By John Barker.
Alexander Baron, King Dido, Five Leaves 2009/1969
Alexander Baron was an East London writer, brought up in Stoke Newington, and the first of the writers who had been to school at Hackney Downs Grammar. He achieved fame and more importantly sales, with his book From the City From the Plough, based on his own experience fighting in the Second World War. Another London Jewish writer, Gerald Kersh, also had success with his war novel, They Died With Their Boots On. This experience, of ‘ordinary’ men fighting with ‘ordinary’ heroism is foreign to us. Both Baron and Kersh however went on to write novels far more recognizable to our own experience.
In the early 1960s, Baron’s novel The Lowlife, a real Stoke Newington novel, with its philosopher bum/gambler anti-hero, is especially modern, or at least what was once modern. The main character is a bohemian who is quite definitely not from the middle or upper class, and his visits to the Jewish family who have taken the advice “Go West Young Man”, who have made it, is mordantly funny. After a follow-up novel in similarly recognizable, he made a break by writing King Dido which was published in 1969, and has been republished by Five Leaves’ New London Editions. Whether this is due to the end of copyright or not (and this is possible, his From the City From the Plough has just been republished by Black Spring Press) it is some kind of labour of love: there are no millions to be made here!
It is a break for one thing, because it is set in the past, just before World War I and therefore a few years before Baron was born in 1917. It is also not Stoke Newington, but a much tougher ‘East End’, somewhere between Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. This is the hero/anti-hero Dido’s manor in what used to be called the slums but which now provide work to more and more Estate Agents. It is somewhere he might have visited because his grandparents lived there and, as he said himself, it was home to myth and legend. This didn’t change that much until much later, perpetuated into the 1960s and beyond by the Twins — Ron and Reg Kray — whose childhood home and base, Vallance Rd is mentioned in Baron’s novel.
Easy to speculate as to why Baron shifted his attention. Memories of ones own childhood – and when he visited his grandparents the area cannot have been so different – do become more important as recollection as a person gets older. This is indeed a strength of the novel. The first few pages seem distinctly not modern, there is too much generalized description with too many unhelpful adjectives but then in a skilfully paced way the interior of Dido’s house, of clothes, make a world of its own, and a world in which both class and ‘face’ are dominant. He is especially good with violence. The first clash Dido has, with all its consequences, with ‘protection racket’ guvnor of the area, Ginger Murchison, is violent in a way that a reader can at least sense the pain involved.
In his very informative introduction to this new edition, Ken Worpole does not consider the timing of the novel. By this Baron himself had Gone West, but he must have had a good knowledge of the Kray’s rise and strategic use of violence which came to an end the year before the novel was published when both the Twins were given Life sentences, after their earlier arrest. Dido is not at all like the Twins, or rather his aspiration for respectability is far more genuine and not remotely flamboyant. The great quality of the novel is that it is neither romanticized nor sentimental. Dido is not a character asking to be liked, nor wanting to be flamboyant. Quite the opposite. His mother may be feeble but her notion of what is genteel, has made him disciplined and puritanical. He controls his younger brother ‘for their own good’ in this fashion so that they cannot have the fun of their work mates.
Neither is Dido a criminal. He’s tough OK, and when pulled in for the murders he does do — an innocent dies from the firebomb he’s tossed into an adversary’s window — he stonewalls with no hint of nerves, but he’s not a criminal. Those with a criminal mind — a branch of the Murchison clan — think, plan and use information. Not that this does them any good. In a manouevre that must have been known to some 1960s readers they are set-up by a fat man who gives robbery tips, but grasses some of them up to the police. No, Dido reacts. It is when his mother is abused that he takes on Ginger Murchison and as a consequence of beating him, starts to make a new life by getting protection money from shopkeepers without making menaces. Finally in a desperation produced by the class aspirations of his wife who appears for most of the novel to be a ‘victim’, but proves to be quick on the uptake, he does make such a ‘menace’. This becomes an indirect means to his downfall. The tough irony of the novel is that it is the aspiration for a life as determined by his wife and the tenderness he is allowed when his daughter is born, is what brings him down.
Unlike the Twins, Dido is very much on his own. It is the Murchison-Keogh clan who have family who can, with certain internal rivalries, act as one. Dido is always up against numbers. His harsh protectiveness towards his younger brothers makes it even more so. It is with them that the toughness of the novel is finally nailed down. During the whole of it, the action all takes place within a few square miles. It is a self-enclosed world, yet right at the end when Dido comes out of prison, a truly broken man but for whom the one small corner of it is what he will not give up, we are suddenly given the big context of this small world. While he is in prison, the two younger brothers who he has protected and disciplined, have both been killed in World War. This is “glocal” with a vengeance. The violence of the novel is graphic. In the First World War it is on another scale, but it takes in Dido’s manor too.
Dido then is nothing like the Krays, but the most modern, and frightening character is the Police Inspector Merry who is of course not remotely merry, and it may well be that Baron knew of ‘Nipper’ Read, a Scotland Yard celebrity of the time. It was he who oversaw the arrest of the Twins. He was not dishonest, and Baron is at pains to make this clear about Merry, but soon after the Krays were sent down, he needed to arrest more of the same. The Dixons, and then the Tibbs family were Nipper Read created as major gangsters, but at trial the Not Guiltys and small-scale nature of what was alleged put an end to the cop’s inverted power fantasies. Inspector Merry of the novel might have been too shrewd. Stick to the set-up and the ready-eye, nothing too spectacular would be his style. His love of power is both subtle and crude. And it is bourgeois power. Calculation, stick and carrot, but most of all a psychic need to control the ‘slum’ class.
There is a great scene — a defining moment for me — at the beginning of Chapter Five when we see Merry at home. Dinner is finished and how he controls his two children when they want to leave the table is not crude, there’s none of Dido’s monosyllabic orders to this brothers. He doesn’t shout or bang the table, instead he is quietly insistent about rules. “Not till you’ve eaten your greens, old lad.” The old lad is Robert, “seven years old, subjected his father to a final momentary gaze, decided that the verdict was unshakeable and with no sign of ill-will started to shovel up his vegetables.”
Soon afterwards, talking of the Dido are, this same Robert says:
“They must be a very bad lot, the people in this road must be a very bad lot. The people in this road don’t do bad things.”
“They are, son. Just that. They’re a bad lot. Dirt, I call them.”
“And you have to stop them from doing wrong.”
“Well son,” Merry let smoke jet from between his pursed lips. And pondered. “It’s like this, I don’t think you can ever stop people from being wrong.”
“What about us?“ Robert asked
“I don’t mean people like us. I mean-“ He made a gesture with his pipe. ”–people. It’s the way they’re made, son….”
“Zero-tolerance”, “the underclass”, it’s hardly new. And in the end those who make the definition must also be vicious when it’s needed. It is Inspector Merry who physically cripples Dido before making the arrest that is a five year prison sentence. And feels self-rightous as “His children were doing well at their grammar schools. A substantial house was being built in his mother’s name which in the course of time, would come to him.”
Dido is too joyless to be a live-for-today geezer, hopeless as a hero, but his nemesis, Inspector Merry is all too recognizable for what he is.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 20th, 2010.