One of the finest London novelists, Alexander Baron, was born a century ago today. He is the author of the classic The Lowlife and another handful of wonderful London novels, and he also in From the City, From the Plough caught the raw, infantry experience of the D-Day landings and then fighting across Europe.
Baron was born Alec Bernstein. He is something of an enigma - a very private person. He became active in the Communist Party as a teenager in north London and - although his party membership was never publicly acknowledged (he was active in the Labour Party too) - he became a figure of influence at the CP headquarters. During the war, he moved away from communism, but in his writing repeatedly returned to the ideology which ensnared him in his youth.
His part of London was Hackney and the East End. He grew up in Dalston and Stoke Newington and his family were from Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Here's how his unpublished memoirs open:
I was born on December 4, 1917 at 30, Penyston Road, Maidenhead, in Berkshire, eleven months before the end of the Great War. My mother went there to get away from the air raids. She stayed with relatives of Mr and Mrs Simmonds, a couple whom she and my father knew in London. Mr Simmonds was a policemen. She arrived in Maidenhead a week before I was born and went back to London with me three weeks later.
My father, Barnet Bernsgtein, was born in Poland. He came to London when he was thirteen. My mother, Fanny Levinson, was born in Corbet's Court, Spitalfields. She was twenty-one and my father was twenty-three when I was born, a little more than a year after their marriage.
My father worked as a fur cutter. We lived for a year with his parents above their cobbler's shop in Hare Street, Bethnal Green. Whenever there was an air raid at night my mother carried me a few hundered yards to the railway arches in Brick Lane. People came in crowds to shelter under the arches until the All Clear sounded. Sometimes her younger sister Hetty was with her; and since I was a very fat baby they had to take turns to carry me the short distance. I was only in my first year, but they told me that I used to point at the searchlights that combed the sky and shout, "Up! Up!"
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