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Alexander Baron’s East End

June 15, 2019
by Nadia Valman

Contributing Writer Nadia Valman explores novelist Alexander Baron’s return to his grandparents’ home in Cheshire St in his novel King Dido which was first published in 1969. One of the East End’s greatest writers, Baron is celebrated in a new publication, So We Live: The Novels of Alexander Baron, from Five Leaves Press.

Cheshire St by Philip Marriage, 1967

Alexander Baron (1917-99) grew up in a secular Jewish family in Dalston and Stoke Newington, and during the twenties his Saturday afternoons were spent visiting his grandparents in the East End. His mother, Fanny Levinson, was born in 1896 in Corbet’s Court, in the precincts of the Truman & Hanbury brewery. And, during Alexander’s childhood, his maternal grandparents lived in the Dutch Tenterground near Bell Lane, where he adored the noise and human warmth he experienced in the streets crowded with hawkers, itinerant musicians and chattering neighbours.

Yet it was his father’s dour family home in Spitalfields that sparked Alexander Baron’s literary imagination. His paternal grandfather, Simon Bernstein, born in a small village in Poland, had been conscripted into the Russian army as a young man, leaving his family in poverty. In 1904 after several years’ service, he deserted, fleeing to England where his wife and children followed with the aid of smugglers. Simon rented a shop at 24 Hare St (now Cheshire St) where he spent the rest of his life working as a cobbler, living in the two rooms behind and above the shop.

Hare St loomed large in the early life of Alexander Baron (or Alec Bernstein, as he was born). His first year was spent there and, during First World War bombing, he was taken as a baby to shelter under the railway arches in Brick Lane. A thin cobbled street running east off Brick Lane, parallel to the Great Eastern railway track, Hare St was close to the Bishopsgate Goodsyard and cacophonous with the sound of horse-drawn railway wagons all day long.

Baron recalled the cobbler’s shop as a dark, grimy cavern with huge hides stacked against the walls and a battered counter behind where shelves were packed with nails, shoemaker’s knives and iron lasts. It was a gathering place for carters who often worked in their old army uniforms and hung about reminiscing about the trenches. In his memoir, Baron described the characteristic reek of tanning, iron and Woodbines that filled the shop. His grandmother Leah sat quietly at the back, gaunt and sorrowful. It was not a joyful home, his grandparents had been introduced in Poland by a matchmaker and married out of duty.

Despite the severe domestic atmosphere, the young Baron relished the opportunity to participate in street life. It was the greatest treat for him to help on Sunday mornings when his grandfather ran a stall in Hare St market. His job was to stand at the corner of the stall and watch for thieves. Yet he never caught one because – as he learned from overheard snatches of adult conversation – Simon Bernstein’s business was under the protection of a family of racketeers who had taken a liking to the Jewish cobbler.

From this small detail, Baron built his masterful novel King Dido published in 1969. The novel, set in 1912, relates the rise and fall of a Bethnal Green gangster, Dido Peach and his nemesis, the ambitious detective inspector William Merry. Baron had first heard the local legend from his grandfather, telling how a policeman and a gangster once fought all the way through a house and into the yards and backlands. He set King Dido around the Hare St of his childhood, renamed ‘Rabbit Marsh’ to recall the days when town houses were built by Huguenot weavers on formerly agricultural land.

Baron’s twentieth-century Rabbit Marsh, however, is unrecognisable from these rural origins. He describes it as ‘a narrow ravine whose floor consists of worn cobbles running between pavements of uneven flags.’ The walls of the buildings on either side of the street are blackened by soot from the railway and interrupted by bare windows ‘which stared blind, black and grimy against the sunlight.’ They are ‘dark cliffs…leaning forward with age, cleft by an alley here and there or pierced at the base by a porch leading into a yard.’

Baron’s description of Rabbit Marsh draws on his early impressions of Hare St, seen from a child’s perspective in which three-storey buildings appear as giant cliffs hanging over a deep ravine. It is a gothic setting: an oppressive landscape inscribed with menace. This is the environment that he employs for the story of Dido, a man drawn reluctantly into the world of organised crime, who struggles valiantly against a destiny that awaits him in the streets.

In King Dido, Baron captured every detail of the interior and public spaces, the alleys, yards, pubs, markets and railway lands around Hare St in the early twentieth century. He evokes a parochial social world bonded by ritual and codes of honour, and shaped by cultural traditions of independence. This ethos is embodied in the novel’s protagonist – inflexible, emotionally repressed and conservative – who is nonetheless a figure of undaunted resilience. Dido defies the forces of social control, whether manifest in the bullying neighbourhood gangsters or the institutional power of the police.

The strange claustrophobia of a street plan interrupted by railway lines also provides Baron with his dramatic stage. He makes resourceful use of this for the novel’s climax, the final battle between Dido and his adversary Merry. Dido commits a burglary in the last hope of acquiring enough money to escape the cycle of violence and is lying low. But Merry has stationed watchers behind Rabbit Marsh’s opaque sooty windows and Dido’s fate arrives from the street. When Merry confronts Dido, their fight extends cinematically across all the terrain around Hare St: in the street, behind the houses, against the wall along the railway embankment and up the steep steps to the bridge over the track. At the climax, Dido falls from the bridge and into the alley off Rabbit Marsh.

King Dido also recalls the mix of Jewish and gentile neighbours who lived side by side in the East End at that time. One of the novel’s most powerful scenes occurs when Dido, awaiting the outcome of a challenge to a rival, lurks in the yard behind the houses in Rabbit Marsh. He finds himself gazing into the kitchen window of his Jewish neighbour, Barsky, a cobbler, who is celebrating the Sabbath eve with his family. Their kitchen table is transformed by candlelight, a white cloth and the gleaming loaves of challah. ‘It disturbed him’, Baron wrote. ‘It awakened in him drifts of longing which he could not follow. It made him feel lost and sad, something that drew him but was infinitely out of reach behind the panes of glass’.

For this brief moment, Baron brings Simon Bernstein into the novel. He gives the reader a glimpse into his own past: his memories of Friday nights spent at his grandparents’ house in the twenties. I find it poignant that Baron represented this scene at one remove, through the eyes of Dido Peach, a man who feels he will always be an outsider to familial warmth and spiritual striving. Perhaps this was also the perspective of Baron himself, looking back through the years to his grandfather’s home in Hare St as a place out of reach.

In the eighties, Baron returned to the street now universally known as Cheshire St. His grandparents’ house was still there, but boarded up like most of the other buildings. It was fire-damaged and covered with corrugated iron, and he could not enter. So Baron crossed the road and, like Dido peering through Barsky’s window, found himself gazing into the Bernsteins’ house. He wrote that ‘from the other side of the street I could see into the first-floor front room … The faded wallpaper was the same that I had known as a child, with diagonal rows of light blue rosettes enclosing chains of pink roses’. It is clear from the way he writes that Baron’s last glance through a window into a scene from his childhood is not nostalgic. Rather, the persistence of the blue and pink wallpaper, which has endured despite the Blitz and arson, arouses a faint sense of wonder in him.

Although Alexander Baron believed that the house was destined for demolition, like his steely hero King Dido, 24 Cheshire St did in fact survive.

24 Cheshire St – formerly Hare St – today

24 Cheshire St is on the far right in this photograph by Phil Maxwell, c. 1984

Cheshire St in the eighties by Colin O’Brien

Cheshire St Railway Bridge by John Claridge, 1968

At the beginning of the twentieth century

Alexander Baron (1917-99)

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

King Dido and So We Live: The Novels of Alexander Baron are both published by Five Leaves Press

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. June 15, 2019

    Wonderful contribution and book. Many years ago when I acted, I was in Ivanhoe for the BBC, and Alexander Baron was the scriptwriter.

  2. Andrew permalink
    June 15, 2019

    Great piece about a wonderful London novelist

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    June 15, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, Nadia Valman does a masterful job of describing Alexander Baron’s return to his grandparents’ home in East London.

    How cleverly the novelist incorporates the Sabbath scene that the protagonist Dido glimpses as he moves on to meet his own fate. She writes:

    Their kitchen table is transformed by candlelight, a white cloth and the gleaming loaves of challah. ‘It disturbed him’, Baron wrote. ‘It awakened in him drifts of longing which he could not follow. It made him feel lost and sad, something that drew him but was infinitely out of reach behind the panes of glass’.

    Oh, the universal desire to return to a scene of our childhood that only increases with time…

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 15, 2019

    I have just been on a very good walk/talk by Julian Woodford about the journeyman weavers and guess where we went… Cheshire Street! How zeitgeist is that…

  5. Joan permalink
    June 15, 2019

    My partner went to interview Alexander Baron about 25 years ago when he was researching the role of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during the Second World War, and in particular how soldiers settled into postwar life. He went to see him at his suburban house in Golders Green and Baron and his wife gave him lunch. What struck my partner was how modest and unsentimental he was. And he told a story about how, when his book From The City, From the Plough was published he was invited to a publishers party but on arriving at it was too shy to go in.

  6. June 17, 2019

    Thank you. This is the first extensive description of Baron I’ve come across — apart from a “life and works” by Gale in the George Mason database. I know he wrote a number of superb scripts for BBC adaptations of classics: especially Dickens, one of Jane Eyre, one of Sense and Sensibility. I remember reading an anti-war novel, There’s no Home, and his Seeing Life, comparable with the best war memoirs. A humane decent man.

  7. June 17, 2019

    I forgot to mention that he got along with with Winston Graham and (again from memory) wrote the first 8 episodes of the second year of the 1970s Poldark (for Black Moon and Four Swans)

  8. Aubrey Gordon permalink
    June 25, 2019

    It may interest you to know that from 1935 for 25 years I lived at 28 Cheshire st .formerly Hare st. 2 doors up from Alexander Barons Grand parents in Bethnal Green .We knew them well.

    The story goes that when I was a baby, crying, Baron’s grandmother heard and climbed out of the front window onto the ledge that ran along all the houses, crawled along till she reached no. 28, opened our front window, climbed inside and took care of me.

    yours, Aubrey Gordon, Modiin ,Israel.

  9. Mikey permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Great book. As are all his novels.

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