I don't read much about war - I'm not a military historian - the details of combat don't interest me. All the same, I have recently been reading two commanding works about the Second World War, one fiction and the other historical narrative.
Alexander Baron's The Human Kind is a sequence of short stories that takes the readers from pre-lapsarian adolescence to demob and on to the Korean war. As you would expect from one of the most accomplished writers about war, Baron deftly looks at how conflict corrupts the human spirit and degrades all it touches. It's a wonderfully engaging book.
The Road of Bones is journalist Fergal Keane's powerfully written and impressively researched account of the siege of Kohima in north-east India, where a British and Indian garrison halted the Japanese Imperial army's advance. Fergal has gathered the memories of Japanese and Indian combatants as well as British veterans. As with Baron, Keane is also a writer of great compassion and humanity, and he recounts the intense suffering, the brutality, and also the valour and sense of comradeship.
Which gives the greater insight into the misery of war? Although I am a historian, I'd say the fictionalised account is the more revealing. It gets inside human experience in a manner the historian cannot seek to emulate. Both have their place, but good fiction
amplifies and humanises the historical narrative - the two literary traditions, at best, complement each other.
The really nice thing about a blog and website is getting in touch with people who share your interests. There's a page on this site about the novelist Alexander Baron - do give it a glance. Jennifer in New York noticed that the cover featured was not the originalbut that on the recent Five Leaves edition. Would I like to see the original dust jacket, she asked. Yes I would. And now you can see it too. Thanks, Jennifer!
Foulden Road stands where Stoke Newington edges into Dalston. A little anonymous - especially on a wet winter Sunday afternoon. I wanted to walk along it because this was where the novelist Alexander Baron (known to his friends as Alec Bernstein) grew up. It was the place he had in mind when he wrote his most famous work, The Lowlife, an affectionate account of a none-too-successful Jewish gambler living in a boarding house, and caught between the disappearing Jewish East End and the suburban aspirational culture his sister has married into.
The road has not changed much since The Lowlife appeared half-a-century ago. The late Victorian houses are neat and well kept, with occasionally a three- or four-storey house giving a little variety to the skyline. As you approach Amhurst Road, some of the houses are double fronted. They must have bene rather grand when first constructed.
At its western end, Foulden Road runs into Stoke Newington Road. From the garage, you can seen some remnants of light industrial buildings - a chimney and a two storey factory.
Across the main road, the unassuming Stoke Newington Baptist Church is entirely eclipsed by the Turkish mosque next door, with its eye-catching blue tiles. (There's a wonderful Flickr photo of the building here). As I approach, the mosque appears to be something more modest - the Aziziye halal butchers and restaurant. Surely the most ornate such meat shop in the city.
I pop in and buy some garlic sausage. What a marvellous building, I say. Yes, the manager replies - it used to be a cinema, now its a mosque. I look puzzled. There's an entrance at the back, he explains, you can go and have a look if you like. I do. It's a cavernous, serene first floor prayer hall in a building probably built to show the early talkies.
Walking past the Baptist Church I notice the door is ajar and so I peek in. The preacher - if that's what he is - is black, and the mike in his hand can hardly be necessary for his congregation, or audience, barely numbers a dozen.
Alexander Baron's The Lowlife captures, very humanely, the early waves of Caribbean settlement in this corner of London. The Turkish migrants, now much more numerous here, are more recent. But there is at least a spiritual continuity. The Turkish cafes, clubs and snooker halls are - I'm sure - a setting for much the sort of gambling that The Lowlife's hero, Harryboy Boas practised so unsuccessfully.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!