A primarily autobiographical account of the author’s early life, Ash On A Young Man’s Sleeve sees our narrator, Dannie, when he is eleven in the 1930s. He lives in Cardiff with his family, who are Jewish. His brother appears to be a problem case as he is eager to prove his worth as a communist, even fairing off to fight in the Spanish Civil War though he is stopped from doing so because of an illness.
We first see Dannie as a character that finds himself in too many fights, frequent in doing so but not entirely successful at it. He mirrors, at this stage, his uncle, Bertie. The first event of serious proportions is created when Bertie angers Ken Williams whose brother, Jake, is sent to fight him in an eight rough affair.
When Jake arrives, Bertie is confident that he will finish the fight triumphantly, being that Jake turns out to be rather small. However, after the bets have been placed, most being on Bertie as he is physically the superior specimen, it is revealed that Jake is actually a lightweight champion named Killer Williams.
We then see Dannie in a very much reflected scene in a fight with a boy named Keith Williams. Though they do brawl, they eventually become good friends when they are forced into each other’s vicinity after Keith’s family moves nearer Dannie’s. We are then thrust into their lives, with most of the novel concerning itself solely with their relationship.
We start off seeing their shared lives in rather innocent shades, starting off with Dannie teasing Keith after a suspicious man approached them with offers of ice cream. The man had touched young Keith on the shoulder, a point that Dannie exploits to make it seem as if the physical contact carried a curse.
However, this seemingly innocent gag is twisted until it becomes quite serious when a woman named Mrs. Thomas dies after suffering a stroke, something that Dannie believes is the result of the Black Curse dropped upon him by the stranger. Keith, however, blames Dannie.
We then move onto another experience the boys share. They both wish to make their way to Barry Island and we are made aware of something rather pivotal coming our way when Hitler’s rise and the death of Ernst Röhm are mentioned.
Though the boys enjoy themselves greatly on Barry Island, playing in the sand and so forth, it is on the journey back that they see the thing which cements itself in their minds. On the return train journey, Dannie and Keith witness a man experience an epileptic attack which causes him to urinate.
We move on, however, and they begin to observe, grow, and mature. Their interests in the opposite sex is now apparent. Lydia Pike takes the spotlight for blossoming Dannie, with wishes from his father that he spend more of his time studying rather than pursuing his other interests.
As it turns out, Dannie is in luck as he learns that Lydia is increasingly fond of him, though for a perhaps unusual reason – his kissing technique of not opening his mouth. Dannie’s mother meets Lydia with her mother and her cordial nature makes her invite them over for tea, something she informs Dannie of. The nerves kick in and Dannie feels terrified, anxious to the moon and back fearing the inevitability of something embarrassing occurring. However, much to his surprise, Dannie finds Nancy Roberts and her mother at the door.
We are then pushed forward to the start of WWII, with vivid descriptions of the bombs that fell upon Cardiff. His family is split apart, with him staying at home for his youth whilst his brothers join the ranks.
Overall, the work sees Abse offer us a down-to-the-ground and exhaustive commentary on his earlier life, with events of all sorts and all varieties being mentioned. We see the mellowing of a boy too similar to the harsh jaggedness of his uncle Bertie, the shocks and surprises of early romance, the formation of ironclad friendships from once-antagonistic origins, and the colourful diversity inherent in every youth which all work together to form the adult.
Ash On A Young Man's Sleeve
Widely acclaimed for its warm humor, lyricism, and honesty, this accurate evocation of the 1930s has become a classic. In this delightful autobiographical novel, Dannie Abse skilfully interweaves public and private themes, setting the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the troubled backdrop of the times: unemployment, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and the Spanish Civil War.