Andrew Stevens on Alexander Baron‘s London classic, The Lowlife:
Rarely in print but given canonical status by dint of inclusion in Jon Savage‘s England’s Dreaming as a literary antecedent of punk (further attested to anecdotally in the almost-obligatory introduction by Iain Sinclair), Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963) has its second reissue outing, this time courtesy of Black Spring Press. Alexander Baron, feted in his own lifetime but already in obscurity by the time of a resurgence in interest courtesy of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit‘s film The Cardinal, is among friends amid Black Spring’s efforts to promote deeper interest through various collections about Patrick Hamilton and Julian MacLaren-Ross, both of whom in themselves occupy a totemic position in the capital’s literature. Baron’s tale of psychological disfigurement breathes the same London air and spies the same vices as Gerald Kersh‘s earlier The Night and the City, himself bracketed alongside Baron in the same Harvill ‘London Writing’ series of a decade ago with Fowler’s End, a more knockabout story.
The Lowlife constantly, as fits the denouement, retains one eye on the past, the glorious depiction of a Jewish East End childhood of the inter-war years, Wapping as a playground and the “geographical zones” (as Sinclair refers to them) representing stages in the author’s own life, with Aldgate and Blooms (for a ‘lowlife’ Boas dines well) as his “base”. To some extent the problem of The Lowlife for today’s reader is that the weight of obligation which marks him out from the rest of post-war Britain is simply vanished, with Baron almost predicting the convergence of drugs, prostitution and slum landlordism in the East End amid the breakdown of the traditional family and welfare dependency. We’re almost rooting for him throughout, even if we’re not supposed to. Though it’s not difficult to imagine our own Harryboy of the millennium, skilfully avoiding work while drawing his Giro in a sink estate perched on the edge of the Olympic Park in Stratford, availing himself of willing slags and the odd punt in an off-street massage parlour, especially if the modern day “Torah of the Tote” at William Hill or Paddy Power brings home the bacon (not least as the Tote’s privatised and the nearest dogs is now in Romford), while cocking a snook at the fashionable tastes of liberal leftists in today’s Stoke Newington. The problem is if we did it’d be tagged as ‘poverty porn’ from the off, amply showing why five decades on from Harryboy’s swagger down the track, The Lowlife‘s reach remains as pervasive and compelling as when Baron wrote it and the punks noticed it.
Further: Richard Marshall reviews Rosie Hogarth / John Barker reviews King Dido / Andrew Whitehead on Baron / Whitehead‘s introduction to Rosie Hogarth / Guardian obituary for Baron / John Self reviews There Is No Home / Independent on TINH / New Lexicons on Baron / Return of the East End novel, Andrew Stevens on Baron & Kersh in the Guardian.
First posted: Tuesday, June 7th, 2011.