:: Article

The Lowlife

By Andrew Stevens.


Alexander Baron, The Lowlife, Black Spring Press, 2010/1963

‘East End’ and ‘West End’ are both physically and spiritually remote from each other.

– Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Cities and Insurrections’ (Revolutionaries, 1973)

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 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.

It’s difficult to see The Lowlife as anything other than a psychogeographical novel (in the pre-academic/cottage industry sense), with its rich invocation of the fluid arc of the Jewish migration pattern from Whitechapel to Golders Green, as expressed by his soft “cow-eyed” sister Debbie, ensconced in NW11 with her sceptical husband Gus, keeping a ‘modern’ rather than Orthodox home, the constant talk of ‘capital’ and obligation through the smell of lutkas and roast chicken. It’s almost the North London Jewish sibling/in-laws of Soho chancer flick of the era The Small World of Sammy Lee reversed really. The novel introduces significant migrant populations of the then Dalston, the immaculate and devout West Indians (“the Negroes”) he admires (“the Victorian residents of this street, come back a century later, with black skins”) and the Indian shysters who don’t think twice about testing his gambler’s instinct to relieve him of his entrusted capital. Then there’s the title, The Lowlife, which to contemporary comprehension is more redolent of the slob, the miscreant or the deviant. Harryboy Boas may shirk obligation and mooch on his in-laws at 45, but in his own words he cuts a dashing figure and takes care of himself. It’s the life as a gambler down Harringay dogs and the whoring down the West End which does it for him, not to mention the odd “shag against the bales” in the factory basement when he’s forced to work, as there’s no shortage of willing would-be wives wheeled out by his in-laws to cure him of it. Nor is Harryboy ignorant, a consummate devourer of Zola on jags that can rival drinking sessions, hours wiled away in bookshops on the Charing Cross Road. Again, Baron conceives of his creation as a studious Jewish lad, tempted from his parents’ plans for university by the lure of quick money in service industries to fund gaming and “shilling whores”. The sentences are always lean and ring with caveats.

Boas is joined in his Dalston lodgings, supervised by a basement-dwelling and crepuscular rodent-like landlord Siskin (the archetypical variety), by the Deaner family and soon all three members develop a dependency on his time which he tolerates to varying degrees. The young son Gregory, who provides the novel’s cruel denouement, forms a particular bond with him, while the joy-starved husband Vic acts as a foil to Harryboy’s epicurean traits and worldliness with his stale marriage. Boas indulges Deaner but takes him for a mug, not only for his risk-averse approach to life but his herd-like mentality gleaned from a chance meeting in the local branch library, Vic with an armful of “new novels, fashionable names, the kind that are praised in the highbrow Sunday papers”. It’s worth noting that Baron very much eschewed the literary scene of his day, upon arriving at a Jonathan Cape party thrown in his honour he turned on his heels and fled on hearing the din of assembled chatter from the windows. And yet his new role as stand-in parent coaxes memories of the war out of Boas, a time spent avoiding the call-up and letters from a pregnant (Jewish) girlfriend, abandoned in Paris as the Holocaust took effect.

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 Boas 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 on a sink estate perched at the edge of the Olympic Park in Stratford, availing himself of willing tarts 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.

Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 28th, 2010.