Alexander Baron: war of words
Alexander Baron wrote the Second World War’s answer to All Quiet on the Western Front. It was a huge bestseller, so why is he relatively unknown today? A new book seeks to restore his fame
13 June, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Alexander Baron: Born Alec Bernstein, publishers Jonathan Cape suggested he use a surname that would fit down the spine of a book
ALEXANDER Baron’s novel From The City, From The Plough was held in such high regard in the aftermath of the Second World War that when former minister Sir James Grigg reviewed it, he sent his copy on to British troop commander Field Marshal Montgomery.
It was described as the conflict’s answer to All Quiet On The Western Front, and perhaps the greatest English language novel about the war – yet its bestselling author is largely forgotten.
Now a new book, featuring a selection of essays, interviews and excerpts, celebrates the novelist – and its editors hope it will help new readers discover his brilliance.
Edited by academic Dr Susie Thomas, historian and journalist Andrew Whitehead and writer Ken Worpole, So We Live explores his career as a journalist, novelist, playwright and script writer. It considers his politics and background. It offers the reader a companion to an author who sheds light on life in mid 20th-century London, the build-up to the Second World War, its aftermath, and the conflict itself – all told through the eyes of the millions of people who lived through it.
Susie Thomas explains in her introduction how she and other enthusiasts formed “The Baron Six” in 2017 to consider and promote his work. The result is this appreciation, coupled with a new edition of From The City, From The Plough due to be published in September.
Born Alec Bernstein into a working-class Jewish family, he grew up in Hackney. He became Alexander Baron when publishers Jonathan Cape suggested he use a surname that would fit down the spine of a book.
Literature had always been present in his life: Ken Worpole interviewed the author in the early 1980s and says his family regarded themselves as free thinkers who read Dickens together. Alexander recalled weekly visits to the library and said “the best education is to read widely and indiscriminately”.
As a teenager, when he wasn’t at Hackney Downs School, which would also teach Steven Berkoff, Harold Pinter and Abram Games, he “wasn’t at home, either,” writes Worpole.
Instead, he was soaking up the political atmosphere of 1930s east London streets. As with so many of his generation, watching the spectre of fascism and Nazism, he was drawn to communism and became an active member, editing party newspapers.
Baron joined up at a recruiting office in Islington in July 1940 and fought in Sicily, Italy and Normandy. He was promoted to corporal but his political past stymied any further advancement.
His army experiences gave him the material he needed for the novel he had long wanted to write – and after being demobbed he was given a portable typewriter to work on by the government.
In 1948, From the City, From The Plough was published – and became an instant bestseller, which prompts the authors of these essays to ask why, despite its undoubted excellence and popularity, has it fallen out of view?
“One answer would be the story of the Second World War has been told more dramatically in films,” writes Thomas.
“The golden age of 20th-century war literature seems to have been the First World War.”
Baron told Worpole he believed the majority of war novels from Britain were penned by “intellectuals to whom the army was an agony… an awful experience of sleeping with 35 ruffians. The officers did not seem to have the Robert Graves touch. Graves, Sassoon knew the Tommies were the men getting the rough end of the stick.”
After the war, Baron worked as the editor of New Theatre magazine, linked to The Unity Theatre, the politically charged performance production company based in King’s Cross and Somers Town. But the success of From The City, From The Plough would allow him to concentrate on novels.
Further books include Rosie Hogarth, the story of a woman who lives near Chapel Market in Islington and whose family believe her shady secretive life means she must be working as a prostitute – though in fact she is a communist leading a double life.
The two other war novels linked with From The City, From The Plough were There’s No Home (1950) and The Human Kind (1953).
The Human Kind again showed Baron’s ability to capture the voices of the men and women who went through the war.
“It is probably one of his bleakest works,” writes Sean Longden.
“There is little action or drama – instead we see slices of life in wartime.
“We see drunks who hate the world, passionately brief love affairs between men and women unable to speak each other’s languages, boastful cowards and quiet heroes. As readers we visit smoky railway carriages, bleak Nissen huts, the vineyards of Sicily and the brothels of Antwerp.”
So We Live is a wonderful appreciation to a man who deserves fresh recognition: Baron’s story, and those he told, illuminate a formative shared experience of a generation.
• So We Live: The Novels of Alexander Baron. Edited by Susie Thomas, Andrew Whitehead and Ken Worpole, Five Leaves, £12.99