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Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963): Remembering the Holocaust in Hackney

Susie Thomas

The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011)


<1> Alexander Baron’s Hackney novel, The Lowlife, is haunted by the Holocaust from the first page to the last. Some of Baron’s other novels touch on Jewish themes but most do not. Baron did not to want to be pigeonholed, saying that he ‘always had a personal rebellion against the idea of a separate Jewish identity’. He told Ken Worpole: ‘My father and both my grandfathers were free thinkers and so am I’. At the outset of his literary career Baron even changed his name from Alec Bernstein to Alexander Baron at the request of his publisher. According to Sean Longden’s introduction to Baron’s first novel, From the City, from the Plough, published in 1948, the name change was not a cover for anti-Semitism: ‘quite simply Bernstein didn’t fit comfortably on the spine. [Cape] told him to find a five letter name, and so Alexander Baron was born’. Maths is not my strong point but how come there are more letters in the new name than the old one? It is hard not to suspect that someone at Cape reckoned a novel about the ordinary soldiers’ experience of WWII would sell more comfortably without a Jewish name on the spine. And indeed From the City, from the Plough became a bestseller.

<2> In a recent article in the New Statesman celebrating the republication of five of Baron’s novels, Ken Worpole aptly describes him as a ‘sapper and a mensch’. But, ironically, these two terms were not deemed to belong together in the immediate postwar period. Baron’s With Hope, Farewell, about a Jewish fighter pilot, was actually greeted with disbelief by some reviewers when it was published in 1952. Andrew Whitehead points out on his webpage about Baron that the climax of the novel takes place after the war, when Mark Strong and his wife are caught up in fascist rally in Dalston, and Ruth suffers a miscarriage. Andrew Whitehead describes it as a ‘dispiriting novel’. And no wonder. As a teenager Baron had fought Mosley’s blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street; he spent five years in the infantry fighting fascism; when he returned home, physically and psychologically shattered, he found Mosley’s supporters staging their postwar comeback in Ridley Road: his faith in humanity must have seriously miscarried for a while.

<3> I don’t know how Baron felt about being asked to change his name but, rather like the Bronte sisters’ reluctance to assume ‘positively masculine’ noms de plume, which resulted in the androgynous Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, perhaps Alec Bernstein chose Baron because it is not necessarily a Jewish surname, but it could be. It’s also not clear exactly why Baron decided to revisit Hackney and WWII a decade after his unsuccessful novel, With Hope, Farewell, but he told Ken Worpole: ‘I had to write a Jewish novel. I had to get something off my chest’.

<4> Baron wrote his first novel, From the City, from the Plough, as a form of collective therapy: he put down his own experience of boredom and terror, and the boredom and terror of every other poor bugger who went through the war. The novel specifically memorialises those who died during the D Day landings. Despite the vivid evocations of the bombs and the many dead, it is not a bloke-ish novel in the least (perhaps the difference between a bloke and a mensch is that a mensch is unashamed to cry). There is an extraordinary scene when the soldiers are walking down a country path in Normandy and they pluck roses from the hedgerows to tuck in their helmets. A few pages later most of them are blown to smithereens. Alec Bernstein went through that and he wrote about it almost immediately. As Sean Longden points out, many veterans have testified to the power and truth of the novel and to the catharsis of seeing their experience accurately portrayed in fiction.

<5> But Baron did not – or could not – write about the Holocaust immediately; it took him nearly twenty years to do so. There may have been personal reasons for this but many historians of the Holocaust stress the period of silence and repression that lasted until the Eichmann trial in 1961 (Rothberg, 22). It is often argued that the trial brought the Nazi genocide of European Jews into the public sphere for the first time as ‘a unique episode that has no equal’ (Ben-Gurion, qtd. in Rothberg, 176). From then on the Holocaust began to be remembered as an event in its own right, not ‘simply a subdivision of general Nazi barbarism’ (Rothberg, 176-177). The decision to ‘present eyewitness testimony by dozens of survivors of the Nazi terror’ at the trial also created a ‘new public identity: the Holocaust survivor’ (Rothberg, 177). I don’t know to what extent Baron was spurred on to write his ‘Jewish novel’ by the Eichmann trial, or by Hannah Arendt’s controversial reportage of the trial in The New Yorker, but it is perhaps not coincidental that The Lowlife was published in 1963, the same year as Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

<6> Baron explored the collective memory of the Holocaust through Harryboy Boas: WWII veteran, gambler, womaniser, philosopher: ‘sapper and mensch’. On the first page he contemplates taking a boat to the Canaries and calculates how long he could live there on a thousand pounds: ‘Four years. A lifetime nowadays. We should have such luck’ (5). This establishes both the timeframe of a lowlife and the precarious future of the atomic era: ‘If they drop that big cookie I can always go down to the beach and swim out into the warm sea till I can’t swim any more’ (5). But Harryboy’s longing for oblivion, and his repeated failure to retain any material possessions, is also connected to the fate of the Jews in postwar Europe: in particular to the need to be exonerated of the guilt of surviving. At one point Harryboy considers becoming a slum landlord 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’ (104). But he loses the houses in a crap game: ‘Empty, the burden of possession lifted from me, I walked away’ (109). Only by having nothing can he remain innocent.

<7> The loss of faith experienced by many Jews after the war is evoked in an ironic exchange with the landlord of Harryboy’s rundown lodging house, Siskin, who is terrified of being burgled:

‘What have you got for burglars?’ I said.
‘When you got nothing is worst. With iron bars they hit you.’
‘You should worry. Say a prayer. Sleep easy.’
‘Who to, a prayer?’
‘You’re a Jew?’
‘Someone looks after Jews? Since when? Tell me.’
‘In God you don’t believe now?’
‘God? Excuse me I don’t know this gentleman. He looks after people? If this is his job he must be the biggest messer in creation’. (97)

<8> Baron described London as a site of ‘accumulated memory’ (Worpole). He never experienced the camps, nor was he present during the bombing of London. But he mapped an oblique remembrance of the Holocaust onto the East End where his ‘golden parents’ used to live:

I cannot come to the East End without leaving present time behind me and entering the world of the past. […] I walked down Cable Street – this once respectable street of working people that is now a garbage heap of lost, ferocious schwartzers and the wretchedest of whores – and I stopped at a gap in the decaying shops, and I cried. In the rain I stood and cried. This bomb crater, patches of diseased weeds, black puddles, rusty bedsteads, sodden newspaper, old prams, smashed packing-cases and the turds of tramps – this is where my mother died. (39)

<9> A flying bomb dropped on the house and his mother ‘vanished out of life’: ‘I came home from the army and my mother did not exist any more. Not even a body. Not even a gravestone’. Harryboy tries to walk away from the pain but ‘it was waiting for me in Hessel Street where she used to shop, the last ghetto market’ and ‘in the tenement of dark red brick on the other side of Commercial Road where we lived’. Harryboy’s ‘mild and affectionate papa’ died in agony from gangrene in the London Hospital, his eyes ‘glazed with bitterness’ (40). Harryboy and his sister Debbie left him alone to die: ‘This is how it ends. This and in a crater full of garbage. In Fieldgate Street round the corner I found the little synagogue he used to go to. […] He was a religious man. He was everybody’s friend. Was God his friend when he died?’ (40)

<10> The Lowlife not only commemorates the end of the Jewish East End with its markets, synagogues and sense of community; it also evokes the trauma of the Jews who survived the Holocaust. This emerges through Harryboy’s guilt about a dead child who may or may not have existed and may or may not have been killed in the camps. The tenuousness does not diminish Harryboy’s anguish but it marks his distance from the horror. The story he tells himself is that he abandoned his girlfriend in Paris on the outbreak of war: ‘Nicole was a Jewish girl’ and a few months later, the Nazis occupied the city. On receiving her letters, he discovers that she was pregnant: ‘I let a nice girl down, maybe she died because of me, maybe a child of my own died because of me’ (96). Most of the time Harryboy represses the memory of Nicole and what may have happened to her, but he remains haunted: ‘I cannot forget like others do. You can forget a million children. You cannot forget one child’ (218).

<11> A major strand in the plot concerns Harryboy’s friendship with a six-year-old boy, Gregory, whose parents live in the flat beneath him. Gregory becomes a substitute for Harryboy’s lost son. When he sees a pair of Gregory’s shoes in the corner, ‘[he] thinks of the mountains of children’s shoes, the shoes of dead children, found in the camps, sixty feet high’ (101). He remembers that ‘they often sent the children away on their own, a cute Teutonic refinement. A baby whose father was not there to help him’ (101). It is impossible for Harryboy to marry, settle down and have a family, as he longs to do, because whenever he gets close: ‘in marches this little one, as jealous as any living child, and he won’t let others in’ (101). When Gregory is injured in a firework accident, Harryboy is desperate to save him by heroically donating his own eye. But at the end of the novel he discovers that his sacrifice is not needed after all and ‘[his] great gesture [falls] as flat as all [his] other great plans’ (223). He is not allowed to atone for the past.

<12> And so Harryboy remains stuck in his room in Hackney. In the London of The Lowlife, Hackney is a liminal or in between space. It is not the old East End of his golden childhood, nor the shiny suburbia of Finchley where his sister Debbie lives with her husband, Gus the bookmaker. They have a fifteen-thousand-pound house and a Spanish couple to look after it: they eat well and drink fine wines. Harryboy thinks Gus is a good fellow and he loves his sister ‘with an ache’ (6). Harryboy dreams of a home of his own but he cannot make the postwar transition to Finchley. Partly this is because he is still in deep mourning but it is also a question of class affinity. When he looks at his nieces he sees the respectable future: ‘Terrible girls. All thin, all snooty, all the sort that flute “Mummy” and “Daddy” in high-class accents; they kiss mummy and daddy and feel a little more ashamed of them every year’ (6). There is a lot about the lowlife, the dog track, the Soho restaurants and weekends in Brighton with Marcia, a high class whore, that seems more appealing than Jewish middle class life in Finchley. (In 1972 Baron and his family settled in Temple Fortune between Finchley and Golders Green. His only son, Nick, was born in 1969 when Baron was 52.)

<13> The nostalgia Harryboy feels for the Jewish ghetto differs from so much East End literature, which is hostile to modernity and change. Although Harryboy lives in Hackney in order to be near his childhood home and to remain steeped in the past, he is open to London’s transformation into a multicultural city. (Baron is the first native London novelist to represent this change.) He notes with amusement that Ingram Terrace where he lodges used to be the home of ‘superior working class families’ like Baron’s own parents. The houses have been divided into tenements and are now home to new immigrants:

The street is still clean. All the people are in work. Their cars jam the road on both sides. All is quiet and decent. Negroes have come to live, more every month. And Cypriots. The Negroes are of marvellous respectability. Every Sunday morning they all go to the Baptist chapel in the High Street. You should see the men, in beautiful pearl-grey suits and old-fashioned trilbies with curled brims, the big women full of dignity, and the little girls in white muslin and bonnets. It slays me. They are the Victorian residents of this street, come back a century later, with black skins. (20-21)

The people ‘don’t mix, but they all say “good morning” to each other’. Having lived through the anti-Semitism of the 1930s, Harryboy is keenly alert to the possibility of racial tension but says he ‘never smelt any hatred between one kind and another, not even an ember that might flare up in the future’ (21).

<14> Although Harryboy is a loner, who can escape for weeks on end by reading Zola in his room, he is sucked into the life of his neighbours in the boarding house. When Vic and Evelyn move in with their young son, Gregory, Harryboy observes their penny-pinching respectability with distaste, but also sympathy, because they are trapped; they have middle-class aspirations but no money. Evelyn’s longing for the suburban family idyll (like Harryboy’s) is bitterly thwarted by having to live just north of Dalston Junction but, unlike Harryboy, when a black family moves in to the building she can hardly bear it. The de Souzas upset everybody in the house apart from the narrator, who says: ‘the trouble was they had friends’; they were ‘happy people’, who invited their friends home after church. When Joe de Souza asks Harryboy how he can make peace with the other residents, Harry replies: ‘You’re living in the house of the dead. I don’t know what to advise you’.

<15> It chokes Evelyn when the de Souzas move out to a house of their own in Stoke Newington. At this point Harryboy associates Evelyn with the Nazis. With her snobbery, racism and ruthless ambition she comes to epitomize the banality of evil: ‘these haters of life, they can even murder babies’ (123).

<16> Baron suggests that there is an affinity between the Jews and the West Indians, which comes out most clearly in descriptions of cooking and eating. After a succulent dinner with the de Souzas, cooked on the communal landing, Harryboy tries to explain to them why Evelyn hates them:

‘You see’, I said, ‘the way we eat, the way we live. You and me, Joe, we mop the plate dry. We suck the last gob of marrow. We lick our fingers. From our fathers and our grandfathers we know hunger, and we value food. In our blood we know that an axe can fall on us at any second. So we live. We Live.’ (123)

<17> Michael Rotherberg’s fascinating study, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009) explores what happens when different histories confront each other in the public sphere and asks: ‘When memories of slavery and colonialism bump up against memories of the Holocaust in contemporary multicultural societies, must a competition of victims ensue?’ (2). Rothberg argues that although the Holocaust is frequently set against histories of racism and slavery in an ugly contest over recognition, the postwar period of decolonisation and the consciousness of the Holocaust are intimately connected and this connection has the possibility to create new forms of solidarity (5). It is striking that Harryboy’s attempt to come to terms with the Nazi genocide takes place in dialogue with his awareness of the struggle against colonialism and racism of the Caribbean diaspora. The Holocaust is not remembered as ‘a unique episode that has no equal’ in The Lowlife but as part of a shared history of violence and victimisation.

<18> Iain Sinclair’s introduction to The Lowlife stresses Harryboy’s individualism: ‘Harryboy Boas chases fate as a way of divorcing himself from tradition, religion, family expectations’. On one level this is obviously true but equally Harryboy is in mourning for the loss of tradition, family, religion: ‘God knows I believe in family affection. I hunger for it. Shouldn’t we, Debbie and I, after what happened?’ (6). And he is cheered by what little survives of the traditions of the East End. On Whitechapel Road he sees an octogenarian carrying boxes in the rain: ‘one of those old Yiddles who are stooped but thickset with muscle, faces of iron, keen blue eyes; ageless proletarians.’ Harryboy helps him with his load: ‘There came no thanks. The only words he spoke to me were, in a tone of strong grievance, “Hot nisht an unmbrelly?” Marvellous. He made me cheerful again’ (40).


Works Cited

Baron, Alexander. The Lowlife, introduction by Iain Sinclair, London: Harvill, 2001.

Baron, Alexander. From the City, from the Plough, introduction by Sean Longden, London: Black Spring Press, 2010.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Whitehead, Andrew. ‘Six Alexander Baron novels now in print – make the most of it!’ Online at Accessed on 11 March 2012.

Worpole, Ken. ‘A Sapper and a mensch’, New Statesman, 20 January 2011. Online at Accessed on 11 March 2012.


To Cite This Article:

Susie Thomas, ‘Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963): Remembering the Holocaust in Hackney’, The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011). Online at Accessed on [date of access].