Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve
Author: Dannie Abse
Age Group: 12-80
Widely acclaimed for its warm humour, lyricism and honesty, as well as its accurate evocation of the
thirties, Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve has become a sung-after classic. In this delightful autobiographical
novel, Dannie Abse skilfully interweaves public and private themes, setting the fortunes of a Jewish family
in Wales against the troubled backcloth of the times- unemployment, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and
the Spanish Civil War.
June the first was our agreement, our day of peace. It came in that year with all sunshine and the
windows open and the neighbours' radio. It was tennis-players and the yellow seasick trams grinding
down Cathedral Road. It was the end of a school day where we left our carved initials, hurt and
momentous, in the wooden desk, and schoolteacher (old Knobble-knees) rubbing off chalk from the
blackboard like a nasty day from the calendar. 'Mind how you cross the road,' she said. 'Please, Miss
Morgan,' asked Philip, 'can I have my yo-yo back? I won't talk again during lessons.'
Keith had asked me to his house for tea, for it was our day of peace, an interlude in our constant
campaign of being mean to each other, of masterful vilification. We walked hardly together for we were
enemies. Suddenly Keith said, 'There'll be bananas and cream, so you can leave as soon as you've eaten
'em.' 'I like bananas and cream,' I said. Other people's houses have a strange smell. Keith Thomas' home
was no exception and I was sniffing. 'What's the matter?' Keith's mother asked. 'Is there something
burning?' I went very red when the others sniffed. They just stood there, Keith and his mother, heads
cocked, drawing air through their nostrils. 'I can't smell anything,' she said. I could. Perhaps it was the
odour of sin or the past remains of previous tenants. I ate bread and butter and jam and Welsh cakes,
and Keith sniffed and sniffed louder and louder, quite ostentatiously I can tell you. 'Blow your nose, Keith,'
said his mother. I tipped the tea over the tablecloth and grew redder...
This was all a long time ago: I was ten years high and I lived in South Wales. There everything was
different, more alive somehow. The landscape and the voices were dramatic and argumentative. Already I
knew the chapels and the pubs and the billiard halls and the singing.
'How old's your mother?'
'Mine's hundred and ninety.'
Near the White Wall, I was born in a smoky house, boasting. I knew the paper flowers, the Sunday suits,
the stuffed animals, the brass, the clocks, and the ferns. Always there was too much furniture in the
room. Always there was too much noise and familiarity. Always there were visitors. Lovely it was.
But Porthcawl was the place with the long wind and the terror of the sea coming over the promenade with
sloppy white paws. On Sundays, father would drive us down, plush and proud, scrubbed and avid,
dodging in and out amongst the procession of cars that the seaside attracted like a magnet. And I would
be in a race steering from the back seat. Over Tumble Down Dick and down Crack Hill. Past the Golden
Mile and the green and green. Stop for Bull's-eyes. Stop for weewee. Porthcawl was the place. Posh. The
Figure of Eight and the Ghost Train. The slowest Speedboats in the world and the thinnest Fat Lady.
Come and See Minny, She Creeps and She Crawls, She Walks on Her Belly Like a Reptile - Hey, Hey -
Tanner a Time. Not to mention Sandy Beach and the parents shouting at the deaf children: 'Don't swim
out too far.' 'Stop that!' 'Dai, you'll get sick eating sand.'
I used to take two pebbles and throw them at each other. They were boxers fighting or two armies locked
in a stony embrace. One was Wales, the other was England or France or Siam, or red-haired, freckle-
faced Keith Thomas. My mother was born at Ystalyfera one rainy Tuesday, my father on Guy Fawkes
night in Bridgend, so Wales always won, unless the inevitable cloud would interrupt the struggle with a
lamentation of rain.
Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff in 1923. He began his medical studies at the Welsh National School of
Medicine and qualified as a doctor from Westminster Hospital, London in 1950. While still a student his
first book of poems was published and his first play performed. Further poetry volumes followed over the
decades, culminating in his New & Collected Poems (2003)and Running Late(2006). His first novel, Ash
on a Young Man's Sleeve appeared in 1954 and his most recent, the Booker long-listed The Strange
Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas in 2002. His three prize-winning plays were collected in The View from
Row G (1990) and his autobiography, Goodbye, Twentieth Century, was published in 2001. He is
president of the Welsh Academi and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.