Yesterday I met with Dannie Abse. It was business. But it was also a very great pleasure. Despite my dealings in the literary scene in Wales, Dannie and I have never before met.
Dannie has special significance for me. Way back in 1999, then a journeywoman poet (which I still am, which I always will be), a close friend had gifted me Dannie’s Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry, an anthology containing many names regrettably no longer with us. I devoured the book, and it became my springboard to enter a poetry I had had little acquaintance with at school, save for, of course, the ubiquitous two Thomases. It’s a remarkably balanced anthology. R. S. and Dylan do not dominate, for one thing. And some great women poets to be found. In those pages, I formed my first friendships with certain poets who later became friends in person. And I discovered the work of the late, Swansea-born John Ormond, a poet I remain tremendously affected by and one responsible for two marvellous poems that have stayed with me since a first reading: the witty ‘Cathedral Builders’ and a celebration of Eros in marriage, ‘Design for a Quilt’. (A Collected of Ormond’s work is, incidentally, forthcoming from Seren, edited by Michael Collins – and I am glad to hear this.)
Later, Dannie would become important to me again. For he was instrumental in the foundation of Seren (in its early days, Poetry Wales Press): the press had initially operated out of a room at his house in Ogmore-by-Sea. And Seren became my home in 2004.
That summer following publication of my first collection, I went up to The Wordsworth Trust to read with Welsh star and friend Owen Sheers (though that was our first encounter). He was poet-in-residence at the time. We were both, I think – if I can speak for him, too – slightly starstruck to see, there in the audience, the great man Michael Foot. Michael, through the 80s, had been an early hero of mine. A maverick who had possessed a mind the size of some gigantic, as yet undiscovered planet, and who, it is whispered, was the only political sparring partner that made the Iron Lady frightened in debate. I had loved him and defended him passionately from detractors at school and later at university. So there we were. I took to the platform, six months pregnant and utterly terrified. I tried not to look at Foot, who looked up, politely, attentively. But there he was. And there I was, declaiming in front of one of the greatest political orators of the twentieth century. It was, shall we say, a tough gig. I am not sure I was equal to the task.
Later, at dinner, I found myself sitting next to him. We chatted. He told me that he liked my work. I was grateful for his kindness, but I suspected that he was putting the trembling young woman at ease. Then, a month after the reading, I received, through the post, a copy of his Uncollected Michael Foot, forwarded by The Wordsworth Trust. It’s a fantastic book. Michael had written as inscription: ‘For Kathryn Gray: August 2004. Good luck. See P.353.’ I was touched to tears that he had, given his enormous health difficulties at that time, taken such particular care and kindness with an insecure young poet. I made a mental note for the future – if the future ever happened to me. Action really is character. I turned to the page. It was a typically brilliant review he had done for the Observer back in 1997 – of Dannie’s Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry. Title: ‘Wales to the World.’ Perhaps the phrase I’ve been repeating as a mantra ever since. How funny, I thought then. I took it as, somehow, meaningful for me – such is the arrogance unavoidable in youthful ambition, made worse by a sense of inadequacy, deep down. Now, I see it as meaningful for us all. The correct interpretation, my friends. But you knew that already.
Meeting Dannie yesterday, I was struck by his cheer and his informality and interestedness. He’s also tremendously witty. Here was one of the elder statesmen of literature, a man who has been friend to them all – and we chatted as if we had known each other years. But, I thought, this is how you become a true success. Not by prizes alone, though, as we know, Dannie has collected many over the years. But by the way you are. By the grace. By being kind to great and small. By surviving the slings and arrows of the literary world – or in Michael’s lifetime, and perhaps even more challenging, the political world – with your integrity and your heart intact.
Dannie is 87 but shows no signs of slowing. Parthian, as part of the accclaimed Library of Wales series, will republish his incredibly engaging, moving and often hilarious autobiography Goodbye, Twentieth Century in the autumn of this year, which will also include a generous epilogue, taking in a momentous past decade. Look out for it.