Author’s notes: Dannie Abse


Goodbye, Twentieth Century incorporates Dannie Abse’s first volume of autobiography and brings his life up to the present day. It includes a moving epilogue which brought tragedy and dramatic change to his life. But what will his son David think of it?
Some time before 1974 I happened to be walking to the Ogmore-by-Sea Post Office when the bus on its way to Llantwit Major passed by.
I observed that it had no passengers on board. I thought how purposeless the driver must feel himself to be if the passenger seats continued to be unoccupied throughout his journeying – rather like an author who has no readers.
There have been poets of posthumous fame such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edward Thomas whose work was not published during their lifetime.
There are men and women who spend decades working on a novel without ever finding a publisher. Their ‘bus’ is empty.
I have been lucky to have readers. One of them, at that same Ogmore Post Office, shyly murmured to me, “I enjoyed your autobiography Mr Abse.”
It is always gratifying to receive a sincere compliment.
The trouble was, at that time, I had not written an autobiography!
He had read my first novel, Ash On A Young Man’s Sleeve, and because of its South Wales setting and characters he had, mistakenly, not realised it was a fiction.
Indeed, when that novel appeared as a King Penguin in 1982 readers could be further confused. For, on its back cover, it advertised itself as AUTOBIOGRAPHY and a Penguin editor spoke of “the author’s reminiscence of his Cardiff family”.
I thought that one day I would put the record straight. I had lived long enough to write truthfully about my family and about my life as a physician and as an author. For instance, I could write about an incident that had recently occurred that involved my young son, David.
A one-act play of mine was being staged in South London and I asked my six-year-old son if he would care to come with me.
Driving back, I asked him what he thought of my play.
“Only one thing wrong with it, Dad.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s boring,” he said.
Yes, I could write more about his response and what happened next.
I could also write about my first patient who happened to be completely insane; I could also tell the reader about my farcical meetings with Dylan Thomas and my famous encounter with T. S. Eliot at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
There was much to write about.
In 1973 I had the time to do so, and a year later the first part of Goodbye, Twentieth Century appeared under the title, A Poet In The Family.
When the provisional paperback cover of it was shown to me, I shuddered.
There was a photograph of myself. It was flattering enough so I could not object to that; but beneath the photograph a quote from The Guardian had been printed.
This time, a blundering editor had reduced “a magnificently conceived work on the author’s life” to MAGNIFICENTLY CONCEIVED. I cannot imagine what my father would have thought of that.
Some 25 years later a different, most competent editor, Tony Whiltame, of Hutchinson, suggested that I should enlarge my autobiography to take in the busy engaging decades I had lived through hence the appearance of A Poet In The Family.
I was tempted. Most of us enjoy talking about ourselves but we know it is improper and can be boring for others to do so; but here was an opportunity to do so and to be paid to do so.
After all I had much to relate that would not be boring – narratives that were both humorous and poignant. I had interesting confrontations with some hugely talented individuals, among them John Betjeman, Robert Graves, Elias Canetti, Spike Milligan, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and not least my brother, Leo, the MP.
Then there was my trip behind the Iron Curtain to write about, my encounter with Margaret Thatcher. And was I not a witness to the blood on the carpet at the Poetry Society, not to mention the drama of watching Cardiff City play at Ninian Park?
In brief, I was not short of subject matter. The second part of Goodbye, Twentieth Century was first published in 2001.
I thought I would not write further autobiographical prose.
After all, I was 77 years old, and life as one ages becomes more timid, more constricted. I had not thought then how dramatic for me would be the first 10 years of the 21st century.
True, there were few bold trips abroad but one can be a tourist even in one’s own house!
So when Dai Smith invited me to update Goodbye, Twentieth Century for the Library Of Wales volumes he edits, I hesitated.
I would have to write about so many deaths of valued friends and invaluable loved ones.
Most difficult for me was to return to one moonless night, after giving a poetry reading at Porthcawl Pavilion in 2005.
On that night, on the M4, a car thundered into the rear of my Nissan, overturning it, and killing my wife, Joan.
It would not be easy to revisit that scene in detail again.
But to be represented in the Library Of Wales list is an honour.
One I could not finally resist.
Besides, they are beautifully produced books.
And now that Goodbye, Twentieth Century has been republished, I can give it to my grown-up son, David, and hope he will not say, “There’s only one thing wrong with it, Dad.”
Goodbye, Twentieth Century (Library Of Wales) is published by Parthian, £9.99







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