HOME   UP

 

CHAPTERS  OF ACCIDENTS : A WRITER’S MEMOIR

By Alexander  Baron (edited by Colin Holmes and Nick Baron)

Valentine Mitchell. 363 pages. £16.95. ISBN 978-1-80371-029-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Authors’ reputations can wax and wane,” says Colin Holmes in his informative introduction to this posthumous memoir by  Alexander Baron. And he goes on to mention two more  writers – Jack Common and John Petty – who have slipped into near-total obscurity.  Iain Sinclair says much the same in his introduction to a reprint of one of Baron’s novels, The Lowlife (Black Spring Press, 2010), and adds a few  “forgotten” names -  Bernard Kops, Roland Camberton, Simon Blumenfeld, Willy Goldman – who, like Baron (born Alexander Baron Bernstein), came out of the Jewish population of London’s East End. Some of their novels have been reprinted in recent years, but I suspect they  were mostly noticed by readers with specific interests in the literature and politics of the period between 1920 and 1960. It occurs to me to refer to two articles entitled “Movements in the Underground” by John Hampson (who now reads  his Saturday Night at the Greyhound?) in the Spring and Summer 1946 issues of The Penguin New Writing. They list a number of then-active but now “forgotten” writers from  the years under discussion.  Or there is Andy Croft’s Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1990), another useful source for obscure and overlooked writers. 

Alexander Baron was born in 1917. His father had been born in what is now Poland, his mother  in Spitalfields, London. In his memoir Baron paints a vivid picture of life in the East End and surrounding districts, with its vibrant community and cultural activities. “Life was lived outside the fetid crowded houses”, he says, “Street vendors and other itinerants still came and sang their cries, the old rags-and-lumber man, the any-old-iron man, the knife grinder, cockles and mussels, cane-your-chairs, Indian toffee, the ice-cream man (“Joe Assenheim’s, they’re lovely”), and sometimes a newsboy, running with one arm holding a bundle of newspapers and under the other a poster like a flapping apron, shouting ‘Speshul! Speshul!’.  Sometimes it was a forlorn street singer, an old man with a cracked voice or a woman with a baby in her shawl; or it was the organ grinder playing and moving on intermittently. My mother was forever throwing pennies down into the street “.

His mother was a particular influence on his intellectual development and, Holmes says, “awoke in him an interest in Dickens”. It’s interesting to note that she had been a reader of the comic, Magnet, from  its inception in 1908 and introduced Baron to the writings of Frank Richards and his stories about the goings-on at Greyfriars School . I’m racing through most of Baron’s childhood. It’s colourful and I’m tempted to keep quoting from his account, but I need to move on.

He attended local schools, and began his secondary education  in 1929 at the Grocers’ Company School as a scholarship boy. He did well, but Holmes suggests that going to a grammar school, with its different ethos to that of neighbourhood primary establishments, could have a “destructive as well as a liberating influence”. Baron himself wrote that “School displaced home as a centre of my life. It was the place where I at last fitted in”. In line with the new intellectual pursuits he started to “explore life in London, far beyond the East End and also embarked early on a political career which would soon consume much of his energy”. He visited the Tate, went to the Academy Cinema to watch foreign films, and attended the theatre.

He was also developing a political consciousness. 1929, his first year at Hackney Down School (as the Grocers’ Company was known), was “one of the most significant in the history of the twentieth century”. The Wall Street Crash signalled the start of the Great Depression which brought economic misery to millions of people across the world, and led to the rise of competing political movements. It was perhaps inevitable that Baron as a teenager with an enquiring mind would be drawn to communism  and to Russia, its centre of operations. No other political party seemed to be offering a programme that would solve the major problems the world faced while, at the same time, liberating the working class from the chains of capitalism. With Stalin at its head the Russian Communist Party would set the standard  which all communist parties in other countries would adopt. It was hard to resist such an appeal, especially since it came at a time when, as Baron later said, it looked like the start of a “sort of  golden age of Western Communism”.  A  United Front  (or Popular Front, as it was also called) was declared, with communists now ready to co-operate with other parties to oppose Fascism. Previously, they had scorned partnerships with  Socialists, Social Democrats and Liberals.

Baron had earlier startled his parents when he announced that he was not going to be barmitzvahed: “ I said that if they forced me to go to the synagogue I would take a ham sandwich in my pocket and lay it down on the Scrolls of the Law, an unspeakable sacrilege”. And he further upset them when, in 1935, he had the opportunity to go to university. He decided against it and instead took a job as a clerk with London County Council (LCC). He was by then deeply involved with communist activities. He got to know Ted Willis, another ardent young communist who would, in later years, become well-known as the creator of the popular TV series, Dixon of Dock Green.When he was much older, and no longer involved with radical politics, he was awarded a life peerage and assumed the title, Baron Willis of Chislehurst. Alexander Baron also encountered John Gollan who was, Holmes says, a great influence on him until 1948. It’s curious, because Gollan appears to have had no interest in the arts, dismissing them as trivial pursuits at a time when there was a need to make a revolution. And  “Gollan despised intellectuals”.

Communist policy was to infiltrate certain groups and, by various means, such as bringing in others with similar designs, slowly take over control, and direct their policies towards friendly relations with the Communist Party, and even total subservience to its programme. Baron involved himself with the Labour Party’s  Labour League of Youth (LLY), even though he was also a member of the Young Communist League (YCL). I do think that, whatever else might be said about many of the people Baron came across, it would be difficult to deny their very real dedication to the cause they believed in. Writing about Alex Massie (“a former steel worker born in Aberdeen”) and Maggie Jordan (“a mill worker from Shipley in Yorkshire”), he says “I do not think that he or Maggie owned anything but the bare necessities.   When Alex came to London on his own he sometimes took a bed at a Salvation Army hostel  or a Rowton doss-house.......Recently a friend, recalling Alex and Maggie, called them saints. Of a sort, they were.  I loved them and still do”.    

Baron’s own dedication to the work of the Communist Party was complete. He threw himself into its activities to the almost-total exclusion of everything else. Even when ostensibly employed by LCC  he used its telephone and other facilities to deal with communist business. And his cultural concerns were determined by what the Party laid down. This extended to novels, poetry, and other aspects of literature that he read. He was involved in a learning process, but of a limited kind. He met old stalwarts of the trade union world like Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, and travelled to Paris where he came across Louis Aragon and other leading lights of the French Left.

I’m jumping around a little so as to indicate the extent of Baron’s commitment. He wasn’t just a member of the Party. He wanted to be an acknowledged  part of it. At one point he became assistant editor of the newly-established (1937) newspaper Tribune. Baron asserts that Harry Pollitt, head of the British Communist Party, was  quietly placing more and more Party members and sympathisers on the staff of  the paper as a means of bringing it under their control. There was also the Spanish Civil War. Baron was denied the opportunity to join the International Brigades. He was told he was too young and, in any case, was more useful to the Party with his present activities. He later wrote a novel, War Baby (Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham, 2019), about the experiences of an idealistic young British communist in Spain. It doesn’t paint a positive picture of Communist Party participation in the war, though this was Baron writing with hindsight.

The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact caused consternation in communist circles but did not affect Baron's allegiance to the Party line that Stalin could do no wrong, and therefore had good reasons for signing the Pact. When a fellow YCL member phoned to tell Baron that he was tearing up his Party card he simply replied “Good riddance” and slammed down the receiver. Looking back in his memoir he recalls that “Only one of its leaders protested and left the Party. This was George Aitken, who by his act refused to betray the dead of the International Brigade he had led in Spain”.   However, though the Party line was one of opposition to Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, Baron was keen to join up. Having long had an interest in aeroplanes he at first tried to volunteer for the Royal Air Force but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. When he was called up in 1940 the same reason saw him assigned to the Pioneer Corps, the Army’s general duties unit handling everything from road building to dealing with explosive devices, and often in the front line with the infantry.  Baron is said to have become something of an expert with certain explosive devices.

Although he remained a Party member until 1948 it can be safely asserted that the war years were the start of his general drift away from it. He was mixing with a variety of people from different backgrounds, whereas before his friends and acquaintances were mostly fellow Party members. Baron continued to read Party literature, and mentions Engels’ Origins of the Family as one of the books he tackled during his off-duty moments. An indication of his seriousness occurs later in his memoir when he writes about carrying around a copy of the The Soviet Constitution of 1936 known as The Stalin Constitution : “I lip-read to myself the clauses of his Constitution as if they were verses in Scripture. They proved to me that the Soviet Union was the freest country in the world. Here it was in black and white:  freedom of religion, freedom of speech, even freedom for the republics to secede”. But did the other “slim volume” in his pack point to a move away from communist ideology? It was a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the “epitome of bourgeois degeneracy”. 

He was ambitious to be more than just another soldier and “read all the military literature that I could get hold of”. He wanted to be transferred to an infantry regiment, and was also keen to be considered for  officer training. Did his Party membership, and perhaps his Jewish background, count against him in these matters? It’s possible, and there is evidence that he was under a degree of surveillance during his military service. 

I liked the section of the memoir dealing with the army years. I could recognise some of the typical routines and the characters from my own years in the army in the 1950s. And I was amused by the fact that Baron was stationed for a time at Barton Stacey  in Hampshire, a camp I spent some weeks at in 1954. I have memories of guard duties which required me to patrol around numerous empty huts at night checking that they were all secure. Reading Baron makes me wonder whether or not he may have lived in one of them before being shipped off for the invasion of Sicily in 1943. He did see action there, and again during the Normandy landings in 1944. He had been transferred to an infantry regiment  when he found himself on the beaches in France.

Although he maintained contact with the Party when he was discharged from the army in 1946 he had by 1948 separated himself from  membership. Thanks to Ted Willis he got involved with the left-wing Unity Theatre, and edited the magazine, New Theatre.  1948 was the year his war novel, From the City, From the Plough, was published by Jonathan Cape and was an immediate success, selling over one million copies. The memoir comes to a halt at this point, but the popularity of his novel ensured Baron could embark on a writing career. He went on to publish several more novels, write film and television scripts, and other material. He died in 1999, a somewhat neglected figure in the literary world.

Chapters of Accidents is a fascinating book and should appeal to anyone with an interest in the details of how a young man progressed from what was almost a Jewish ghetto in London’s East End, through the Communist Party politics of the 1930s, army life in the 1940s, and although it’s touched on only briefly, success as a writer in the 1940s. I’m probably old enough to be able to relate to many of the things Baron talks about.  I smiled when he mentioned seeing Tod Slaughter in the film, Maria Martin and the Murder in the Red Barn. It was still being shown in local cinemas when I was a boy in the 1940s. It’s perhaps too much to hope that the publication of the memoir will lead to a revival of curiosity about his work and he may continue to remain an unfairly neglected writer. But he has much to offer if one reads his books.