye, Twentieth Centuryby Dannie Abse
Drawing upon his Welsh and Jewish heritage, Dannie Abse presents a rich autobiography that chronicles his life as both a doctor and an author. Humorous and poignant, this new edition not only includes the acclaimed first volume A Poet in the Family, but also discusses the changes in the political and literary landscape over the last/i>
Drawing upon his Welsh and Jewish heritage, Dannie Abse presents a rich autobiography that chronicles his life as both a doctor and an author. Humorous and poignant, this new edition not only includes the acclaimed first volume A Poet in the Family, but also discusses the changes in the political and literary landscape over the last century. With a chapter featuring brand new material by the author, this must-read autobiography will entertain those interested in history, politics, and literature.
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Goodbye Twentieth Century
By Dannie Abse
ParthianCopyright © 2001 Dannie Abse
All rights reserved.
A POET IN THE FAMILY
There were few poetry books in the house. Palgrave's Golden Treasury, the Oxford Book of English Verse, and two slim Faber volumes in Leo's bookcase. These books had nothing to do with me. I was too young. Like the row of Charles Dickens and the set of Joseph Conrad, stoutly bound in navy blue with great gold lettering, they were there to be read later when I was an old teenager. My father, in his palmy days, had bought these sets along with some grey-bound, luxurious encyclopaedias from a glib travelling salesman, years before I was born.
I was a shy ten-year-old. I was interested in the fortunes of Cardiff City Football Club, and the Glamorgan cricket eleven. Poetry was something to do with short-long-short, or long-short-long. But Leo, seven years older than I, used to read out loud Browning's 'The Lost Leader' or 'Porphyria's Lover'. Wilfred, then nineteen, occasionally recited,
'Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair.'
And the eldest of us, my sister Huldah, all skin-cream and perfume, could be heard upstairs healthily singing in the echoing bathroom: 'Some day he'll come along, the man I love.'
'Tears, idle tears', or 'Some day he'll come along', were all the same to me. They were manifestations of what grown-ups called 'soul'. I never heard my father recite a line from a poem. When he was gay he told jokes; when moodily sad he would take down his violin and, with eyes closed like a lover, play Kreisler's Humoresque until he became, for all the grey and green world of Wales, a model for Chagall. My mother exuded 'soul' any time — any time at all. She knew off by heart long stanzas and even longer stanzas of 'Hiawatha'. At the drop of an eyelid she'd be off moaning, 'O the famine and the fever! O the wasting of the famine! O the blasting of the fever! O the wailing of the children! O the anguish of the women!' And so on, until one of my older brothers would cry: 'Put a sock in it, moth.'
Certainly I had no ambition to become a writer. I was not even particularly pleased when I won a school prize for the set essay on 'The Evils of Drink'. I didn't want to become anything. I wanted to keep on sucking mintoes for ever. 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' was a question one had to endure from adults, like having cheeks pinched or being told to 'Wee wee, wash, and comb your hair.' My eldest brother, Wilfred, decided that I should be a doctor. He was going to be one. Moreover, I had two uncles who were doctors, and five cousins who were destined to wear the honourable white coat. In my family it seemed there were only two choices — either you became a doctor or went on the dole to play a marvellous game of snooker. I was neutral about the matter.
One afternoon, though, a few years later, I saw Edward G. Robinson in a film about the German bacteriologist, Paul Ehrlich, called The Magic Bullet. I came out of the Olympia Cinema at half past five with my eyes shining. Before I had crossed St Mary's Street, a metaphorical stethoscope in my pocket, I had saved an old lady from asphyxiating, administered first aid to a policeman shot by Tiger Bay gangsters, and operated on Adolf Hitler without success. Back home, still uplifted by Hollywood heroics, I expressed some vague interest in medicine, and before I could change my illusions Wilfred responsibly put my name down to go to Westminster Hospital, London. 'It's the best hospital in the country,' Wilfred said. He paused. 'It's the best hospital in Europe,' he said. I nodded uncertainly. 'I wouldn't mind being a vet,' I said. 'It's the best hospital in the world,' he said.
I was then attending St Illtyd's College, a high school in Splott, Cardiff. Poetry was still something rather dreary like the school song: 'Green and gold, green and gold, Strong be your heart and bold, To remain unsullied our great name, Adding to ancient glory, modern fame ...'
But I was fortunate during those early Cardiff years for, at home, I was exposed to the adult dialogue of the thirties — to the dialogue between Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, as it was interpreted and argued by my two elder brothers, by Wilfred who would become a psychiatrist and by Leo the future MP for Pontypool. Leo, already, was quite a persuasive orator, and used to stand on a soapbox in Llandaff Fields. I heard him quote: 'It is given to man to live but once and he should live not to be seared by the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, but so live that dying he might say, "All my life and all my strength have been given to the finest cause in the world, the enlightenment and liberation of mankind."' I was moved perhaps for the first time by words, by the order of words — not by poetry, though, but by rhetoric.
Outside, in the streets of Cardiff there were yellow, bouncing tramcars, and occasionally a hearse would pass by pulled by six coal-black horses. The newspaper headlines were about Mussolini and Abyssinia, later about Hitler and 'Last Territorial Claims'. Always J. C. Clay was taking wickets for Glamorgan and Cardiff City lost at home. BLUEBIRDS FLATTER TO DECEIVE headlined the back page, and somewhere in the middle pages of the South Wales Echo, Beverley Baxter irrevocably wrote about 'The Red Sea of Bolshevism'. It was colour, colour all the way, and one of my non-doctor uncles had more than a drop to drink. 'Leo will be Prime Minister one day,' he said to my father. 'Wilfred's got an 'ead on 'im.' He looked at me then. 'Never mind, you've got a diabolical right foot. Diabolical.' And he shouted, 'Up the City.'
Stimulated by my brothers' conversations and arguments I began to write essays in a little blue exercise book. I wrote these essays in order to clarify my own attitudes. They were 'On Fascism', 'On Socialism', 'On Jazz', and so on. I showed them to Wilfred who seriously encouraged me to write more. Wilfred was infallibly kind. But there was still no poetry in the little, blue exercise book, just one line of Keats: 'No hungry generations tread thee down'. For that I thought was the greatest line ever written — not that I had read many lines. In this reference to a nightingale, and its inference about his brother's and his own pulmonary tuberculosis, the poet had captured my youthful social conscience. After all, I knew of the miners who coughed, the TB that was rife in the valleys, the processions of the unemployed. That line was the embodiment of the sad, bitter soul. 'No hungry generations tread thee down.' It contained my father playing Humoresque, my mother wailing Longfellow, quotations of Lenin, and even the lyric my sister sang in the bathroom: 'Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me, Lord how they weigh me down' — and the old pipes in the house knocked and shook because of an air bubble.
But it was my youthful engagement with the tragedy of Spain that oddly led me to 'modern poetry'. That war seemed to me, as it did to many others much older, to be a straightforward case of white v. black. The News Chronicle used to come into the house with its bitter accounts of the fighting in Spain and its attacks on the Government non-intervention policy. Besides, I lived in the same house as Leo and was moved by his declamatory and righteous protestations. Also, I went to a Catholic school where I was taught by Christian brothers. I was the only boy in the school who was against Franco. There is nothing like being in a minority of one, especially at fourteen years of age, to be wholly and fiercely committed to a cause — especially if that cause is a losing one. 'Do you know what the Reds would do if they came here?' said one of the brothers in his black grieving gown. 'Why, boy, they'd burn me down and the school wid me,' and when my fist clenched I think he mistakenly assumed I was giving a surreptitious communist salute. 'Green and gold, green and gold, Strong be your heart and bold.'
So I find it strange to read a poem by Donald Davie, a poet and critic of my own generation, who, remembering the thirties, writes:
The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid,
For me mean schools and schoolmasters and games;
And in the process someone is betrayed.
For me Guernica meant Cornford dead, Lorca dead, Caudwell dead, Fox dead, heroes dead, dead, dead. It meant a long fight in the back lane with the school's hooker because he saw Franco as a knight on a white horse, a protector of nuns. It meant particularly a book of poems that came out two years later.
Yes, it was 1940, when I was still a schoolboy, that I came across a book of verse in a yellow jacket, edited by Stephen Spender and John Lehmann, called Poems for Spain. Some of the work in that volume was of the public platform variety where what was said was more important than how it was said. The poems of Miguel Hernandez, particularly, seemed urgent. They were articulate and terrible cries for help. Hernandez was a young Spanish peasant poet who fought against Franco, who in his poems begged the democratic nations to intercede against Franco, who later was imprisoned by Franco and who, in 1942, died in one of Franco's dark jails.
I read Hernandez with rapt assent and growing anger. Here was a voice that could arouse a reader's indignation and, perhaps, move him to action. Here was a persuasive, pleading, prophetic and admonitory voice and one which, in some unspecified future, I hoped to emulate:
Singing I defend myself
and I defend my people when the barbarians of crime
imprint on my people their hooves
of powder and desolation.
The lament pouring through valleys and balconies
deluges the stones and works in the stones,
and there is no room for so much death
and there is no word for so many coffins
Blood, blood through the trees and the soil
blood in the waters and on the walls,
and a fear that Spain will collapse
from the weight of the blood which soaks through her meshes
right to the bread which is eaten ...
Hernandez wrote such poems during the worst of the Spanish civil war — when Spain was being turned into 'a vast cemetery, red and bombarded'. One of Leo's friends, Sid Hamm, had been killed out there fighting for the International Brigade. I knew Sid Hamm. He used to come to our house and he was old enough for me to call him Mr Hamm, and I was young enough to be teased by him and to be given a shilling — and now Sid Hamm was dead. I remember the memorial meeting for Sid Hamm at a dolorous little hall in Cardiff, misnamed Sunshine Hall. A platform, one hundred wooden chairs, some women in black, the chairman reciting with a Welsh fervour, 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,' and then sipping water as a few people coughed. A man near me, a grown man crying, crying for Sid Hamm and the Spanish Republic. A pamphlet, orange, white, and black, poorly printed, with Sid Hamm's face over a caption: THERE CAN BE NO VICTORY WITHOUT SACRIFICE.
Leo regularly brought home a magazine into the house called Left Review. It would contain a short story by Ralph Fox — in a later issue there would be Fox's obituary. It would contain an article by Christopher Caudwell — in a later issue there would be Caudwell's obituary. One week, a poem by John Cornford, and then, later, inevitably, in another edition of Left Review, Cornford's obituary. I had never seen photographs of Fox or Caudwell or Cornford. But I imagined them to look very much like Sid Hamm. Sid Hamm, killed at Brunete, and apparently very few people caring.
I found a most beautiful love poem in the yellow-jacketed Poems for Spain. It was called 'Huesca' and it was by John Cornford. Not yet twenty-one, Cornford had been killed at the battle of Huesca while fighting for the International Brigade. How poignant his melancholy premonition of his own death; how terrible those lines of his, the last lines he ever wrote:
Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you,
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.
The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.
On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.
And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don't forget my love.
'Huesca' was the first poem that I ever voluntarily memorised. I can recite it still, and it moves me still, its piquant directness, its sad music, its silence between the quatrains, the time and the place and the young man who wrote it, and the woman he wrote to, whom I can imagine reading that love poem addressed to her, reading it after he was dead, reading it in privacy, in a room, in a house, somewhere in England.
To be sure, my schoolboy political awareness of 1940 derived from Leo's altogether more informed and enduring engagement. Ever since I can remember, he had spoken persuasively about class injustice, about unemployment in the Welsh valleys, about the Fascists in Italy, the Nazis in Germany and so on. Even before I was ten years old Leo had told me, as I listened, big-eyed, the truth about imperialistic Cowboys and oppressed Red Indians. So while my friends were firing Tom Mix guns, bang bang bang you're dead, from bosky paths in the local park, Waterloo Gardens, I crouched behind the summer house ready to ambush them with my Ugh and my imaginary bows and arrows. When I was a small boy, Leo not only taught me an alphabet that began:
A stands for Armaments the Capitalists' pride
B stands for Bolshie the thorn in their side
but also took me along to hear orators like Arthur Horner, the miners' leader. True, I could not understand what Arthur Horner was saying exactly but I sat privileged in the front row and stared, fascinated, at his false teeth that were much too loose for him and which perpetually threatened to slip out of his mouth as he pointed one index finger up to heaven and the other towards Barry Island. It had all the excitement of watching a trapeze artist who threatened Death and Destruction to all Fascist Hyenas and Cowboys.
No wonder poems with a political colouration made such an impression on me in 1940. For at school the poems we were nudged to read were too often about nightingales, celandines, daffodils, larks, mermaids — hardly matters relevant to my young life. Since St Illtyd's College happened to be a Catholic school the only twentieth-century poems the Christian brothers directed us to were by those rather tiresome Catholic poets, Chesterton and Belloc. Worse, we had to learn many verses off by heart. There were, of course, moments of illumination, even pleasure. I recall the time when one member of our class, Tubby Davies, who could not pronounce his Rs was asked by a new teacher to turn to page 496 of Palgrave's Golden Treasury and read out loud Chesterton's 'Before the Romans came to Rye'. With delight we watched the new master's face change into a paranoid maniac's as innocently Tubby continued with:
Before the Womans came to Wye or out to Severn stwode
The wolling English dwunkard made the wolling English
A weeling woad, a wolling woad, that wambles wound the
And after him the parson wan, the sexton and the squire.
A mewwy woad, a mazy woad, and such as we did twead
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
Excerpted from Goodbye Twentieth Century by Dannie Abse. Copyright © 2001 Dannie Abse. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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Meet the Author
Dannie Abse is a poet, a playwright, and a novelist as well as the president of the Welsh Academi and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is the author of Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, New & Collected Poems, Running Late, The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas, and The View from Row G.
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