BOOKS / Swords to ploughshares: John Williams meets the self-effacing Alexander Baron, author of an unfairly forgotten D-Day classic

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The Independent Culture
Among the thousands of British troops who landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 was a man who went on to write some of the best British novels of the next 20 years. The novelist was called Alexander Baron, and his first book, From the City, From the Plough, was the definitive fictional account of D-Day. If Baron is largely forgotten today, literary fashion is to blame. The type of plainly written realist novel of working-class life at which he excelled has been unfairly disdained for decades.

I visited Baron at his home in the calm suburban hinterland between Golders Green and the North Circular. In person, he is a quiet man who picks his words carefully, a compact, bespectacled individual as far removed from any macho stereotype as you could wish. And yet he's an ex-soldier who lived through years of extraordinary violence and terror.

D-Day saw Corporal Alexander Baron on a landing craft that was struck by a mine. His two companions died on the spot, while Baron flew through the air, landed in the water and got up to run to the front of his section, shouting (his lance-corporal told him later) 'Take the rear Frank, I'm not fucking dead yet.' Looking back, he believes that 'commemoration is in order, though celebration is perhaps inappropriate. As for D-Day, in my book the battalion that I described represented the fragile notional unity that did exist; decent people of all sorts got together, but the soldiers were the ones who had to make the ultimate effort. And they made it. And that I still find moving. I still find it sad that this unity is a thing of the past. If there are to be commemorations then that unity is what I would like to be recalled.'

From the City, From the Plough was Baron's first book. I wondered whether he had planned the novel even as he fought in the war: 'At the end of the war I didn't consciously think I was going to write a war novel but before my demobilisation I went before a rehabilitation committee and they said: 'What would you like to help you make a start in life?' I said, 'I'm a writer, I'd like a typewriter.' So they gave me a chit and I got one within a month, which was quite an achievement at the time.

'I began to write short stories and other pieces. All of which eventually became part of the novel. And gradually the form came to me: a county battalion of infantry - not crack troops - commanded by a middle-aged colonel, a plain man who came in from the Territorial Army. I wanted to write this story as a symbol of the temporary unity of what was best in the nation.'

The novel was immediately recognised as a modern classic, described by V S Pritchett as 'the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me'. It is written in scrupulously plain fashion, utterly without sentimentality. From the City at last gave the infantryman's perspective on the war and helped to explain why this victorious Churchillian nation should have given Labour an unprecedented landslide at the 1945 election.

After From the City, Baron went on to produce two more books about the war. First was There's No Home, the story of a few weeks spent by some English troops in the ravaged Sicilian town of Catania, which shows the degree to which the war cut through established moral codes, as troops and local women set up some kind of home together. The last part of the trilogy was The Human Kind, an ambitious collection of vignettes pitched between fiction and autobiography, short story and novel, which took pitiless stock of what the war had done to people and their sense of goodness or hope, political hope especially.

The war left Baron himself in a pretty poor state. He returned to his parents' house in Hackney, to the East End streets where, as a Jewish teenager in the Thirties, he had first had cause to fight against fascism. He began to write - theatre criticism during the day, to earn a living, and fiction at night. Despite the success of his first two books, Baron never really felt at home in the literary world: 'I was made much of at Jonathan Cape - those were the days when Jonathan Cape was run by Jonathan Cape himself - and they started inviting me to parties. I never went to any and so eventually they said: 'Now, Mr Baron, we're having a party for you.' I promised faithfully I would come. It was a beautiful summer evening. I set off on the 73 bus from Hackney. I've always been very shy and was all the more so after the war. I was very badly shaken up by then. I finally got off the bus at King's Cross and I walked through Bloomsbury. Then I saw a pub and I thought: 'I'll buy some Dutch courage.' So I stopped and had a double whisky . . . I arrived at the Cape offices, and I stood on the opposite pavement and looked up at the windows of the first-floor room where they held the parties, and I heard this sort of babble of well-bred, high-pitched conversation. My heart sank and I turned round and went home.'

Baron continued to produce novels throughout the Fifties and Sixties: London novels like Rosie Hogarth and The Lowlife, about a Jewish gambler; and East End historical fiction like King Dido. But by the time his last novel, an intriguing Spanish-set thriller called Franco is Dying, was published in 1973, his public had dwindled and Baron had turned his attention to writing for TV, beginning with dramas for the prestigious Armchair Theatre slot of the Sixties, and graduating to scriptwriting for classic serials like Vanity Fair. Now, in his early seventies, he's working on a long cherished project, a history and reassessment of the international communist movement.

But why isn't Baron in print? Why is a book like From the City, which sold a million copies in its day, now so neglected? Perhaps the answer has as much to do with the collective liberal attitude to the Second World War as with literary fashion. We seem, these days, to have a fear of the complex issues, a desperate desire to see things in black and white, allied to a self-lacerating sense of national guilt that makes us shy away from anything that might be seen as 'patriotism'. We have a fondness for the Spanish Civil War and its fiction because the goodies and baddies come clearly labelled, but if we must think still of the Second World War, then we would sooner think of the Jews, who were unanswerably victims, than of the poor bloody squaddies who fought and died in Italy and France and the Lowlands and Germany.

We find it hard to accept that all those old men you see with medals - and the ones who never got to be old - are heroes, no more or less than a Guevara or a Mandela. We will read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or Toni Morrison's Beloved . . . but not Alexander Baron's trilogy. And yet his books do what any great novels must do - and what so few of our more celebrated writers today are able to achieve - and that is to reveal us to ourselves.

(Photograph omitted)

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