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The voice of the Jewish East End

The neglected postwar fiction of Alexander Baron. 

The only British writers who stood up for Jews “before the days of Hitler”, George Orwell reckoned, were Charles Dickens and Charles Reade (he forgot George Eliot, whose Daniel Deronda is a sympathetic proto-Zionist). Hilaire Belloc, a virulent Jew-baiter, considered Jews beyond civilisation because civilisation was based on Christianity and Jews were Christ-killers (“OK so we killed him, but only for three days,” runs the Jewish joke). Benjamin Disraeli, the One Nation Tory who led the Conservatives to a majority in the 1874 general election, was castigated and abused as a “Shylock” till the day he died (and afterwards, too). Caricatures of ugly, money-grubbing Jews marked 19th-century fiction; even William Thackeray, that most likeable of Victorian novelists, disparaged a Rothschild banker as a “greasy-faced compound of donkey and pig”. 

The taint of British anti-Semitism haunts the work of Alexander Baron, the most underrated Anglo-Jewish writer of the mid-20th century. Baron’s incandescent 1952 London novel, With Hope, Farewell (Five Leaves Publications, £9.99), unfolds amid the flag-waving jamborees of British fascist activists in the Jewish East End over the years 1928-48. Mark Strong, a Jewish RAF pilot, is sickened to see Jews maligned once more as traitorous anti-Britons (“always the word ‘Jew’ sprang up like barbed wire between himself and the world”). 

Assimilation had promised an escape from the derision and sorrows inflicted by anti-Semitism; now Strong is not so sure. John Betjeman compared the novel favourably to Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which put forward the “case of the coloured people of South Africa”. 

Baron, who was born in 1917 in Maidenhead (his mother was evacuated there from London during Zeppelin raids), made his name first as a war novelist. In 1939, having worked on the socialist newspaper Tribune, he enlisted in the army as a corporal. His service in southern Italy and Normandy with the Pioneer Corps left him physically and emotionally wounded, but provided him with raw material for the magnificent war trilogy that launched his literary career.

From the City, From the Plough (Imperial War Museum Classics, £8.99), Baron’s debut novel, was reprinted within a month of its publication in 1948. It tells of an infantry battalion stationed on the south coast of England as it prepares for the D-Day landings. In pages of taut prose, Baron captures the barrack-room chat of ordinary soldiers and the boredom of their training. For VS Pritchett, it was “the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me”; Baron was among the first to bring the life of the Nissen hut into literature. 

The sequel, There’s No Home (Sort of Books, £7.99), published in 1950, drew on the author’s time as a sapper in the Sicilian city of Catania in August 1943. The descriptions of tattered Catanian children and old women begging for food showed a sympathy for the humble and unnoticed of the world. CP Snow applauded the novel: “I am now confident in placing Mr Baron among our genuine hopes.” It was followed in 1953 by The Human Kind (Black Spring Press, £9.99), where interlinked autobiographical stories span each year of the 1939-45 conflict. (The novel was filmed in the early 1960s as The Victors by the blacklisted Hollywood writer-director Carl Foreman.) Baron’s war novels were bestselling Pan paperback titles in their day. 

Educated at Hackney Downs grammar school and raised in Stoke Newington, Baron was at heart a London novelist. His first great London novel, 1951’s Rosie Hogarth (Five Leaves Publications, £9.99), went deep into the psychology of war and its neurotic aftermath. Jack Agass, a demobbed soldier, returns to Islington, where he grew up, only to learn that his childhood friend Rosie is rumoured to have turned to prostitution. Like a knight-errant in a medieval mystery, he searches for some meaning behind his loved one’s transformation. Influenced by Henry Green’s 1946 novel of wartime homecoming, Back (which also features a woman called Rose), Rosie Hogarth portrays Agass’s all-consuming mania as he enquires after Rosie in the streets round Chapel Market. Typically for Baron, the “defeats and disenchantments” felt by British soldiers who struggled to return to their former lives are chronicled against a determinedly humdrum London background of boarding-houses and bus routes. 

Throughout the 1970s, Baron contributed to the BBC’s Play for Today and adapted Kipling, Thackeray and George Eliot, among other Victorian writers, for television. All this while he continued to live in Stoke Newington. His cult novel of 1963, The Lowlife (Black Spring Press, £9.99), concerns the antics of Harryboy Boas (“two syllables, please”), one of the last of the Jewish gamblers and street philosophers, or luftmenschen, who inhabited the old Jewish East End. When not frequenting the Walthamstow dog track, Harryboy dreams in his Stoke Newington bachelor flat of a better life. 

The novel, with its quick Yiddisher wit, is what Harryboy would have wished: a winner. Harry H Corbett of Steptoe and Son fame was due to play Harryboy in a film of the book, but it was never made. Years later, in 2000, Hanif Kureishi expressed an interest in writing the screenplay. The Lowlife combines themes of racial discrimination and outsider alienation with the cockney menace of Harold Pinter. (Jon Savage cites it in England’s Dreaming as a literary antecedent of punk.) 

Strikingly, The Lowlife was one of the first British novels to incorporate Caribbean immigrants as characters. Ingram’s Terrace (a fictionalised version of Foulden Road, where Baron grew up), home to Harryboy, is mythologised in the novel as “a proper little United Nations”. Marc Bolan and the future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren lived in Stoke Newington – Jewish boys exposed to Jamaican ska and rock-steady music in the local Afro-Caribbean clubs.

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Baron’s father was a teenager when, in 1908, he moved to England from Poland. A master-furrier, he assimilated gratefully into the English rituals of roast beef and empire. The trappings of Jewish Orthodoxy – Old Testament beards and sidelocks – made the East End unfit as a habitation for upwardly mobile British Jewry. Baron’s superb 1969 historical novel King Dido (Five Leaves Publications, £9.99) unfolds in a Victorian-era slum world of “meth-bloated” derelicts and Romany-Jewish chancers. Dido Peach, “a solitary, threatened man”, presides over this world like a prototype Kray gangster. In 1972, with his wife Delores Salzedo, Baron moved out of Hackney to the upscale suburbia of Golders Green. He had fulfilled his father’s dream of social “self-improvement”.

Baron remained fascinated by European Jewish culture and its near-extinction under Hitler. Bergen-Belsen, with its piles of decomposing corpses, liberated by British troops in April 1945, lent a moral clarity to the war in which Baron had fought as a D-Day corporal: Germany had departed from the community of civilised human beings. Without Hitler, Baron knew, Israel could not have been born the way it was in 1948. On 4 June 1967 he joined Harold Pinter, Al Alvarez, Frederic Raphael and other Anglo-Jewish writers in signing a letter in support of Israel in the Sunday Times: “The Arab states which surround Israel have declared their intention of destroying Israel.” Egypt’s President Nasser, seeming to goad Israel to war, had moved his troops into Sinai on the Israeli border, and Israel retaliated.

Like most British Jews at that dangerous hour, Baron believed that his people stood on the brink of a second catastrophe within a quarter-century (“Today, Israel is mobilised to prevent itself becoming another Auschwitz”). Assimilated Jewry had argued that Jew-hatred would evaporate with the inevitable progress of mankind, but Hitler’s biological anti-Semitism had proved them wrong. Over the Six Day War, Israel defeated three Arab armies, tripled the size of the territory under its control and occupied the Gaza Strip. Israel was now no longer the Promised Land of peace and honey that Baron had once taken it to be. His subsequent views on Israel are not recorded. However, in the rush to establish a Jewish state after Hitler’s Final Solution, safeguarding Arab nationalism in the Holy Land had not been a pressing concern. 

Baron’s 14th novel (and the last published during his lifetime), Franco is Dying (1979), was met with critical indifference. He died 20 years later in December 1999, at the age of 82. Now largely forgotten as a writer, he is ripe for reappraisal. 

Ian Thomson’s books include “Primo Levi: The Elements of a Life” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit