Alexander Baron: Brilliant but forgotten writer of a “delirious Hackney novel”

by dollydelightly

Over the years, Black Spring Press has introduced me to a number of brilliant but forgotten English writers. The latest one of these is Alexander Baron, whose quintessentially British novel The Lowlife is a minor classic. Although a work of fiction, The Lowlife documents a bygone era, a particular way of life, culture and customs, peculiar to East London and more specifically to the East London Jewish community. An army corporal, a left-wing intellectual and an outspoken anti-fascist, Baron is known primarily as a writer of war fiction. His first book From the City, From the Plough (1948), once the definitive fictional account of D-Day, was followed by There’s No Home (1950) and The Human Kind (1953), both dealing with the dark psychology of military conflict. Ten years after the latter and several books in between Baron wrote The Lowlife; an offbeat chronicle of working class life in East London seen through the eyes of the eponymous reprobate gambler Harryboy Boas “(Bo-as, two syllables, please)”. Albeit a work of an entirely different genre The Lowlife has the subject of war at its core, which Baron writes about plaintively yet in a straightforward and earnest manner, building a taut and multi-layered story about the British class system, social solidarity, suppressed guilt, self-punishment and redemption.

It is this combination of themes that makes Baron’s work distinctive, that gives The Lowlife its tender touch. Baron’s understated style is defined by a wry and sardonic sense of humour at the expense of his own culture and people. Iain Sincalir says this was in part due to the fact that “Baron was a true Londoner, which is to say a second-generation immigrant, a professional stranger” who had an originally dualistic view of British life. Poignantly observed and skilfully recorded The Lowlife is a testament to its writer’s wit and intelligence. Harryboy is a character like no other, “a schlemiel…a halfwit…a lunatic” an unrepentant chancer by his own admission but one with very high standards.  “You will never find me with the unshaven face,” he tells us, “the dirty collar or frayed cuffs of a schnorrer. One thing about me, I always dress smartly. A good suit, midnight blue mohair, this year’s cut. Dazzling white shirt, quiet tie of silk, rust coloured.” But for all his front  Harryboy knows he’s a failure, a cadger and a disappointment to his only sister Debbie, whom he loves with “an ache”.  The virtuous but “dumb Debbie with her cow eyes” cries for her no-good brother, tries to cajole him into propriety with potato lutkas and a “nice Yiddishe girl” but to no avail.

Harryboy has nothing and wants nothing, except a nice salt-beef sandwich and the time to read Emile Zola’s canon. He’s a self-elected failure alienated from mainstream society, who goes by the motto “show me how to lose money and I will try it”. Harryboy is The Lowlife. It’s as simple as that only it isn’t as we get to find out when a young family, the Deaners, moves into the boarding-house where he lives. The house owned by Mr Siskin and his wife (who are “always scrubbing stairs and landings as if they were polishing their jewels”) in a “half a slum” street in Hackney becomes the epicentre of the book; an intrinsic element of Harryboy’s London, epitomic of urban life in the midst of a great change. “Here, all sorts live. [Cockneys, Jews, Blacks, Cypriots],” Harryboy explains,“the people in Ingram’s Terrace don’t mix but they all say ‘good morning’ to each other. I never smelt any hatred between one kind and another, not even any ember that might flare up in the future. Of course, they all have good jobs. The children mix. I love to watch them. The children are the only real common ground of the grown-ups.” This assertion becomes the book’s subliminal premise as Harryboy inadvertently befriends the Deaners’ five year old son Gregory. Baron writes about children – their fears, their imagination and their inner lives – with knowing and sympathetic deft. “A childhood is one long rearguard action of naked free will against society,” he assert with the sagacity of seer. Little boy Gregory has a lot of that will, much to his mother’s chagrin. Evelyn, the “domestic machine” and her hapless “goomp” husband Vic have money troubles and Harryboy is the only one who can help, even if it means resorting to desperate measures. The Lowlife addresses an individual’s psychological motivations; a man plagued by his personal and cultural past trying to absolve himself in the present. Baron integrates important fragments of history seamlessly but with care into a book which on the surface seems too modest to contain much depth.

This quietly prodigious writer is also wonderful at depicting the sinister undercurrent of East London, with its pricey tarts, debtors who want paying and Jewish wide boys who push their luck. He also captures a piece of social history, by documenting the influx of European and African migrants and subsequent cultural transformations, which took place in London in the 1950-60s. The Lowlife is in part based on Baron’s own experience of growing up in Hackney, depicting in a forthright and affectionate fashion all the elements of place with superb familiarity. Baron takes the reader by the hand to Ingram’s Terrace, to the dog track and into Harryboy’s world, which is tabulated with well-crafted precision. In doing so he lives up to his own definition of a writer’s whose profession he once said was “to be a spectator who hopes he can see more of the game and try to make sense of it”. A couple of years ago, following Baron’s death the Guardian dubbed him “the greatest British novelist of the last war,” which is an esteemed title indeed, but one which doesn’t give full credit to his talent. Baron was first and foremost a Londoner and then a writer, among a mere handful of such individuals, who chronicled the many small, big, inconsequential and significant moments in this changeable city’s history.

Baron’s extraordinary eye for period detail and his astute observational ability, combined with his ostensible penchant for storytelling, is what sets his work apart. Writing about The Lowlife –  the “delirious Hackney novel” –  in the introduction Sinclair says its success is based partly on the fact that it manages to do “justice to a place of so many contradictions, disguises, deceptions, multiple identities,” a place which had previously been thought of as “defined by being indefinable”.  And I guess that’s part of Baron’s ingenuity, because his East London is exactly the East London of today, with its ever changing people and ethos.  The Lowlife is a compelling and moving book of optimism, where one might see none, depicted in a precise and engaging narrative driven by a rogue but very likable protagonist, who despite his trials, troubles and tribulations knows better than to “give up hope before the dogs have crossed the finish line”.

Publisher: Black Spring Press
Publication Date: June 2010
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9780948238451