REMEMBERING JOAN ABSE


Jeremy Robson

Joan would have been amazed to see so many people here tonight, and if she had read the many extraordinary letters that poured in to Dannie and the family she would have wondered who they were talking about....such was her true modesty. We all know that, and we all loved her for it.

But Joan was, of course, a very special woman whose values, quiet strength, natural dignity, erudition and gentleness --and,above all, her deep moral sense and instinctive understanding of what was right-- was something we all recognized and treasured. So her modesty was all the more remarkable--especially since, as well as all this, there were her natural good looks, her sense of fun, and, of course, her warm hospitality--for, as many of us will know, Joan was such a wonderful and welcoming hostess, always listening eagerly, interested in what others had to say, concerned at their concerns--while somehow, at the same time, rustling up a wonderful meal. And she always seemed to have people to stay! When, one wonders, did Joan ever get her own work done!

Carole and I have had the privilege of knowing Joan and Dannie over a long period and in so many different circumstances and settings. And so we both have a kaleidoscope of wonderful memories, and what I say I say for us both.

I was in my early twenties when I first went to the Abse home--the early years of poetry and jazz and all those exciting readings-- and Joan and Dannie remained the dearest and most valued of friends. And just as Joan was always Dannie's touchstone, so for us it always seemed important to know what Joan thought.

Joan liked to laugh--not only at Dannie's jokes and stories, though she did that in abundance even if, just occasionally, she had heard them before--but also at herself. I remember her recounting with relish one particularly red-faced episode when a play of Dannie's was given a workshop performance at the Old Vic. Afterwards, there was a drinks party and Dannie was chatting away to a man when Joan came up. 'This is my wife Joan', said Dannie, attempting to draw her in as he went on talking, while Joan, after a few minutes, drifted away to talk to someone else.

Afterwards Joan asked Dannie, censorially, why he was paying so much attention, being so deferential to that man. Well, said Dannie, he is the Director of the Theatre, he is a great actor, he is Laurence Olivier....

Oh my God, said Joan, who simply hadn't recognized him....and Dannie, of course, hadn't felt the need to say, This is Sir Laurence Olivier!

In Dannie's doctoring days, when he was working as a specialist in the RAF chest clinic near Mortimer Street, the doorman could never get his name right--to him, Dannie was always Doctor Asbe. Time and again, over the years, Joan tried to correct him, but to no avail. 'I've come to see Dr Abse' , was always met with the rejoinder, I'll tell Dr Asbe you're here. She knew when she was beaten, and so one day, in a hurry, when she went to collect Dannie she asked the doorman if he would please tell Dr Asbe she was there ....Asbe? Asbe? There's no Asbe here,' was the sharp response....you mean Abse!

I can hear Joan laughing now as she told the story.

Joan liked to laugh and she liked to sing. ...She loved music. I recall her coming to Glynbourne with us on one occasion (hardly the natural setting for Joan, though we did all change beforehand in the room of a student friend at Sussex University, which was more like it) and also, bravely, she came with us to some modern music concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Of course, with Dannie she edited and compiled The Music Lovers Literary Companion, which we published at Robson Books and which was highly and justly praised. In fact we published three books with Joan, including a new edition of her The Art Galleries of Great Britain.

Working with her on that, it was possible to see at first hand just how erudite and meticulous she was, but also her passionate involvement with the subject which was so dear to her heart --art and art history.

Then there was her book My LSE, for which she invited 12 distinguished graduates from different eras and disciplines to write about their LSE--
a lively and entertaining book with several revealing contributions, including her own.....but more about that later.

Again, the breath of her taste was shown in the contributors she chose, who ranged from distinguished academics and writers to such versatile mavericks as the actor Ron Moody who recalled his friendship and amorous rivalries there with a young, revolutionary Bernard Levin.

We all know what an exceptional, caring wife, mother and grandmother Joan was, but she was also a devoted daughter. After her mother died, her father was a frequent lodger at Hodford Road, but although Joan looked after him devotedly, and had great influence over her aged father, there was one thing even she could never control....Dannie would come in, looking forward to watching a recording of a football match, or Match of the Day, especially if it involved Cardiff City, and Joan would say, 'Now Dad, don't forget, on no account tell Dannie the result' ' Of course not' , he'd say.....' 2-1' .

Cardiff City.... Joan seemed happy, in all the years we've known the Abses, to arrange her social life and trips to Wales around the Cardiff City fixture list. So Carole was amazed to discover--in fact, only on the last occasion we met, when we all went out to dinner-- that Joan didn't really care for football that much, and very rarely went to a match. It was a revelation! Somehow, I suppose, she'd envisaged Joan on the terraces, cheering away. Far from it....

But because Dannie DID want to be on those terraces, Joan, spent a lifetime indulging his passion.... in this as in so much else. Only the other night, Dannie told us that he'd always said that he wanted a wife who played chess and supported Cardiff City. Well that was perhaps asking too much, even from Joan!

A couple of summer's ago, Joan and Dannie came to join us in Normandy, where we were holidaying. When we picked them up at Caen airport, since we were close I asked Joan whether she would like to visit the Landing Beaches. The look of horror, almost panic in her eyes, said it all, reminding us all too sharply just how deep were her feelings about war, just how abhorrent it was to her, how much she cared.

She sat around the pool with Dannie, enjoying the sun, the swimming, drinking wine, reading poems aloud to Dannie, and he to her. It was a lovely, touching scene. Bloomsbury had come to France. And France, and Carole and I, were the richer for it.

 
content © named authors | website © david abse | contact david@toosh.biz | www.toosh.biz