Joan Abse

Art historian wife of Dannie Abse
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the most notable literary marriages of recent times was brought to an untimely end this week when Joan Abse died in a car accident on the M4 in South Wales. Joan and her husband, the poet and novelist Dannie Abse, were returning from a poetry reading they had given in Porthcawl on the Glamorgan coast to their Welsh house in Ogmore when the accident occurred. Dannie Abse, though injured, survived.

Joan Mercer, art historian and anthologist: born St Helens, Lancashire 11 September 1926; married 1951 Dr Dannie Abse (one son, two daughters); died near Bridgend, Glamorgan 13 June 2005.

One of the most notable literary marriages of recent times was brought to an untimely end this week when Joan Abse died in a car accident on the M4 in South Wales. Joan and her husband, the poet and novelist Dannie Abse, were returning from a poetry reading they had given in Porthcawl on the Glamorgan coast to their Welsh house in Ogmore when the accident occurred. Dannie Abse, though injured, survived.

Joan and Dannie met in the heady days of post-war London, specifically the artistic, left-wing, idealistic coffee bar world of Swiss Cottage. "I spoke of Walter Hammond and Ted Drake. She spoke of Harold Laski and Gandhi. She had brown eyes. I had grey eyes . . . We were the perfect couple." They would settle in Golders Green, and live in that house and at Ogmore-by-Sea for the rest of their married life. Dannie Abse was a newly qualified doctor returning from National Service, full of Dylanic poetry and the angry, youthful wisdom grafted on to a young man's mind by his older brothers Leo and Wilfred; she a graduate of the LSE/Courtauld Institute which had decamped to Cambridge to escape the Blitz. They married in 1951, a union celebrated by one of the great love poems, "Epithalamion":

Singing, today I married my white girl

beautiful in a barley field . . .

. . . today I took to my human bed

flower and bird and wind and world,

and all the living and all the dead.

Over the following 54 years the Abses' was a marriage which held two remarkable, individual talents, two people in harmony. While Dannie practised medicine in a TB chest-clinic in Soho and wrote plays and poems, Joan raised three children, typed every manuscript her husband wrote and produced an exemplary biography of John Ruskin. John Ruskin: the passionate moralist was published in 1980 to critical acclaim and was the featured review in The New York Times Book Review.

She wrote The Art Galleries of Britain and Ireland: a guide to their collections (1975; revised edition 1985) and edited the anthology of former student memories My LSE (1977). With Dannie Abse, she edited The Music Lover's Literary Companion (1988) and, for the Tate Gallery, an anthology of poems inspired by art, Voices in the Gallery (1986), in which they wrote, "we hope all the correspondences here will allow the reader double enlightenment, double pleasure": like all their collaborations in life and letters, it did.

Her last book, the anthology Letters from Wales (2000), was compiled with "my husband's . . . affectionate encouragement and advice"; it is a rich collection of fine writing from and about her adopted country - the authors ranging from the clerics of St David's Cathedral in the 12th century to Graham Sutherland and Alan Sillitoe in the 20th.

Last Saturday my wife and I had a meal with Joan and Dannie at the Mughal Emperor, their favourite curry place, stuck incongruously behind a former filling station on the rural A48 in the Vale of Glamorgan. They were in fine form - stories of Elias Canetti, literary prizes won and lost, John Ormond and Italy, the Poetry Society, next season at Cardiff City FC and the Augustus and Gwen John exhibition which Joan had visited in London and Cardiff -

Full up with lamb pasanda, chicken jalfrezi

and puffed, sweet nan . . .

. . . warm in friendship and food

and the pleasure of living this night.

In Goodbye, Twentieth Century (2001) Dannie Abse described meeting his future wife:

Her name was Joan Mercer. She did not seem especially enthusiastic about Cardiff City FC. She played tennis with an awkwardness more boring than endearing. Only with coaching could she distinguish a pawn from a bishop. Nor was she immediately devoted to me. Otherwise, no doubt, I would have known at once that here she was, abracadabra, the mother of my future children, the washer of my socks, corrector of my punctuation, comforter and perpetual lover, sweet ally and partner.

His second autobiographical fiction, There was a Young Man from Cardiff (1991), has the simplest, most profound dedication - "Joan's".

Tony Curtis

Comments