Invisible Ink: No 83 - Alexander Baron

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The Independent Culture

It's hard for frontline war writers to show an objective sensitivity to their subject matter while fighting for their country.

Alexander Baron is one of the most consistently underrated British novelists of the Second World War. A left-wing author and soldier who read Jane Austen in the bomb-craters of Normandy, he was interested in the psychological aspects of war, and wrote with unusual sympathy about the lives of ordinary women as well as squaddies, portraying them as essentially decent people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

The Hackney-raised Alexander Bernstein was born toward the end of one world war and served in another. In the 1930s, alongside his friend Ted Willis, he became a leading light in the Labour Party's League of Youth (which was 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 and again on D-Day, and used those experiences to write his 1948 first novel, From the City, From the Plough.

He followed this with There's No Home (1950), about British soldiers waiting out a lull in the war. The third part of the by now highly acclaimed trilogy was The Human Kind (1953), a series of linked vignettes that act as an overview of the entire war. The books benefited 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, Baron next 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 Jewish gangs, King Dido, remained a personal favourite. This post-war work was proof that serious literature could also be popular, and the shy, courteous Baron (whose failure of nerve once prevented him from attending his own launch party) now switched to film and TV. He was a regular writer on Play For Today, and subsequently adapted classics including Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair and Sense and Sensibility for television.

His elegant style and warm sense of humanity secured a reputation that's now enjoying a revival. Happily, his books are once more available from Black Spring Press.