Invisible Ink: Alexander Baron
It’s hard for frontline war writers to show an objective sensitivity to their subject matter while fighting for their country, but Alexander Baron certainly managed it. He’s one of the most consistently underrated British novelists of WWII.
A left-wing author and soldier who read Jane Austen in the bomb-craters of Normandy, he was interested in the psychological aspects of war, and wrote with unusual sympathy about the lives of ordinary women as well as squaddies, portraying them as essentially decent people caught in extraordinary circumstances.
Hackney-raised Alexander Bernstein was born toward the end of one world war and served in another. In the 1930s, together with his friend Ted Willis, he became a leading light in the Labour League of Youth (then affiliated with the Communist Party), but grew disillusioned with far-left politics after talking to fighters returning from the Spanish civil war. Serving in the British Army’s Pioneer Corps, he was among the first troops to land in Sicily during D-Day, using the experience to write ‘From the City, from the Plough’, one of the greatest war books of all time.
He followed this with ‘There’s No Home’, about British soldiers waiting out a lull in the war. The third part of the now highly acclaimed trilogy was ‘The Human Kind’, a series of linked vignettes that act as an overview of the entire war. The books benefitted from being in the first wave of popular Pan paperbacks. ‘The Human Kind’ was turned into a Hollywood travesty called ‘The Victors’, with Americans replacing British war heroes.
Although he had been convinced by Jonathan Cape to change his name to Baron, he now chose to write about the tumultuous lives of gamblers and prostitutes on the streets of the East End, and the Jewish migration to suburban 1960s North London in ‘The Low Life’ and its sequel ‘Strip Jack Naked’. His Jewish gambler anti-hero is a brilliant creation, aware of his own failures but kind enough to give up his eye to a blinded boy who needs a corneal transplant.
Baron’s epic novel of Edwardian Jewish gangs, ‘King Dido’, remained a personal favourite for him and me. Here is a tale that outlines, with infinite care, the causal link between poverty and crime. Its final pages are utterly heartbreaking, and carry tragic resonance. It is one of the greatest and least read novels about London ever written.
This postwar work was proof that serious literature could also be popular, and the shy, courteous Baron (whose failure of nerve once prevented him from attending his own launch party) now switched to film and TV. He was a regular writer on ‘Play For Today’, and subsequently adapted classics like ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for television.
His elegant style and warm sense of humanity secured a reputation that’s now starting to enjoy a revival. Happily, his books are once more available after years in the wilderness.