Between 1881 and 1914, around 150,000 Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in Britain, fleeing poverty and pogroms in the Russian empire. Most of them made their homes in the slums and tenements of London’s East End, but by the middle of the 20th century many had moved to Hackney, a few miles up the road. Hackney isn’t in the East End – to believe otherwise is, as Harryboy Boas says in Alexander Baron’s novel The Lowlife (1963), ‘the mark of the outsider’. Rather, Hackney is the first step out, geographically and socially, ‘a Victorian-Edwardian suburb swallowed up by London, broad streets, little villas and big tradesmen’s houses; and now, among these, little factories and workshops everywhere’.
Boas – that’s ‘Bo-as, two syllables, please’ – is a second-generation immigrant and tailor’s presser whose real occupation is gambling. He lives on his luck, cadging money from relatives when things are tight or, if he really can’t avoid it, turning up at work to put in a few shifts behind the Hoffmann press. When he’s flush, he splashes out on dinners and trips with his sort-of girlfriend, a sex worker called Marcia, or spends weeks at a time in his room reading. ‘This Zola is a terrific writer,’ Boas says during one of his binges. ‘He can be tougher than Mickey Spillane and when he gets on to sex he’s red hot. But I am giving you the wrong idea about him. He is a serious writer. Profound. Terrific.’
The Lowlife is an elegy to the world in which Baron grew up. Boas rents a room in a street of terraced houses that were once occupied by ‘superior working-class families, who kept them in beautiful condition’, but which have now been turned into bedsits. By the 1960s, Hackney’s Jewish community is fading: some, like Boas’s sister who married well and lives in Finchley, have prospered and moved on, while the older generation is dying off. But Boas chooses to stay put. He likes Hackney’s in-betweenness, its mix of faded grandeur, sweatshops and street hustlers; the Cockneys ‘of the old breed, sharp-faced, with the stamp of the markets on them’, young Jews ‘who either look like pop singers or pop singers’ managers’ and new arrivals from Cyprus, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Boas’s sister is on at him to make something of his life, but he prefers trawling the street corners and betting shops, ‘where the fraternity of the doggies and the ponies gather’, along the four miles between Stamford Hill and Aldgate.
Baron, who was born Alexander Bernstein in 1917, published more than a dozen novels between the 1940s and 1970s. He was also a prolific screenwriter and a contributor to the BBC’s Play for Today. Running through his work is an interest in the way ordinary men and women experience history, and the extent to which people are able to shape their own destiny. Chapters of Accidents, a memoir of his childhood and youth, gives an insight into two formative experiences that shaped his worldview: his communist activism during the 1930s, and his time as a soldier in the Second World War. Baron grew up in Hackney, the son of Jewish parents who had made their way out of the East End. His father, who migrated to London from rural Poland as a child, was a furrier: a ‘faultlessly dressed Englishman who took pride in having achieved membership of the lower middle class and who in speech was only distinguishable from the native-born in being more articulate and a trifle too precise in his pronunciation’. He made enough money to buy a three-storey house in Dalston. Baron’s mother, born to a family of Lithuanian immigrants, took her son on weekly trips to the local library, from which they would return with shopping bags full of books. As a young child, Baron became ‘tribal storyteller’ to the boys in his street; later, after winning a scholarship to the local grammar school, he read his way through the English and French canons.
Baron won places at UCL and King’s but declined to take them up. He had decided to become, in his words, ‘a professional revolutionary’. The rise of fascism and the Great Depression – his father was out of work for a time – had led him ‘to think about the world outside my head’. He read history books and got into arguments with fascist-sympathising schoolmates. In 1933, after being won over by a street-corner speaker in Hackney (partly because the speaker promised there was ‘free love all over the place’ in the Soviet Union), Baron joined the Young Communist League (YCL). He was befriended by a pair of older intellectuals – ‘I bet they’re not even married,’ his mother said – and was tasked with taking over the local branch of the Labour League of Youth, the Labour Party’s youth wing, eventually making it onto the League’s national committee.
While his Labour Party work brought him into contact with grandees such as Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, Baron was also carrying out instructions that ultimately came from the Comintern in Moscow. He travelled to Paris to deliver messages to Spanish communists in hiding and visited party meetings around the UK to give instructions to local branches. After leaving school, he took a job as a clerk at the London County Council but spent his evenings editing Challenge, the YCL newspaper. (He also worked at the Labour-affiliated magazine Tribune.) At the beginning of the Second World War, when it looked as if the British government might outlaw the Communist Party, Baron – still only in his early twenties – was considered so important that a plan was made to send him into hiding by having him admitted to a South London psychiatric hospital where a party member worked as a consultant.
Baron was a true believer for a time. He swallowed the official lies about the Moscow show trials and the building of the White Sea Canal, and followed the party in its ideological contortions over the Hitler-Stalin pact, even if it caused him anguish. But being ordered not to do military service – until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, British communists were instructed to focus on the class struggle at home – prompted his first break with party orthodoxy. At the start of the war he tried to join the RAF without telling his colleagues, but was rejected because he wore glasses. In the summer of 1940, seeing a train carrying men evacuated from Dunkirk arrive in London, he felt ‘obscurely stirred, with a touch of distress … there was something going on around me that I did not want to be left out of any more.’
Baron enlisted in the Pioneer Corps. The party higher-ups didn’t complain, since by then they had clearly lost the argument. He fought in the Allied invasion of Sicily and took part in the D-Day landings, but was invalided out in 1945 after receiving a head injury in training. The following year, during a long period of recuperation, he began writing From the City, From the Plough, which follows the fictional Fifth Wessex battalion through its training and deployment to Normandy. It was a commercial and critical success on publication in 1948; V.S. Pritchett described it as ‘the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me’. Baron later said he wrote it partly because all the novels about the Second World War up to that point had been written by officers, or ‘the kind of intellectuals to whom the army was an agony … this awful experience you had to go through, sleeping in a hut with 35 ruffians’. He wanted to pay tribute to ‘the nation in arms’.
The war gave Baron more than material: he describes it as an education in the things he had missed out on in adolescence. After joining the Communist Party, Baron had stopped reading novels and poetry, and met very few people outside of his activism. ‘I had come into the army knowing nothing about people,’ he writes, ‘except what I had got from literature, that is, from literature approved by the party as “correct”.’ Army life opened his eyes to other forms of solidarity and community. Before, he writes, he had ‘thought of proletarians as members of an ideal caste’. In training, his barrack mates fought, got drunk, had sex with local women (or sometimes one another). They helped him forge a leave pass when Baron needed to visit his girlfriend and defended him when an officer singled him out as a ‘Red’. Amid the tedium of military life he started reading fiction again, working his way through a box of Penguin Classics whose metal container doubled as protective cover in a slit trench. By the end of the war, his belief in the party as an elite that had ‘discovered the one and only way … to bestow a paradisal life upon the human race’ had been replaced by an appreciation of ‘the role of accident in human affairs’. He made his final break with the party in the late 1940s, and chose to publish under a pen name to distance himself from his earlier activities.
From the City, From the Plough has few battle scenes and no central protagonist: it’s a collective portrait of a dozen or so men as they train in England then make their way through the deadly landscape of northern France. One soldier, the baby of the battalion, wets his bed at night, and is taken under the wing of a Cockney wide boy who deserts the training camp but then returns for a hot meal. A corporal lies on the grass during a battle and reads Voltaire – something he’s always fantasised about doing – but his mood is ruined when a lower-ranking officer quotes from Candide. A colonel tries to project an air of cheery confidence while secretly worrying about his son, who has been reported missing at sea. The men are presented as individuals, but as individuals whose lives are c0ntrolled by a war machine the narrator likens to a giant mechanical claw that picks them up, moves them around and drops them again. The novel ends after a bloody battle with the survivors sprawled out among the dead, ‘speechless, exhausted, beyond grief or triumph, drawing at broken cigarettes and watching with sunken eyes the tanks go by’.
Baron wrote two more books about the war itself: There’s No Home (1950), which focuses on a love affair between a British soldier billeted in Sicily and a local woman, and The Human Kind (1953), a short story collection. A number of his other novels explore the aftershocks of war in the communities he knew well: Rosie Hogarth (1951) and With Hope, Farewell (1952) centre on the romantic lives of returning soldiers and their lovers, in Islington and Hackney respectively. The books are naturalistic and make use of popular narrative tropes – the doomed love affair, the crime caper. But The Lowlife is where the themes that preoccupied Baron come together most effectively. Baron’s keen eye for the shifting distinctions of class and culture – and the way these shape the spaces people inhabit – underpin the plot.
At the start of the novel, Boas’s equilibrium is disturbed when a new family takes a room in his bedsitter. The Deaners are a white English couple with a young son. They have middle-class aspirations but not enough money, so they’re renting in Dalston until the husband, Vic, can save up for a mortgage and move them out to the suburbs. The wife, Evelyn, resents their straitened circumstances all the more when a Caribbean couple, the De Souzas, take another room in the house. She claims it’s not because she’s racist – ‘what do you think I am, one of those colour bar people?’ – but because Mr De Souza is a labourer: he’s the wrong sort. When the De Souzas save up enough money for a mortgage of their own, Evelyn’s resentment tips over into rage. Vic panics and steals money from his employer, then begs Boas for help. Boas ends up in debt as a result, and has to find a way to get the Deaners out of trouble while shaking off the thugs who are now chasing him for money.
Boas’s sardonic narration is what makes the novel so distinctive. It’s peppered with Yiddishisms – everyone he meets is a tuchas-lecker, a schlemiel, a schnorrer or a schnip. He disdains other people’s social pretensions (his sister’s children are ‘all thin, all snooty … they kiss Mummy and Daddy and feel a little more ashamed of them each year’) and rebuffs any attempt to befriend him. Vic Deaner, who looks up to Boas, is a particular irritation. So is Vic’s four-year-old son, Gregory, who demands that Boas play with him while his parents are busy or at work. ‘There is something in a kid’s attitude, the matter-of-factness with which he demands, demands, demands, demands, that sucks the marrow out of your bones,’ Boas complains.
At first this gives The Lowlife an air of knockabout comedy. But beneath the surface, Boas’s compulsion to gamble ‘is something like death. Go on, go on, squeeze the trigger.’ On idle days, he finds himself walking down to the East End and mourning the vanished world of Jewish Whitechapel. (‘Hot nisht an umbrelly?’ an old man asks him one rainy day.) At a patch of waste ground between decaying shops, he stops and cries for his mother, who was killed by a flying bomb during the Blitz. Boas spends most of the novel pretending he doesn’t like children, then confesses it’s because of a relationship he had in Paris before the war. He left in 1939 to come back to London; his girlfriend, Nicole, wrote to tell him she was pregnant, but he only received the letter after Paris had fallen to the Wehrmacht. ‘I already told you,’ he reminds us. ‘Nicole was a Jewish girl.’
Baron was ambivalent about his Jewish heritage. He was an atheist from a young age, telling his parents that if they insisted on having him bar mitzvahed he would hide a ham sandwich in his pocket and place it on the Torah scrolls during the ceremony. ‘I never wanted to live within this defensive world called the Jewish community,’ he once told an interviewer. Boas’s humour and diction was ‘as much native East End as it is Jewish’. But there are times when, however remote your connection to an identity might seem, the world refuses to let you forget about it. At heart, The Lowlife is a depiction of the psychological impact of the Holocaust on Jews in Britain. It’s an entirely subjective portrait, which makes it all the more powerful – it hints at the ways the catastrophe rippled through hundreds of thousands of lives. ‘What could I have done?’ Boas says of the girlfriend he left behind. ‘Did I know she was pregnant when I left her?’ His inertia, his inability to leave behind the pre-war East End, and his emotional distance from the people around him are an expression of guilt. ‘If I walk into the Deaners’ living room and see a pair of Gregory’s shoes in the corner, I think of the mountain of children’s shoes, the shoes of dead children, found in one of the camps, sixty feet high.’ After all, he says, ‘you can forget a million children. You cannot forget one child.’ The novel’s climax is an accident that leaves Gregory at risk of losing an eye. In an absurdist nod to the Book of Exodus, Boas offers up one of his own eyes for a transplant.
Baron maps these big political themes onto intimate spaces – a house, a street, a well-trodden set of city neighbourhoods. He did this again to great effect in King Dido (1969). Baron had already written historical novels set in ancient Palmyra and Mexico during the Spanish conquest, and in King Dido he turned to the East End of the 1910s. It takes place around Rabbit Marsh, a fictionalised version of Cheshire Street, which runs between Brick Lane and Bethnal Green. The novel follows the conflict between Dido Peach, a local protection racketeer, and the Javert-like figure of Detective Inspector Merry, who’s determined to bring him down. Baron uses local geography to dramatise his central theme of class conflict. Rabbit Marsh is on one side of Kingsland Road, the thoroughfare that leads into Hackney from the East End; Merry lives on the other side in De Beauvoir Town, a middle-class enclave of large Victorian villas. Crossing Kingsland Road to go to work each morning, Merry enters what he regards as a savage realm: Dido is a ‘wild beast … for whom locking away is too good’.
Dido, meanwhile, has dreams of going straight, but is trapped as much by his urban surroundings as by economic circumstances. When he gets a job as a dairyman in Clapton (a prosperous suburb at the time), Merry assumes he’s casing houses and tells his employer to sack him. When Dido first approaches his love interest, Grace, leaving Rabbit Marsh to visit her working girls’ hostel on the other side of Kingsland Road, he bottles it. Marching off in frustration, he ends up on the District Railway platform at Liverpool Street. He watches people getting on and off a train – the link to a world beyond – but doesn’t move: ‘The thought took shape: a man who wasn’t a man might as well do himself in.’ When Dido does eventually go on a date with Grace, he rapes her; she reluctantly marries him, hoping to make the best of it. He brings her to live in Rabbit Marsh, where she, too, finds herself trapped. She ‘had been brought up as one of the genteel poor who lived in frugal neatness and to whom the slums were what hell had been to their ancestors: a pit of horror all the more feared because anyone might fall into it’. All three characters make moral choices, for better or worse, but they make them within the strictures of the class system.
King Dido was also an effort to imagine the world of his grandparents. Baron’s father’s parents lived on Cheshire Street and his mother’s in Spitalfields, an even poorer area. In his memoir, Baron likens the weekly visits to each set of grandparents to a trip back in time and also to a journey through the strata of poverty that lay beneath his own ‘respectable’ neighbourhood. He recalled going back to Cheshire Street in the 1980s, when much of the area lay derelict, and seeing his grandparents’ old shop abandoned and boarded up, the faded floral wallpaper he remembered from childhood still visible through a first-floor window. ‘A city should be accumulated memory,’ Baron said in an interview in 1983. ‘When so much has been bombed and torn down you are really killing memories that people need.’ Baron died on 6 December 1999, aged 82, by which time he had left Hackney for genteel Temple Fortune, near Golders Green – a well-established trajectory that some Jewish families jokingly refer to as the north-west passage.
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