Two recent re-issues have come to The EEL’s attention by Alexander Baron a writer who although he enjoyed some success as a screenwriter is still little known in comparison to other London writers such as Patrick Hamilton.
The Lowlife, published by Black Spring comes with an informative introduction by Iain Sinclair is perhaps Baron’s most famous work. Written in 1963, The Lowlife was one of a number written by the East End writer Alexander Baron about London post-war life. Baron was born in Hackney and it is this area that forms the backdrop of The Lowlife.
The Protagonist Harry-boy Boas like Baron has moved on from his Cable Street childhood and now lives in lodgings near to Amhurst Road where unlike other parts of the City the landlords are have no scruples about accepting West Indian lodgers.
Boas calls himself a professional gambler and divides his time between the dog track and the clip joints of Soho. Here he spends his money on his favourite hostess Marcia, when he can afford it, and treats himself to slap up Italian meals. Now In his forties, he remains guilty about the pregnant French Girl he abandoned in Paris to join the army. Harry’s post war singular bachelor life style contrasts with his sister, now ensconced in suburban Finchley with her bookmaker husband Gus, who is all too aware of Harry’s hopeless gambling addiction.
Harry does get breaks, but his gambling weaknesses mean that he will always risk one more throw of the dice. However his outlook is changed when new lodgers with a small child, Gregory, move in downstairs. Gregory‘s parents have dreams of respectable suburbia and the mother Evelyn has no time for Harry or her current West Indian neighbours. Harry in turn has little time for her or her meek husband. However the boy sparks guilt about his own past and gradually he becomes a surrogate father to the demanding child.
Harry eventually finds himself brushing with the underworld when he reneges on a bet whilst trying to help Gregory’s father. The West End gangsters turn up on Harry’s patch to teach him a lesson, but Harry knows the Hackney streets too well and is more than a match for them.
Boas is a captivating hero, his life exciting but also led by his personal moral code. A code influenced by Barons own Jewish-Socialist upbringing. He has no problems with his black neighbours and is willing to sacrifice all for a child he has no blood ties with.
Throughout the book Harry professes his love for the area, its noise and mix, the kosher restaurants, and anonymity. In Hackney he can spend days alone reading and feasting before the money runs out and he needs another win. The London he describes is familiar; the excitement of Soho is a short jaunt away while Hackney is cheap and easy. Unlike say, Patrick Hamilton whose characters are often sad victims of the City, Baron’s Harry-boy revels in London life and has the moral fortitude to deal with its ups and downs.
The Lowlife has many crime thriller elements and would have made a great film in the style of Jules Dassin’s Night and The City. (Harry H. Corbett was apparently due to be a cast in the Harry-Boy role but the project fell through.) However it is character and place that is important here rather than plot, Harry is a forgotten character from a forgotten time. He carries with him the pre-war radicalism of the old East End, in a post war period when the sands were shifting and a new aspiration taking hold. Nevertheless he is able to survive on the margins and thus can be seen to be a pioneer of a spirit, which continues today.
King Dido was originally published in 1969 and marks a shift to more historical writing. This particular edition is published along-side Rosie Hogarth, an early Baron novel set in Islington, by New London Editions. The new edition of King Dido is superbly introduced by Hackney architectural writer Ken Worpole. Yet the setting would have been familiar to Baron. Set at the turn of the twentieth Century in the slums of Bethnal Green, it follows the fortunes of Dido, who finds himself running a protection racket in his local street following victory in a violent street bawl. However this is no Godfather style tale of rags to riches. Dido is unsuited to his role and yearns to work as a labourer once more. However family pride and a desire to please his new wife lead to a spiral of crime and violence.
The poverty of the lives lived by Dido and his family is vividly described as is the injustice and corruption, which plagues its inhabitants. The police turn a blind eye to the extortion of Dido and his rivals The Murchison’s. Dido is clever and resourceful but still finds it difficult to rise above his surroundings.
Violence is always close at hand and territory is measured in streets no one else cares about. This suffocation is evoked expertly by Baron. Dido’s territory is small and clearly defined to the area known as Rabbit Marsh slum near what is now Cheshire Street. (Journalist Peter Watts gives an excellent tour of this forgotten area in his London blog.)
Brick Lane is off limits for here the rival Murchison gang roams. Although the distances are small, the maize of slums makes even Old Street seem like another city. We also get a window into the ‘Upstairs-Downstairs’ world of the middle classes, with a botched burglary initiated by the bawdy servants of a large Victoria Park house.
Like Harry in The Lowlife Dido is a complicated protagonist, never entirely winning our sympathy and the author of his own downfall. Dido is more taciturn than Harry, uncommunicative and primitive. Like Harry though he is at the dawn of a new era, but stuck firmly in another. Harry has however enjoyed the benefits of travel and education whereas Dido has nothing but his wits and brute strength. Only sixty-odd years separate the two but East London has changed considerably by the time Harry-boy is laying bets.
Baron himself was born six years later than the setting of King Dido and would have been familiar with tales from the old brutal days. As a writer he was all too aware of how London is a place of constant change, where poor and rich live side by side but continue to operate in different worlds. Like James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, place assumes a heightened importance in Baron’s novels, it is as much part of the drama as the characters it has helped form.