V.S. Pritchett, the renowned literary critic, wrote, “We have waited a long time for this war’s All Quiet on the Western Front”. He then commented, “Here it is.” He was referring to From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron (1917-1999). Unlike much that is written on the War, it does not focus on military strategies, or the ‘derring -do’ tales of decorated heroes, but on the experiences of a squaddie, Baron himself. First in the Pioneer Corps and then in the infantry, the army’s gun fodder, which saw him engaged in action in Italy and Normandy. It is history from below.
Some years ago, I had contemplated writing a biography of Baron. But other interests had intervened, and my notes gathered dust in a file. However, my curiosity was sparked again when I attended a memorial celebration for the life of Bill Fishman, doyen of the historians of East London. Nick Baron, who teaches Russian history at Nottingham University, was also present and enquired if I might be available to edit his father’s unpublished autobiography. I readily agreed to become involved. Chapters of Accidents is the result.
It provides a vivid tableau of Alexander Baron’s early days in a Jewish family in Hackney, his enthusiastic work as a propagandist for the British Communist Party, as well as his life-changing experiences as a soldier during the Second World War. It raises the issue of acculturation among Jews in East London. It brings to life key figures in British Communism. It offers a counter story to the anti-Semitic claim that ‘Jews are cowards,’ that ‘they get others to engage in the fighting’. From an early age Baron had yearned to participate in military action.
The memoir ends in 1948 with the publication of From the City, From the Plough. After which he became a full-time writer. He published further work on a wartime theme, and highly regarded novels on East London life. He also wrote for the press, and produced film and television scripts, including early adaptations of Poldark and Sherlock Holmes.
Chapters of Accidents is a dramatic and affecting memoir of a novelist, journalist, soldier, and a prominent, though sometimes neglected figure, in early twentieth century British cultural history.
Colin Holmes and Nick Baron (eds), Chapters of Accidents. A Writer’s Memoir (London, 2022).