Dannie Abse and the Ben Uri Literary Circle

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 9th October 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

“I start with the visible and am startled by the visible”

With the sad news of the death of the eminent doctor, poet and playwright Dannie Abse, we look at both his relationship with Ben Uri and Ben Uri’s role encouraging poets and authors in a literary circle which ran from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ben Uri Portman Street
Ben Uri Gallery 14 Portman Street.

In the last blog we looked at how, in 1943, in the midst of war, Ben Uri moved to a new home in Portman Street. Having a permanent venue enabled Ben Uri not only to hold regular art exhibitions but to widen their activities to include music, drama, art classes and literature. The ‘Literary Circle’ discussed books and invited authors, poets and critics to their meetings, many of which were organised by the poet Jon Silkin. It was via this group that Dannie Abse made his first connections with Ben Uri.

Dannie Abse was born in 1923 in Cardiff, the son of a solicitor, whose own parents had emigrated from Europe and changed their name from Absenowitz. His mother was”very warm and very volatile” and from a Swansea Valley Jewish family who spoke Welsh as well as Hebrew. His father was from a Bridgend Jewish family, who owned cinemas in south Wales. Abse’s father had tried to branch out on his own, “but it failed and he had to go back into the family business. He was a wonderful failure all his life and I loved him. He always backed the wrong horse, and lived vicariously through his sons.” It was a high achieving family one of Dannie’s brothers, Wilfred, became a psychiatrist, the other, Leo, became a campaigning MP.

Dannie’s primary school teacher in Cardiff was George Thomas who went on to become Speaker of the House of Commons, his next school was a Catholic one. Influenced by his brother Leo, who had been out to the Spanish Civil war Dannie was the only non Franco supporter in the school. However it was Wilfred, who was equally influential and who encouraged Dannie to go to medical school, putting his name down at Westminster Hospital when Dannie was still a teenager and recalling stories about his own medical school life. These convinced Dannie that being a medical student would be fun. He was already writing poetry but after his political radicalisation they were not, as he put it, about “daffodils, Lesser Celandines, [and] skylarks”.

Dannie Abse (unknown copyright holder)
Dannie Abse

Dannie moved to London to study medicine, lodging in Belsize Park where he entered the milieu of German and Austrian refugees who lived in the area. He also thrived in the liberal atmosphere of London, a contemporary recalled that he took to cafe society like a duck to water.

Ben Uri events programme 1947
Event Programme 1947. Ben Uri Archives.

In 1947, whilst still at medical school, Abse showcased some of his poems at a Ben Uri event, together with some other young poets. It was still a year before his first published book After Every Green Thing, and three years before he finally qualified as a doctor. Abse was to go on to be a very prolific poet with 14 published volumes as well as keeping up his medical career as a heart specialist.

Even when an established poet Abse continued to attend the Ben Uri literary circle such as during this event in 1959.

Ben Uri Events Programme 1959
Event Programme 1959. Ben Uri Archives.

Dannie Abse did not just write poetry he also wrote plays. A play entitled The Joker written for the radio in 1962 was reworked for the stage in 1975 with a new title The Courting of Essie Glass and was produced at the Ben Uri that year. The lead was the radical actress, Miriam Karlin whom Abse had had in mind when writing the play. He attended the performance and spoke afterwards to the audience.

BU Events Drama Courting Essie Glass
The Courting of Essie Glass programme 1975. Ben Uri Archives.

This was not the only time that Karlin and Abse appeared together at the Ben Uri in 1985 they both took part in an event together with Harold Rosenthal, an opera critic, Kenneth Snowman, antique dealer; each looking back on their careers, entitled ‘How I started …’.

Ben Uri events Abse How I Started

They were all near contemporaries but Abse outlived them all, dying on the 28th September 2014, his final few years were much affected by the death of his wife in a car crash in 2005. In an interview on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme in 2013 to commemorate the publication of his latest book, he lamented the time he felt he wasted in the cafe’s of North London in his youth but the truth was that there are few writers who achieved so much in their long careers.