I was first alerted to the work of Alexander Baron through reading the many works of Iain Sinclair, specifically ‘Hackney, That Rose Red Empire’, and then found out a great deal more about the man reading ‘Dockers & Detectives’ by Ken Worpole, an excellent collection of essays charting British working-class writers who have been somehow neglected in recent times.
Baron was from that Jewish-Hackney world that has largely disappeared now, served in WWII which formed the basis for his novel ‘From The City, From The Plough’ (one of the few novels to deal with experiences of ‘normal’ British soldiers), and in his time was a bestselling author selling millions, critically lauded but now partly forgotten and out-of-print. So much so, in fact, that this Hackney writer has no books held in the Hackney Library on Mare Street. A disgrace etc etc, grumble grumble.
‘The Lowlife’, written in 1963, is set in an area that I know very well, Dalston, Hackney, Stoke Newington and the racetracks of Walthamstow (OK, maybe not the last one). It’s fascinating to read about the area forty five years ago through the eyes of it’s London Jewish protagonist, Harryboy Boas, the ‘lowlife’ of the title, a gambling addict, frequenter of prostitutes and general layabout, despite his hyper-literacy and love of Emile Zola novels. He is one of the last remants of the Jewish community who lived in the area, somewhat cut off from his roots (by choice, it must be added). Utterly unapologetic about his lifestyle, he is a classic charming anti-hero as we follow his various exploits through the North East London of the early Sixties, a world away from most people’s impressions of era.
The area that Harryboy lives in is changing, with aspiring gentiles moving in below him and West Indians into the rooms above – in fact, ‘The Lowlife’ is one of the very first London novels to feature West Indian characters - firms redeveloping the area, concreting over the past, the Jewish world of his childhood retreating exemplified by his sisters move out to Finchley. The parallels with what is happening in the area now are not to be ignored, and add an extra level to the novel that Baron obviously could not have predicted.
Another fascinating seam that runs through the novel is the one of Jewish guilt attached to World War II – Harryboy (obviously this relates autobiographically to Baron) served in the British Army during the War, met a French-Jewish woman in Paris and embarked upon a relationship with her. He later reveals that she was pregnant, he lost contact when the Germans invaded, and the constant fear that her, and his child, were killed in the Holocaust haunts him throughout the book. It is a subtle thread that greatly adds to everything that happens, never forced but always lingering in the background adding a real sadness to the character.
I won’t discuss the plot, but to sum up this one of the very best London novels I have read, really nailing down a sense of time and place that clearly stems from the author’s own experiences. It is a must for any fan of London literature (I think Baron would definitely appeal to fans of Gerald Kersh), or anyone who wants to get a different perspective on the city through fiction. Great stuff.