From the City, From the Plough: Ken Worpole on how Hackney author Alexander Baron wrote ‘the greatest book about warfare’

PUBLISHED: 07:56 12 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:15 12 June 2019

Alexander Baron in Eighth Army uniform, 1943. Picture: Five Leaves Bookshop

Alexander Baron in Eighth Army uniform, 1943. Picture: Five Leaves Bookshop

Five Leaves Bookshop

Ken Worpole tells Emma Bartholomew about meeting Alexander Baron - a Stoke Newington novelist who’s gone under the radar - but whose book about the D-Day landings is being republished by the Imperial War Museum this autumn

The front cover of the new book about Alexander Baron, So We Live.The front cover of the new book about Alexander Baron, So We Live.

Ken Worpole's first encounter with Alexander Baron was when he noticed a whole shelf of the author's books in Stoke Newington Library in the 1970s.

"This intrigued me," said Ken, a writer who was then an English teacher at Hackney Downs School.

"Some of his books were about fighting in the Second World War, and east London history - both of which I had an interest in, so I became quite fascinated by him."

In 1983 Ken went to meet Baron, then 64, at his north west London home. The resultant interview was to become a key biographical document that informs modern day literary critics of his work.

Alexander Baron. Picture: Nick BaronAlexander Baron. Picture: Nick Baron

"It was a long interview and he told me a lot about his life," said Ken, who along with five others has written an essay for the book exploring his work, So We Live.

Born into a working class Jewish home, Baron lived in Foulden Road off the high street.

As a young man he joined the Communist Party and was a leading activist and organiser of the Labour League of Youth, campaigning against the fascists in the streets of the East End. 
He served in the Pioneer Corps of the British Army and saw the thick of battle in Sicily and Normandy.

He went on to become one of the most admired writers of post-war Britain, publishing 15 novels. In the '50s he wrote screenplays for Hollywood, and by the 1960s he had become a regular writer on the BBC's Play for Today. In the '80s he was well known for drama serials like Poldark.

Alexander Baron. Picture: Nick BaronAlexander Baron. Picture: Nick Baron

His first novel, From the City, From the Plough (1948), was acclaimed as the definitive novel of the Second World War and gives a vivid account of preparations for D-Day and the advance into Normandy based on his first hand experience.

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It was the first of a trilogy including There's no Home (1950) and The Human Kind (1953). A string of novels followed about working class life in post-war London, including The Lowlife (1963) which achieved something of a cult status.

"He was a shy, retiring man," said Ken. "I found him very friendly and he was helpful, and he told me a lot about his life," said Ken.

Alexander Baron. Picture: Nick BaronAlexander Baron. Picture: Nick Baron

"I think he was apprehensive about going to war and joining the army when he got his call up papers, but he did really find himself admiring his fellow soldiers. A lot of them were from agricultural backgrounds or tough city areas. He became very respectful of them and that comes across in his books. Although they were tough they were also vulnerable as well."

Ken regards Baron's first novel, The Plough, as his greatest book.

"It is truly great because of this immense reservoir of sympathy that he had for the men who were fighting," said Ken. "He wrote with a perspective not seen before. I was born in 1944, and growing up as a teenager war books were all we read at that time. They were full of heroic escape stories, about submarines and all kinds of daring. From the Plough is one of the greatest books, if not the greatest, about the genuine experience of warfare, from the point of view of being out there in the fields and getting killed and killing other people.

"It is tragic, and the device he uses which is extremely powerful is that in the first section of the novel you get to know the different characters. Some of them are a bit dodgy, or not very bright, and you get to know them as individuals, and feel affection for them and suddenly they are all dead. That is quite shocking."

Alexander Baron. Picture: Nick BaronAlexander Baron. Picture: Nick Baron

The book was published by Cape and there was a launch party in Bloomsbury Square - but Baron told Ken he didn't ever attend.

"He got the 73 bus from where he lived, and he got off the bus and saw these glittering lights and hubble bubble of people drinking champagne and he decided he just couldn't go in. He lost his nerve," said Ken.

"He never saw himself in that kind of literary world. He was very much a young political activist on the left, and he always felt his role was to represent ordinary working class East End people - he never really mixed with the literary society.

"He deserves to be better known than he is and one way of doing this is not simply republishing the novels but to write a book of critical essays."

Ken Worpole. Picture: Larraine WorpoleKen Worpole. Picture: Larraine Worpole

Ken will be in discussion with two of the other authors who have contributed to So We Live - Nadia Valman, a reader in English Literature at Queen Mary University, and Susie Thomas, who has taught Baron's novels on her literature courses to American undergraduates in London - at 7pm tomorrow (Thu) at Pages of Hackney in Lower Clapton Road.

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