Ash On a Young Man's Sleeve by Dannie Abse

By Dannie Abse

This pleasant autobiography skillfully interweaves the fortunes of a Jewish Welsh family members opposed to the Thirties; unemployment, the increase of Hitler, and the Spanish Civil battle.

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Usually we pulled the wings off the fly first so that it couldn’t escape. ‘Catching flies,’ I said, ‘is a social duty,’ when Keith became doubtful of our inquisitory practices. Then the big man approached us. We saw him coming down the lane but we didn’t think he would stop to speak to us. He wore a gay coloured shirt. ‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘Hullo, Mister,’ said Keith. ’ the big man said. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ’ he asked. ‘Don’t mind,’ Keith said. ‘No, we’re going,’ I said. He looked down at us puzzled.

The man gazed at Keith helplessly. He fumbled in his pocket and brought out his handkerchief. Houses were outside now, not fields. He was about to offer the handkerchief to my friend but seeing the bloodstains on it he hurriedly stuffed it back into his pocket. As we descended from the train he said ‘I’m sorry’ to Keith and walked off as fast as he could. There were so many people on the station and the engine was belching out mountains of smoke. ‘A grown-up man wetting his trousers,’ I said. Keith didn’t answer.

And the tram lurched down St Mary’s Street. ‘There he is, there he is,’ shouted Simon. We poked our heads through the window and the wind and rain blessed our faces. Sure enough there he stood, as usual, opposite the Castle, selling papers. ‘Paper Sir? ’ ‘Paper Lady? ’ ‘Paper Sir? ’ ‘Paper Lady? ’ ‘Paper Sir? Paper Sir? PAPER SIR? ’ ‘Bastard, bastard,’ we yelled. He smiled back at us. ‘You little bastards,’ he grinned. In Queen Street, an ex-miner played an accordion, a tombstone in one of his lungs.

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