Remembering Leo Abse
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2008
When the definitive history of the social liberalisation of 20th century Britain comes to be written, the name of my old friend Leo Abse, who has died aged 91, will be writ large. An indefatigable campaigner, both as a lawyer and as a South Wales Labour MP (of Polish Jewish extraction), he was largely responsible for changes such as the decriminalisation of attempted suicide, easier divorce in cases where a marriage had irretrievably broken down and homosexual law reform. His small size belied his immense vigour and his determination, but unlike many social reformers, he had a tremendous sense of humour. He was always somebody I was delighted to find myself sitting next to at lunch when we both members of the Savile Club, and the hospitality at his beautiful home on the riverfront at Chiswick – including at his 90th birthday party last year — was generous and warm.
Leo listed amongst his hobbies ‘psychobiography’, and among the various books he produced were three or four truly controversial probings into subjects such as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Daniel Defoe. He read widely in psychoanalysis and related fields, though some professionals thought his theories were a bit off the wall. One the most surreal evenings I ever spent was at the Freud Museum in Hampstead with Leo and Michael Foot, dissecting the personalities of Tony Blair and George Brown and the relationship between them.
Several years ago, after the death of his first wife Marjorie, Leo went into decline — so much so that he even sent out New Year cards bearing a drawing of the grim reaper. But a second marriage, to the Polish interior designer Ania Czepulkowska, 50 years his junior, literally gave him a new lease of life. He had always been fascinated by textiles and clothes — Marjorie designed several splendid outfits for him for Budget Days — and he was susceptible to human beauty in all its forms.