A Forgotten London Author
‘Wotcha’ is a traditional London greeting still very much in use, but I have only just discovered where it comes from. It’s an abbreviation of ‘What cheer’, a standard Edwardian London greeting. This gem, and many more come from the works of Alexander Baron, best known for his wartime trilogy but also the author of some cracking London novels.
Hackney-raised Alexander Bernstein was born toward the end of one world war and served in another. In the 1930s 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 his first novel ‘From the City, from the Plough’.
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 epic novel of Edwardian gangs in ‘King Dido’ remained a personal favourite. This postwar work was proof that serious literature could also be popular. The shy, courteous Baron once had a failure of nerve that prevented him from attending his own launch party, but his writing spoke for him, being tough, modern and visceral.