REMEMBERING JOAN ABSE


Cary Archard

June 15th. The phone went. ‘There’s been an accident.’ Then my stunned silence.

Always, from the start, it had been: ‘Come for coffee.’ And I would drive down to Ogmore-by-Sea, the estuary opening out into all that sea-light that uplifted you whatever your mood. Park on the hill, and walk into Green Hollows through the old, five-barred gate set in the dense privet hedges, past the laurel bushes and buddleia bordering the path, under the overhanging aromatic tree (was it an exotic Korean or plain walnut?) and skirt the yew which almost completely blocked the view of the house. After pausing for a second, for there is no obvious front door, I would turn left, away from the annexe where Seren had been based in its early days, and walk up the steps between small ponds caught in the concrete sides, stop, and if it was summer, look at the ponds full of yellow and white water lilies under which dozens of goldfish darted about, disappearing when your shadow fell over them. (It seemed miraculous they could survive in there. But they had been there for years and seemed vitally connected with the life of the place.) From the patio, I’d look out across the steel grey Bristol Channel to Somerset and Devon, then call out to Joan who’d be deep in the garden.

When I think of Joan Abse that is how I see her, secateurs in hand, surrounded by colour in her garden with its wonderful mixture of flowers in the beds between the privet and cotoneaster hedges: the orange and blue geraniums, the aquilegia and irises, the yellow feverfew, pinky-red valerian growing out of the walls, the tall, delicate Japanese anemones, the golden rod and the luscious peonies, and the aromas of the mature bushes of lavender, mint, rosemary and lemon balm, and countless others. And it seems to me that there’s a clear thread of interest in the relationship between making and beauty (art and work) running throughout Joan’s life. Born Joan Mercer in September 1926, she grew up in St. Helens in Lancashire, studied politics at the L.S.E. and, some years later, the history of art at the Courtauld Institute. When she was still in grammar school she joined the Independent Labour Party, became secretary of her local district and an admirer of the politicians Fenner Brockway and James Maxton. A practical compassionate socialism (Old Labour rather than New Labour ) informed her thinking throughout her life and emerges clearly in her most important book, her biography of Ruskin. Nothing more strongly revealed her deep humanism than her opposition to war; she was a C.N.D. supporter, backed the Greenham Common Women protesters, took part in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and in 2003 joined the march against the war in Iraq. Yet, however passionately she held her cause, her kindliness and gentleness of manner never deserted her; to argue with her was to be listened to. At the end of the Forties, while working in the library of the Financial Times in post-war London, she met Dannie Abse who had just completed his first book of poetry and married him in 1951. In 1957, after the birth of Susanna (Keren had been born in 1953), the couple moved to a larger house in Golders Green where their third child, David, was born in 1958.

Joan and Dannie had a wonderfully close and loving relationship which many who knew them have spoken about. They also remained individuals. Joan had her own strong and firmly held views which she did not compromise. One of the pleasures of being with them was the discussions that ensued at times when they did disagree, for example, Joan had a much higher opinion of the value of fiction than Dannie (the novelist) had. Joan was always busy. She had three children and eventually two homes and gardens to look after. In 1972, Green Hollows was acquired. Ogmore-by-Sea was a place full of childhood memories for Dannie
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Would it be fair to say that Joan belonged to that generation of women who put their family first? I’m not sure how useful such a generalisation is. It could suggest that most of these women might have wanted their lives to be something else - something that certainly would not be true in Joan’s case. Nevertheless, when I look at her publications, I wish that she had given us more. Her biography of Ruskin is a remarkable achievement, scholarly (she seems to have read everything by that prolific writer) and readable, without ever losing control of the multivarious strands of Ruskin’s life. Her first book, ‘The Art Galleries if Britain and Ireland: A Guide to their Collections’ (1975) had fulfilled a real need at the time and was marked by the clarity and careful scholarship that came to characterise all her writing. In 1977, she edited ‘My L.S.E.’, a collection of essays by graduates and members of the university. Then her enthusiasm for art and politics came together in the book she had been working on during the Seventies, her magisterial ‘John Ruskin: A Passionate Moralist’ published in 1980 in Britain and the United States. There can be no doubt that in Ruskin, Joan found expressed many views which she herself shared. Ruskin was concerned about the ‘nature and function of art and the dignity and indignity of work …still deeply relevant today’. She revealed the Christian Socialist strand in Ruskin and his influence on the early ILP leaders such as Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and F.W. Jowett. She argued that Ruskin still has much to say that is relevant to modern debates about social justice and that Ruskin has important things to say to us about education, particularly about the value of the vocational and the value that needs to be given to work and education that does not have an intellectual base. How all the work that people do should allow them dignity. Her account is balanced, giving equal treatment to Ruskin’s writing about art, his own drawing and his work in education and his relationships with his family, women and other artists. Typically the book benefits from Joan’s empathy with the great Victorian. She treats his marriage with Effie Gray with understanding and tact, fully exploring Ruskin’s ‘complex sexual pathology’, and traces the effects of Ruskin’s mother on her son without ever giving way to crude psychoanalytical interpretations. She is particularly strong on Ruskin’s passionate defence of Turner and shows how essential his work was to preserving Turner’s art and to our understanding of it. She gives a wonderfully clear account of the development of Ruskin’s ideas through the five volumes of his ‘Modern Painters’. She draws attention to ‘blind spots’ in his thinking about women and slavery, avoiding the twin traps of exculpation and condemnation. Above all, Joan allows Ruskin to speak to us himself; her book is full of wonderful, apposite quotations which have the effect of making you want to read Ruskin’s books yourself.
This huge achievement was followed by two collections jointly edited with Dannie: in 1986, ‘Voices in the Gallery’ for the Tate Gallery, in which poets responded to paintings ( Ruskin was a published poet in his early days); in 1988, ‘The Music Lover’s Literary Companion’ followed. In 2000, she edited ‘Letters From Wales’, another work of considerable scholarship in which all the ‘letters must come from Wales’ and which she saw ‘as a kind of biography of Wales’. Her useful annotations make the book a delight to read and throughout it her feeling for the salient and the human shine out; ‘always in this book, I have tried to keep to the fore the feeling of the actual life being vividly lived in Wales, the essential history, the struggles, the suffering and indomitability of the people’.

Joan wrote of Ruskin’s ‘unified vision of life’. It could be said of her too. Whether working in the garden, working on her books, or making lunch for family and friends, she did it all with dignity and respect. The other day, the engineer who had looked after her boiler in Green Hollows for more than thirty years, speaking of her death in that sudden crash on the M4 near Porthcawl in June, talked about how good she had always been to him, how she had valued his work.. Joan believed the beauties of art, poetry and nature should enrich us all; her writings and her work illustrated this. Their effects remain. ‘Man is the sun of the world; more than the real sun. The fire of his wonderful heart is the only heat worth gauge or measure. Where he is are the tropics; where he is not, the ice-world.’ (Ruskin: Modern Painters Vol. 5 Part9).

 
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