Notes in the Margin: Canon fodder

Alexander Baron's novels, wrote Ken Worpole in the NS in January this year, "illuminate those places and situations where individual lives and public morality meet and clash: the London street, the political movement, the conscript barracks, the small town caught up in war".

Worpole was writing about a resurgence of interest in the author whose Second World War novel From the City, from the Plough (1948) sold nearly a million copies and led to a string of bestsellers, but whose name has been largely absent from the canon of British postwar literature.

Following the reissue of several of his novels, Baron's life and work will be the subject of discussion on 3 June at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in Hackney, the north-east London borough where Baron, descended from Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, spent much of his life.
Baron's son Nick, who will be speaking at the event along with Worpole, tells me that one reason the novels lapsed into obscurity was his father's unwillingness to play the publicity game. "He loved nothing more than to eat, drink and discuss literature and politics, but among friends not strangers," Nick says.

“He would not agree to speak publicly, to make media appearances or carry out book signings. That is one reason why he fell out of favour with publishers in the 1970s, when, as he saw it, the marketing departments began to hold sway over the real book people."

According to Nick, his father's work displays qualities largely missing from contemporary fiction. "His war novels have a gritty yet humane realism, arising as they do from his own experience as a soldier and intellectual.

“His London novels [which include the republished King Dido, The Lowlife and Rosie Hogarth] have similar qualities - an authenticity of voice that reflects the author's personal knowledge of the people and places about which he writes, and a warm sympathy for the human condition that precludes any lapse into cynicism, hardness or despair, even when dealing with the darker side of our nature." l

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools