Wynn Wheldon's memories of Dannie Abse, the great Welsh poet who died recently
by Wynn Wheldon
I met Dannie Abse when I was very young. He and his wife Joan were always guests at my parents’ Christmas Party. Dad and Dannie had met at a reception given for an American war correspondent. Dannie was just about to leave when my father, who was a stranger to Dannie, called over, “You Welsh Jew! Let me take you out to lunch”. They went to a posh restaurant, where Dad ordered an avocado for Dannie, as he had never had one before. Dannie told me this story on three separate occasions, always with a chuckle. And Joan, it turned out, had been at LSE at around the same time as my mother. So there were Connections.
Invariably, they would bring a book to the party, one of Joan’s anthologies or Dannie’s latest novel, collection or memoir. He was spry and amused and intelligent and small and handsome; his characteristic demeanour was a kind of wry cheerfulness. He was, after all, a lifelong socialist.
He was also curious. He had the doctor’s curiosity (he was a chest surgeon) and the poet’s curiosity, and these two curiosities complemented each other in his poetry. The provable world hosted the improvable. There was no subject beyond the range of his poetry.
I kept in touch with Dannie, sending him my own stuff from time to time. He was always generous both with praise and criticism. I saw him read occasionally. He came to dinner and we talked about restaurants in the Finchley Road.
The last time I saw him read was at the T.S. Eliot awards do at the Festival Hall (his book, Speak, Old Parrot, was shortlisted and should perhaps have won. He was thrilled to be on the list). The reception was generous and warm. It was impossible not to be fond of Dannie. One of the poems he read was ‘Cats’, which I’m prepared to predict will become a popular favourite. It isn’t his greatest poem, but it does what poetry does so well – turns the mundane into the universal, while at the same time being a portrait of the artist himself: who is – who was - a modest, funny, generous man, and a poet to remember. Look it up.