THE VOICE OF THE JEWISH EAST END

 

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.

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