I've talked a number of times on this blog about the writer Alexander Baron, in glowing terms. An Anglo-Jewish writer from Hackney, who served in the British forces during World War Two, Baron was initially brought to my attention in the work of Iain Sinclair. I tracked down his most famous novel, 'The Lowlife' in my local library and was immediately sold on his clear and direct prose style, the London locations often unseen in fiction (i.e. not the West End) and his ability to make the reader identify and empathise with initially unlikeable or unsympathetic characters.
Luckily, since then, two small publishers have taken it on themselves to start bringing Baron's work back into print. Black Spring Press have issued his two most well-known titles, 'The Lowlife' and 'From the City, From the Plough', and the excellent Five Leaves Press first released 'King Dido' as part if their New London Editions series, and now have followed it up with another of Baron's London novels, 'Rosie Hogarth'. (They have also recently released two Roland Camberton novels, ‘Scamp’ and ‘Rain on the Pavements’.)
Written immediately after the success of 'From the City...', 'Rosie Hogarth' was Baron's first London novel, focusing on one street in the working class Islington of the late 1940's. The story focuses on the belated return from the war of Jack Agass to the street where he had grown up, his reintroduction into a tight knit society that has changed in some ways (his adoptive mother has died in a bombing raid, his old friend Rosie Hogarth has moved away), but in others remains the same in its codified rules of behaviour and crippling sense of working-class austerity and morality. With a great lack of sentimentality or condemnation, Baron maps out this community with great skill, creating wonderful three dimensional characters still living very much in the shadow of 'the War' and paralysed by an inability to discuss their true feelings and motives.
The character of Jack Agass is an interesting one - not a particularly intelligent or at times even likeable man, the reader still feels for him after his years fighting abroad and returning to a world where his family has been utterly dispersed by the effects of the conflict. His old love, Rosie, is now living an upmarket life in the West End. It is believed that she is selling sex, but is he right?
The novel flits wonderfully between Jack's experiences of settling down following his homecoming and his lucid memories of his life pre-1939 with Rosie. I hugely enjoyed this novel, once again showcasing Baron's skills as a working class writer of rare insight and depth, and although it is less well known than the others I feel that it easily stands comparison with 'The Lowlife' and 'King Dido' as one of the great works of working class London literature. Recommended.