A Jew and an Arab in 1960s London
Alexander Baron, The Lowlife (London: Black Spring, June 2010), pp.192, pbk., ISBN-10: 0948238453, ISBN-13: 978-0948238451, £9.99
Waguih Ghali, Beer in the Snooker Club (London: Serpent’s Tail, December 2010), pp. 220, pbk., ISBN-10: 184668756X, ISBN-13: 978-1846687563, £7.99
2010 looks set to be a great year for the literature of London, with two much underrated novels being reissued: Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963) and Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964). Much of the tedium of my last ten years of commuting has been alleviated by reading post-war London literature: overall, not a trackless desert of print but, on the contrary, a remarkably diverse and fascinating fictional city. Even given the pleasures provided by Muriel Spark, Sam Selvon, Jean Rhys, Graham Greene and Hanif Kureishi, these two novels stand out from the crowd. They are books to read and read again, to give to friends and to set on courses; the only problem has been getting hold of enough copies. So it is excellent news that Black Spring Press has picked up The Lowlife (previously published by The Harvill Press) and that Serpent’s Tail will reissue Beer in the Snooker Club later this year.
At first glance these two writers would not seem to have much in common: a rich Arab and a poor Jew. Ghali (1930?-1969) came from an upper-class Coptic family, who spoke English and French better than Arabic, played croquet in the Gezira Sports Club in Cairo and shopped for shoes in Milan. Ghali’s father died when he was young, so he became the poor relation, neglected by his mother once she remarried and patronised by the wealthy members of his family. Outraged by the poverty and injustice endemic to Egyptian society, and by European colonialism, Ghali became an international communist. Baron (1917-1999), the son of a Polish-born furrier, grew up in the East End of London in a loving and supportive working-class Jewish family. In the 1930s he was active in the anti-fascist struggle and joined the Young Communists; he was working on a history and reassessment of the international communist movement at the time of his death. Both novelists were profoundly political, although neither was doctrinaire or overtly polemical.
To give some idea of the distinctive qualities of these novels it is probably best to allow the narrators to introduce themselves. Both books tell a good story but they depend primarily on the seductive quality of their individual voices.
Here is the narrator of The Lowlife: ‘My name is Harryboy Boas. (Bo-as, two syllables please.) At the moment I have thirty pounds in the world. But I face the future with confidence. The dogs are running at White City tonight.’ He gambles compulsively (‘Who is making my fingers move?’) and at every opportunity: ‘show me a way of losing money and I will try it’. He is lured on by fantasies of wealth and largesse: ‘All the schnorrers will be round you and you will hand out loans like an emperor’. But Harryboy also knows that gambling has more to do with the death instinct than with winning: ‘The gambler is the one who goes on with no peace, no release, till he has annihilated himself’. He dreams of finally making good by snapping up a slum in the East End: ‘I could get a whole tribe of immigrants in here, straight off the boat, paying me a pound a week each to kip on mattresses on the floor. My golden future’. But he loses the house in a crap game: ‘Empty, the burden of possession lifted from me, I walked away’. Although Harryboy (like Baron) fought against the Nazis in WW2, he suffers an almost overwhelming guilt; it is as if he can only become innocent if he has nothing. The dream of getting the money and the girl is always overwhelmed by the ghosts of the past, who seem more real than anything in the present. His mother was killed by a flying bomb; there is ‘not even a body’. But the smells of Hessel Street, the last ghetto market, where she shopped, are pungently evoked: ‘a thickness of mixed cooking, laundry on the boil and the odours of many people close together. I love it, the stink of home, of all that is good.’ His ‘mild and affectionate’ papa, who used to take him to the Fieldgate Street synagogue, died in agony from gangrene: ‘He was everybody’s friend. Was God his friend, when he died?’ Beneath the wisecracks, Harryboy is a man in deep mourning: for his parents, the Holocaust, for the son he may have had with a young Jewish girl he left in Paris: ‘I cannot forget like others do. You can forget a million children. You cannot forget one child’. A major strand in the plot concerns Harryboy’s friendship with a six-year-old boy, whom he wants so save heroically, but ‘[his] great gesture [falls] as flat as all [his] other great plans’.
Ram, the narrator of Beer in the Snooker Club, is (like Harryboy) an obsessive reader. With his friend Font he dreams of coming to Europe: ‘I read and read … and I wanted to live. I wanted to have affairs with countesses and to fall in love with a barmaid and to be a gigolo and to be a political leader and to win at Monte Carlo and to be down-and-out in London and to be an artist and to be elegant and also to be in rags.’ Unlike many gloomy stories of migration to the metropolis, Ram finds that London lives up to his breathless expectations. He is befriended by the Dungate family in Hampstead and the working-class Ward family and their friends (in the process he becomes conscious of class distinctions). But Ram feels that ‘the mental sophistication of Europe has killed something good and natural’ in him: ‘I have become a character in a book or in some other feat of the imagination; my own actor in my own theatre; my own spectator in my own improvised play. Both audience and participant in one – a fictitious character’. Even the attempt to act authentically is an ‘act’. Sick of his own phoniness, he decides to ‘find himself’ by renting a room in the East End. His older and wiser friend, Edna, asks: ‘“Are you sure a room in the East End is not a part of the books you have read? ”’ London is the city where he gains his political awareness:
All this comes of hearing Father Huddleston speak, of knowing who Rosa Luxembourg was, of seeing Gorki’s trilogy in Hampstead. It comes of Donald Soper in Speaker’s Corner, of reading Koestler and Alan Paton and Doris Lessing and Orwell and Wells and La Question and even Kenneth Tynan. Of knowing how Franco came to power and who has befriended him since, of Churchill’s hundred million to squash Lenin and then later the telegram; of knowing how Palestine was given to the Jews and why … of the bombing of Damascus and Robert Graves’s Good-bye.
Ram returns to Egypt but is thoroughly disillusioned by the revolution: the fellaheen are little better off, despite Nasser’s attempted land reforms, and Jews and communists are persecuted. Edna has been whipped by a soldier (because she is Jewish) and her beautiful face is badly scarred. Ram and Font seem to drift — disillusioned idealists, drinking homemade ‘Bass’ in the snooker club where Font has been found a job ‘brushing the snooker tables with the Literary Supplement’. Secretly Ram gathers evidence of torture in Egyptian prisons for a human rights organisation but his activism backfires: he has ‘the terrible feeling that some of the pictures wouldn’t be so gory if we didn’t pay for them’ and none of the newspapers dares to publish them. Overcome with a sense of futility, Ram marries the wealthy and beautiful Didi Nackla and the novel ends with a cynical Ram heading off for a night of gambling and getting drunk at Groppi’s.
Although Alexander Baron’s novels have been sadly neglected, he has been lucky in his recent advocates. Iain Sinclair wrote the introduction to the Harvill edition of The Lowlife; John Williams produced a moving obituary in The Guardian; Ken Worple introduced King Dido, recently reissued by New London Editions (2009); and Andrew Whitehead is writing the introduction to a forthcoming edition of Baron’s Rosie Hogarth. The Baron renaissance is well under way: the first part of Baron’s best-selling WW2 Trilogy, From the City to the Plough, is about to be republished too (Black Spring, June 2010). There is currently considerable interest in the literature of the East End, which provides a useful context for Baron’s work, without in any way detracting from his originality.
Ghali too has had good literary friends – first and foremost Diana Athill, who took a chance on publishing the unknown Egyptian (long before multiculturalism was fashionable) and who provided Ghali with a London home, where tragically he committed suicide leaving behind the second novel which he could not finish. (For a moving portrait of Ghali and Athill’s friendship with him, see Diana Athill’s After a Funeral). Since his death, his work has also been promoted by the novelist Adah Souief. With its themes of exile, identity, imperialism and cultural schizophrenia, Beer in the Snooker Club should easily have found a place in postcolonial London literature. Ram is the cousin of Naipual’s Ralph Singh and of Selvon’s Galahad but, perhaps because Ghali only finished one novel, he has remained the poor relation even posthumously. This has been a great loss because Beer in the Snooker Club is funnier, more politically astute and more moving than The Mimic Men or even The Lonely Londoners.
It is also striking that fans of Baron tend not to have heard of Ghali, and vice versa. Britain’s separate literary and critical traditions (in which the working-class novel and psychogeography run parallel with, but never seem to meet, the multicultural novel) have kept these two great imaginers of 1960s London apart. The publication this year of Beer in the Snooker Club and The Lowlife is a great opportunity to introduce lovers of the one to the other and to offer them both to the lucky readers who have yet to make the acquaintance of either.
Thomas, Susie. “Alexander Baron.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 11 March 2009.
Thomas, Susie. “Waguih Ghali.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 12 September 2008.
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review: A Jew and an Arab in 1960s London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2010/thomas.html. Accessed on [date of access].