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ALEXANDER BARON

FROM THE CITY FROM THE PLOUGH

Alexander Baron, who has died aged 82, was the greatest British novelist of the last war and among the finest, most underrated, of the postwar period. He burst on the literary scene in 1948 with his debut novel, From The City, From The Plough, described by VS Pritchett as "the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me'; and went on, through the 50s and 60s, to become a seminal London novelist, as well as pursuing a successful screenwriting career. Baron was born towards the end of the first world war in the heart of the then largely Jewish East End. He went to Hackney Downs school and was drawn into the anti-fascist struggle, combating Mosley's black-shirts on the streets of White-chapel. He was converted to communism and left school to follow a political path, being groomed by the party for great things. Disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact, he left the communists to become assistant editor of Tribune in 1939, before enlisting in the army. His experiences in Italy and Normandy left him physically and emotionally scarred, but provided the raw material for the extraordinary war trilogy that began his literary career.

While working as editor of New Theatre magazine, Baron published From The City, From The Plough, which met with immediate critical and popular acclaim. Written from the point of view of the squaddie, it is both a portrait of the British class system disintegrating, and an at times almost unbearably moving and visceral account of a group of soldiers who have landed in a situation in which heroism is the only available option.

From the Guardian obituary 2000 by John Williams

 

CHAPTER VIII

THE MAD MAJOR

AT twenty-six minutes past three on the morning of Friday, April 28th, the sergeant commanding the guard of the Fifth Battalion was sitting huddled over the stove in the long, gloomy guard-hut. The off-duty men lay sleeping in a row along one side of the hut, sprawled snoring or muttering on their palliasses with blankets heaped over them. There was a little pool of dim light in the centre of the hut, cast by the glowing stove and the flickering hurricane lamp at the sergeant's feet. The rest of the hut was in darkness. A bucket of cocoa stood on the stove. The sergeant had a Woodbine between his lips; his eyes smarted with fatigue and there was a fog of sleep inside his head. He wore his greatcoat like a cloak over his drooping shoulders. A clock on the bench beside him ticked thunderously in the silence; thirty-four minutes before the next change of sentries. He settled forward somnolently.

Away in the darkness at the end of the hut the door creaked. The sound crept into the guard commander's reeling consciousness; he was fingering the upturned collar of his coat and beginning to turn on the bench when the explosion split the silence into a million ringing fragments and the violet, blinding flash lifted him to his feet and flung him forward against the stove. In the next seconds, as the roar of the explosion lingered in the men's ears, echoing as if contained in the gloom and smoke of the guard-hut, it filled with fresh noises; the crash and clatter of the falling cocoa bucket, the moaning of the sergeant lying scorched and writhing by the red-hot stove, the clatter of boots and the confused hubbub of the off-duty men lurching, dishevelled, to their feet; violent voices outside the hut; and in the air, the sharp and heavy stink of high explosives.

Hubbub and confusion; men bending over the sergeant, dragging him out of the pool of cocoa that spread slowly on the dusty concrete; men ramming home the bolts of their rifles and staggering towards the door of the hut; and a voice, high and sharp as a whiplash:

'Turn out, the guard!'

The voice rallied the guard; each man stopped for a moment in his tracks; a startled tableau in the gloom.

'Outside, the guard! Come on, come on!'

They knew the voice. Savage understanding seeped into them. They clattered out of the hut and formed up in two lines in the darkness outside. The sergeant raised himself painfully on to all fours, then heaved himself up on to his feet. His left cheek was a great grey blister. He followed the men out.

The voice was lashing at them again in the darkness.

'Three minutes to turn out the guard. What do you think this is, a war or a Sunday afternoon picnics'

The men, plunged suddenly into the chill of the night, stood shivering over their rifles, peering sullenly at the slim, straight officer who stood before them; Major Maddison, commander of 'B' Company, the orderly officer for the night. He turned on the guard commander who stood, swaying slightly, beside him.

'I'll have you stripped for this, Sergeant,' he said. The words, flat, hard, even, whined past the men's ears like bullets. 'Sleeping over the stove on guard. If we'd been overseas you'd have all been dead men by now. I came past your sentry without being challenged. I opened the door of your guard-room. I threw a sixty-nine grenade in among you. If I'd been a German I'd have tossed something a little more deadly at you, you know. You'd have all been in little pieces now. And I could have taken a raiding party into the camp and shot the whole battalion to ribbons.'

The sergeant licked his dry lips and pressed his clenched fists into his sides. He could not speak.

'Get the men into open order.' The voice was lashing at his blistered face again. 'I'll inspect them.'

The sergeant croaked a command and the ranks parted. Major Maddison moved from man to man, flashing the light of his electric torch on each man's equipment to see that it was correctly worn, groping over their bodies with his hands to see that their waterbottles were full and their pouches packed with ammunition. Within the rough, enveloping clothes lean bodies cringed and stomach muscles contracted with shame and anger under the insulting hands.

The officer was away from them again, and the voice came at them once more from the dawn darkness.

'Change your sentries, Sergeant. Put the sentry on Number Three post under open arrest. And consider yourself under open arrest.'

The sergeant brought his rifle up on to his left shoulder and slapped the butt in salute. He spoke a final command and the men broke ranks and returned to the hut. He stood watching as the officer walked briskly away. Pain stabbed at his face and humiliation choked like a fist in his throat; his eyes were hot and he wished he were able to cry.

The men were waiting for him inside the hut.

'That mad bastard,' one of them growled, as the sergeant closed the door behind him and leaned wearily back against it, 'you can get him court martialled for that.'

'Them sixty-nine grenades,' said another, 'they're dangerous things. Mister Paterson told us. They can blow your foot off if they drop near enough. And that little lead pellet in them can kill someone.'

The 'sixty-nine' was a training grenade, made of bakelite, dangerous only for its noise and its blast; its use in confined spaces was forbidden.

The sergeant was standing with his hands over his face. One of the men came close and pulled the hands away. 'Christ,' he said, 'the sergeant's hurt. Look here.' The others crowded round.

'I fell with my face against the stove,' mumbled the sergeant. He was very weary now, and beginning to feel sick. 'I'm going down to the sick bay, get it dressed. Take over, Bill.'

'Don't worry, Sergeant,' his corporal said. 'Go down with him, Quinan.'

Quinan put his arm round the sergeant's shoulder and turned him to the door. They went out together.

'That Maddison,' said the corporal when they had gone. 'He'll get a bullet in the back one of these dark nights. He's mad. He's raving mad. That's all he lives for, war. War, war. He's not human.'

'D'ye mind, Corporal,' said one of the men, 'on that scheme last February?... would nae let his company have any rations for two days. The rest o' the battalion was feedin' a' the time. He said ye had tae lairn tae go hungry in war.'

'I know,' said the corporal, 'he was instructing up at the div. battle school when I was there. A platoon was coming off the assault course and he heard 'em grumbling. He took 'em back round the course twice, without stopping. Half of 'em dropped in their tracks. He went round with 'em. You know,' he said, 'he's a tough bugger. He trains like a bloody greyhound. He don't smoke. He don't drink. They say he can't stand the sight of women.'

'What the ——ing hell does he live for, then?' asked one of the men.

'I told you,' answered the corporal, 'war. He thinks there's nothing like it. He thinks doin' all this kind of thing's for our own good. At the battle school he used to come on parade and point his stick at you and shout, "What's your job, soldier?" And you had to come up to attention and shout back at him, "Kill." '

The corporal walked back to the centre of the hut, settled himself on the bench by the stove and pulled his greatcoat across his shoulders like a cloak.

'Kill,' he said gloomily, 'God knows what they'll do with men like that when all this is over. Shut 'em up like mad dogs, I reckon.'

'They'll send the likes of him out to India,' said one of the men, 'to keep the blacks in their places.'

'Ye mean they'll send 'em tae the Clyde,' said the Scot who had spoken before, 'tae keep us in our places.'

'Maybe,' said the corporal. 'Go up the cookhouse, Scotty, and ask the night cook for some more cocoa. Get into kip, the rest of you.'

The men settled down on their palliasses, some to sleep, some to talk softly. The corporal leaned forward, relaxed, towards the heat of the stove. Around him there was a splash, flickering and undefined, of dim light, from the, hurricane lamp and the glowing stove. The rest of the hut was in darkness.

There still hung faintly in the air the acrid smell of high explosive.

 

'Who's the last one?' asked Colonel Pothecary.

'Scannock, sir,' said the R.S.M. stiffly, 'he's up again — drunk, fighting, fouling the billet, insubordination. And Major Maddison's waiting to see--you after that.'

'Scannock,' said the colonel wrathfully. 'I'm sick of seeing that man. Last time he was in here I talked to him like a Dutch uncle. It doesn't seem to have done him any good.'

'It's only the drink he lives for, sir,' said the R.S.M. 'He's Irish from Liverpool —as low as they come—live like a pig, work like a horse, drink like a fish.'

'Bring him in,' said the colonel.

Low as they come, thought the colonel, as the prisoner and his escort marched in, their boots crashing in quick-time on the concrete floor. He looked up at the man in front of him. Scannock the Scouse, the terror of the battalion; Scannock who, drunk, would knock a man down and trample his face with steel-shod boots; Scannock, a queer, sagging shape of a man, a paradox of muscle and fat; Scannock, who could stand to attention with his back rigid but his shoulders hunched hopelessly forward; Scannock, an uncomprehending face of seamed brown leather, a wide low forehead overhung with untamed black hair, a flat nose with broad nostrils that would twitch in anger, a glimpse and a stench of yellow teeth between slack and drunken lips.

The sergeant-major was intoning the charges, the row of men in front of the colonel's table stood rigidly, each swaying ever so slightly on boots that might have been cemented into the floor.

The colonel scratched with the third finger of his right hand at the green baize tablecloth, counted the holes and the inkstains, plucked at a loose end of green cotton. Like another race of beings, he thought, remembering the grey Liverpool streets, the shrieking tenements, the smell of cabbage-water and dust and babies. He thought of his own home, the rooms sweet and full of sunlight, and the homes of his workpeople. He knew them well, for he lived on good terms with his people; their world was the same as his and the little front parlours in the little Lancashire streets were all neat and clean, with shining brass and gleaming blackleaded grates, the curtains fresh, the windows fanatically cleaned, the mirrors, the crockery, the souvenirs from Blackpool all spotless. He knew these people and liked them, but...

'Sir, at twenty-three forty-one hours on Saturday, April 2pth ..." the corporal was staring over the colonel's shoulder at the wall and reciting his evidence with the toneless regularity of a machine gun.

. . . but, thought the colonel, hearing the evidence remotely as a noise, without taking it in ... but deep down, at the bottom of society, far below workpeople like his own, feared and hated and despised, indeed, by them, was a submerged multitude of Scannocks; in every port, in every great city there was a slumful of them; the ones who worked the longest for the lowest wages; who were little trouble to their employers because they were like beasts of burden and because they rarely came together, like other working men, to fight, but fought each man for himself, more often than not with each other, wild, anarchic beasts.

The corporal was still giving evidence. The colonel half-heard him, each phrase registering as a confirmation of his own thoughts. 'Entered the camp drunk and singing ... urinated in the doorway of his hut... fell asleep across his bed fully clothed ... spewed and urinated in his bed ... refused to clean his own bed area in the morning ... said it was the billet orderly's job ... swore at his section corporal, was insubordinate, was placed under close arrest...."

The colonel knew Liverpool. When he was a young man, before he had set up on his own, he had worked in Liverpool as a foreman, with a dozen Scannocks under him. He could see Scannock's home now, while the corporal was talking; the room on the stone landing, the man and his wife hiccuping drunk and wrestling across the stale bed, with bugs dropping on to the pillow from the wet, peeling wall and the children huddled staring in the other bed across the room; the wife, ancient at thirty, with puffy red face, wispy hair and flaccid, pendant breasts, squatting over the stinking bucket in the corner; the husband washing in the bowl of scummy grey water that had been standing three days on the table.

Scannock was speaking now, defending himself lamely, gutturally. The man did not understand, he did not know, he must be wondering what these people were so upset about. We took him, thought the colonel, for the first time in his life since he escaped from school at fourteen; we took him and we made him wash every day and take a bath every week; we made him cut his hair and shave and even, occasionally, clean his teeth; we put him in a clean uniform and made him change his underclothes every week; we made him eat with a knife and fork and leave the table clean; we made him use the lavatory; we made him do these things, but he can't for the life of him, see why; to him these things are not yet the normal processes of life; they are silly, irksome, unnecessary things the Army is forcing him to do. And when he's drunk, when he wets his bed, when he swears at another man who happens to wear two stripes on his sleeve, there's nothing, in the foggy hinterland of that brain of his, to tell him he is doing wrong. When I sentence him it won't be a punishment to him, but a blow struck at him by his enemy, the world. Justice has as little logic for him as a lorry charging down upon him from a Merseyside fog.

'Twenty-eight days field punishment,' said the colonel. 'Ask Major Maddison to come in, please.'

 

He told Maddison to sit down, and watched him pull a chair up to the table.

'Smoke?'

'No thank you.'

The colonel decided to be firm with the man, but his resolution melted now that they were face to face. After all, he was a damn good soldier; the brigadier thought the world of him and even the divisional commander remembered his brilliant record as an instructor at the battle school.

'There may be trouble about that grenade in the guard-room, Maddison,' he said at last.

'Why?' Maddison asked coolly. He was short, alert and tensed as a terrier, hard and slim.-

'There'll be an Accident Report Form going through.'

'Did the sergeant make any trouble?' asked Maddison.

'No,' said the colonel, 'he came and asked my advice.'

'What did you tell him?'

'I asked him to forget the matter.'

'For my sake,' the colonel had said to the sergeant. Ill at ease with his officers, whom he regarded as gentry, as people a cut above himself, the colonel was on the most intimate of terms with many of his n.c.o.s. Alone, once in a while, with a sergeant or a sergeant-major, he would speak as frankly, confide as gratefully as a brother.

'You asked him?' echoed Maddison bitterly. -'God, this British army is a pantomime. You asked him; I catch the man out, I teach him and a dozen other soldiers a lesson they'll never forget — a lesson that may save their lives one day — and because he gets a burn and a bit of a fright I'm supposed to tremble in my shoes. Do you know,' he said, 'what they do in the German Army? They strap officer candidates in an electric chair and put shocks through them to see how they endure. That's soldierliness. That's manhood.'

'That's the German army,' said the colonel, ‘this isn't.' Major Maddison had spent a holiday in Germany before the war. He still remembered with a glow the green-clad giants goose-stepping in ranks of sixty-four past the saluting base with burnished spades at the slope; the young men playing volleyball, naked and sunburned, their blond hair all tousled; the avenues of white masts with their flags streaming and crackling in the wind.

'More's the pity,' said Major Maddison. 'Every time I look at my men I wonder what'll happen to them when they meet the enemy. Do you know what we've got to beat?' he asked. 'Soldiers, Spartans, trained and hardened from boyhood, as men should be trained, ruthless and fearless and in love with death, as men should be. Not dragged to war but going gladly. Bound by the mystic communion of soldiers.’

The colonel, like everyone in the officers' mess, had often heard Maddison talking about the mystic communion of soldiers. Neither the colonel nor the most be-ribboned of his officers had any idea what this was.

'And then,' said Maddison disgustedly, 'I look at this rabble of mongrels we're trying to turn into soldiers. Slack and spineless in their clothes. Hands in their pockets and cigarettes in the corners of their mouths as soon as your back's turned. Their only pleasures are to sit with their women gaping at a cinema screen. . .' Maddison hated the women whom he saw clinging to the arms of his men; shrill and white-skinned creatures, soft as slugs, stinking of scent; they turned his stomach '... or drooping about in a dance hall listening to some Jewboy crooning through a microphone. Not a warrior among them.'

'Thank God for that,' said the colonel heartily. 'Warriors, indeed!'

'My job,' said Maddison obstinately, 'is to train men for battle. The divisional commander approves of my methods. We had casualties every day at the div. battle school. There were no complaints. I was told it showed that I was doing my job. What I want to know now is, are you going to back me up or aren't you?'

'What I want to know,' said the colonel, 'is... are you going to stick to safety regulations or aren't you?'

'Sweat saves blood,' said Maddison. 'The men must learn to suffer.'

'Brains save sweat,' said the colonel. 'Teach the men to think.'

'I'll teach them to fight,' said Maddison. Sometimes he had hope for his men; sometimes he felt kinship with them. When a man came crashing through a barbed-wire obstacle, the pencil-lines of blood seeping up from the scratches across his face; when a platoon came streaming over a wall like a pack of hounds, Major Maddison would feel excited and close to them; and when, especially, he went down as he often did to see them going through the showers he would stand in the doorway of the long, noisy hut, watching the fine, slender young men padding about, naked and gleaming wet behind veils of steam; he would grow exultant with emotions which he could not fathom and would walk away flushed with love for these men of his — until,
looking down into the lane below the camp, he would see a soldier strolling with his girl and would feel sick and contemptuous once more. '

The colonel stood up behind his table. 'You'll teach them to fight,' he said curtly, 'and I'll tell you how. No more sixty-nine grenades in huts. No more of your little pranks with guncotton. Keep out of trouble, Maddison. There's going to be enough trouble for us all in a very little while.'

Maddison smiled grimly. 'Trouble you call it? I say speed the day.'

The colonel could stand the other man's presence no more. 'That's all,' he said. 'I shall treat it as a disciplinary matter next time.' He looked at his wristwatch. 'I think I'll get a wash before dinner,' he said. 'I'll see you in the mess.'

 

'I wish I could make up my mind about that man.' The colonel, back in his own hut, was drying his hands on a towel and speaking to Noel Norman.

'Maddisom' said Norman languidly. 'The men call him the Mad Major. He's a horrid little tick. He gives me the creeps. He was a superintendent, or something, before the war, in the police force.'

'Yes,' said the colonel. 'When he sits there hammergagging about the mystic communion of soldiers I don't feel it's safe to trust my men with him. Yet he's a brave man — a good soldier — I'm tempted to say the best officer in my battalion. Better than you, Noel.'

'That isn't much of a recommendation.'

'Yes,' said the colonel. 'I can't help respecting him for that.'

There was an uneasy silence for a moment.

'Heard from the boy yet?' asked Norman.

'No,' said Colonel Pothecary. 'There's no news yet. But the shipping office says it's quite normal. They're away at sea for weeks at a time.' His voice was obstinately cheerful. 'Can't post letters at sea, you know.'

'Of course,' said Major Norman. 'Let's go down to dinner.'

'I reckon we'll be away before he's back from this voyage,' the colonel went on. I'Did I tell you what they were saying up at Brigade this morning? There's a regular sweepstake on up there. I even heard the date named.'

'May the fifteenth?' laughed Norman.

'Yes,' said the colonel. 'How did you know?'

'My batman told me,' answered Major Norman. 'He heard it in the Horse and Hounds.'

The door banged behind them.

 

'May the fifteenth, I tell you.' There was a crush of men arguing round the wall map in the battalion canteen. At the green, beer-stained tables there were as many men discussing, disputing, crowding over newspapers, as there were playing cards. Every night there was news to make them more excited, more argumentative. The air offensive over France and Germany was reaching proportions that had never before been known. A security ban had been applied to prevent foreign diplomats from entering or leaving the country and from sending any communication out of the country. A Defence Regulation had been introduced to permit the control of roads in southern England for military traffic. All overseas travel had been cancelled. England was being sealed off from the outside world. German E-boats were prowling the Channel in search for the massing of an invasion fleet; the newspapers reported clashes at sea, and the men of the Fifth Battalion themselves sometimes heard, in the silent night, the distant thudding of guns from across the dark waters.

'May the fifteenth.' Alfie Bradley sat in a corner of the canteen, insulated from the noise around him, his heart thumping with excitement, penning the ninth page of a letter to his Floss — whom he would be seeing again in five days' time.

'May the fifteenth.' In the corporals' clubroom at the end of the canteen hut Corporal Gonigle sat at the piano, lackadaisically playing 'Some of These Days' in a broken, discordant rhythm. Meadows and Warne, two corporals who had come back from the desert, lounged against the piano and talked in turn at him through the blue cigarette smoke.

'Ay,' said Meadows, 'another couple of weeks, man, an' we'll be duckin' mortars again.'

'Blood an' shite,' said Warne gloomily, 'more blood an' shite.'

Gonigle had not yet been in battle. He had spent a lot of time, mostly at nights, wondering what it would feel like ducking mortars.

'May the fifteenth, is it?' he said. 'I must say it's the openest secret I ever heard.' He went on thumping the piano doggedly.

May the fifteenth, thought Major Maddison standing in front of the mirror on the wall of his hut, Lord God of battles, let it be so. May the fifteenth. He saw himself, bleeding and smoke-blackened, lurching forward through a rain of down-pattering earth with the explosions reverberating in his ears; he saw himself snatching up a rifle and wielding a reddened bayonet; he could feel it meeting the coy resistance of flesh; there was a tickle of delight in his biceps as he thought of it.

He fumbled in the drawer of his bedside table and took out a little box. There was a strip of ribbon in the box. He stood close to the mirror and held the piece of ribbon against his left breast. With the first finger of his right hand he stroked the right side of his moustache. Something moved in the corner of the mirror. He turned angrily — still holding the ribbon to his breast — and saw his batman standing in the doorway of the hut.

'Get out,' he snarled. 'And knock before you come in next time.'

The batman, panic-stricken, bobbed an unnecessary salute, slammed the door behind him, and scuttled away to the officers' mess kitchen to tell how he had seen Major Maddison trying on the ribbon of the D.S.O. in front of his mirror.