A Political Education
Alexander Baron, the writer, political activist, journalist, soldier, and prominent figure in mid-twentieth-century British cultural history, is best remembered today as the author of the novels The Human Kind (1953), The Lowlife (1963), and King Dido (1969). In this extract from his recently published memoir Chapters of Accidents, introduced by his son Nick Baron, he recounts his political education in interwar East London.
We have waited a long time for this war's All Quiet on the Western Front', wrote the critic V.S. Pritchett in 1948. ‘Here it is.' Pritchett was reviewing the recently-published novel From the City, From the Plough by my father, Alexander Baron (1917-1999). The novel was a fictionalised account of Baron’s experiences as a British soldier in the Second World War. When the book became a runaway success, Baron became a full-time writer.
Later, my father became well-known for novels such as The Human Kind (1953), The Lowlife (1963), and King Dido (1969). In all, he published fourteen novels in his lifetime, dealing with many and varied subjects and themes: the experience of war, relations between men and women, politics and power; and London working-class life. His last published novel was Franco is Dying (1975), a thriller that addressed the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Eight of his novels are currently in print, including one posthumously published, The War Baby, a story about International Brigade fighters in Spain.
Between the 1950s and 1980s Baron also wrote many film and television scripts for the BBC and independent television. I clearly remember Sunday evenings during my own childhood watching the half-hour-long weekly episodes of my father’s adaptations of Oliver Twist, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair and innumerable other serials. This was the classic nineteenth-century English literature which my father loved to read, and which he excelled in adapting for television audiences.
Baron’s life changed again with the outbreak of the Second World War, the subject of Part Three. An enthusiastic and dedicated soldier, he served as a sapper and then infantryman in Sicily, southern Italy, and - from D-Day onwards - in north-western Europe. He was quickly promoted to Corporal but, because of his left-wing affiliations, his ambition to become an officer was never realised. After injury and a difficult transition to post-war life, Baron worked in London at Unity Theatre and as the editor of a monthly cultural magazine while writing his breakthrough novel.
Chapters of Accidents, which was published by Vallentine Mitchell in 2022, is the dramatic and affecting memoir of a novelist, political activist, journalist, and soldier, a prominent figure - though sometimes overlooked - in mid-twentieth-century British cultural history. It includes an extended Introduction by Colin Holmes, explanatory footnotes that I researched and compiled in collaboration with Colin, an appendix that presents some of my father’s notes for revision of the memoir, and numerous illustrations.
Extracted here is a chapter that narrates my father’s first encounter with politics, as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy at Grocers’ School at Hackney Downs in east London. Footnotes are as presented in the memoir.
One morning in February 1934, I sat in the school hall, on the oak bench on which I had sat with my mother nearly five years before. I had a history tutorial with Mr. Moody in five minutes’ time. Waiting, I picked up a Daily Express and glanced at it.
I was not an emotional boy and the emotion that seized me after a few minutes of reading was something new; tears in my eyes and a lump in the chest that made it hard to breathe. What had this effect on me was a dispatch from Vienna by Sefton Delmer, one of the great foreign correspondents of the time. Government troops in that city, after they had thrown out the socialist city council, had bombarded the blocks of workers’ flats with artillery at point-blank range. The socialist workers, trapped with their women and children, held out with rifles against the heavy weapons of the Heimwehr. It took three days of hand-to-hand fighting to crush them. Nine of their leaders were hanged, one of them being carried to the gallows on a stretcher after he had been disembowelled by bullets.
I could not have been very attentive during my forty-five minutes with Mr. Moody. Afterwards I slipped out of the school and went to the Stoke Newington Public Library to read all the other newspapers.
On my way back along Church Street, the old village street of Stoke Newington, I paused at the sight of a poster on the front railings of a house. The house was the headquarters of the local Labour Party, its front door and window surrounds painted red. On the poster, handwritten in thick blue pencil was:
Tonight 8 p.m.
Speaker: Dorothy Woodman
Two rooms had been knocked into one to make a small meeting-hall, with the usual table and rows of bentwood chairs. There were posters on the walls. A poster pinned to the front of the table advertised the youth section of the Labour Party, the League of Youth.
I sat in a row near the back, at the end near the door in case I decided to slip off. Thirty or forty young people gathered. They looked a pleasant enough lot, in respectable after-work clothes. They were all older than me. The girls had the air of typists or shop assistants, which most of them turned out to be. The young men were of a kind who might be clerks or storemen or skilled workers; as I learned later, they for the most part were. The well-spoken chairman was an estate agent. I was to find out that many of them were the children of Labour Party members. The Labour League of Youth, or LLY, was mainly a social club for them. The leaders of the organization were solidly moderate. Militancy was still, though not far, in the future. The members turned out as a matter of family loyalty to organize fund-raising events or help at election times but most of them knew little about politics.
Dorothy Woodman was obviously an Intellectual. She had a round face and hair bobbed in a straight fringe. I do not remember her speech. There was applause, a vote of thanks, more clapping and she went away.
Among the latecomers who had slipped in during her speech was a young man wearing shorts and a red sports shirt, with a bicycle which he leaned against the wall. He went to the table and conferred with the Chairman, He had dramatic good looks, with black, glossy hair and a gypsy complexion. The chairman told us that a comrade from South Tottenham had something to say to us. I did not take notice of the visitor’s name that night, but I was to hear it again; it was Willis.
He asked us to support some girls at a Tottenham clothing factory who had walked out on strike. He sat down. There was a lethargic silence in the room while the chairman conferred with other people at the table. Timid and shy all my life, I cannot say what agitation seized me then so that I stood up and shouted, in some inarticulate fashion, something like, “Look they’re on strike!” and sat down.
The chairman said something to soothe me. There was a collection. A resolution of support was passed. The comrade from South Tottenham left. Any Other Business was concluded and the meeting broke up. I stood up to leave.
A woman was sitting on her own in the back row. She stood up as I did, turned towards me and said, “Bravo!” I was taken aback. She said, “For speaking up like that.”
She was small and swarthy, with eyes like bright black beads. She wore a swagger coat in some thick, light brown material with a big collar turned up. It gave her a military look; and her hair was bobbed in a straight fringe.
Whatever she went on to say, it must have unlocked my tongue, for after a little while she said, “Well, if you want to be a writer you ought to meet my husband. He’s a writer.” She invited me back with her for a coffee.
This was a momentous invitation. As far as I can recollect she was the first grown-up with whom I had ever had a conversation outside of the family and school. (She was, it turned out, twenty-three years old.) Her flat was not in Bloomsbury, but Stamford Hill would do. Her husband was as small as she was, a wiry man with a combative, gamecock manner and hair upspringing in a quiff. Nothing was said about writing until I dared to ask him about it.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “I’ll give you a copy of something I’ve just done.”
This was a twelve-page pamphlet with a green cover published by the Young Communist League of Great Britain. The title was: “FIGHT THE WARMONGERS NOW!”
The author did not talk to me any more about politics but he asked me questions: what did I do? Why had I come to the meeting? and so on. I answered volubly. I had a lot to pour out. Very likely I told him about my poems. He said that I must come again and I did so, several times in the next few weeks.
During this time I joined the Labour Youth. I understood by now that my new friends at the flat were communists. I had decided to be Labour. At the flat I had lively arguments about it. I stood up for my point of view and was overjoyed to have found my tongue. My friends were no less welcoming than before and I was proud to know them; grown-ups, intellectuals, communists. They told me that they had a friend staying with them who wanted to meet me. This was flattering. I met him the next night.
He was John Gollan, a Scot. Gollan was an engaging fellow. He was slight and bony with hollow cheeks and bad teeth which he often showed in an odd open-mouthed grin. The skin of his face was waxen and faintly tawny. His characteristic expression was patient and slightly smiling. He spoke all the time in a mild, reasonable voice and I was flattered by the air of intent consideration with which he listened to everything I said. I was flattered to know him. He, too, looked forward to more meetings and I was soon having regular discussions with him.
I learned at our first meeting that he was the national secretary of the Young Communist League. I was no match for him in argument and came completely under his spell. It was obvious to me, as he pointed out, that the LLY needed gingering-up. I was dismayed at his suggestion that I could do something about it, but I felt so flattered and grown-up among these adults who took me seriously, and Gollan was so helpful in suggesting to me what steps I could take, that I began to stand up at branch meetings of the LLY to put forward ideas, his ideas, for more militant activities.
I had usually in the past, whatever my evening activities, got home by eleven o’clock or so; but at my friends’ flat I stayed talking until well after midnight. One night I let myself in to the house and saw that the kitchen light was still on. My parents, normally in bed before eleven, were there, my father in his corner armchair, my mother sitting upright on a wooden chair by the table. My mother said, “Where have you been?”
I was dumbfounded by this. They had never asked such questions before. She said, “You come in late every night. And wearing that shirt.”
She pointed to my dark green shirt and said, “All these coloured shirts.
You’ll get into trouble wearing that shirt.”
“No I won’t. I’m not a Greenshirt.”
There was such an organisation. They preached something called Social Credit. I said, “I’ve been to see friends.”
“Do they stay out late, too?”
“They’re grown-ups. It’s a man I know and his wife. They’re clever people.
Intellectuals. I go to their flat.”
“Where is this flat?”
“Up the Hill.”
“Oh,” she said. “Clever people.”
She sat thinking. She sniffed hard and I did not realise at first what was happening. Then a big tear welled up on one side end rolled down next to her nose. She dabbed it away with her little handkerchief and said, in a thick voice, “I bet they’re not even married.”
This was the only protest either of them ever made at my new activities and no other question was ever asked. After that they were anxious and silent witnesses of my life.
It was inevitable that Gollan would bring about my conversion. I had always remembered this as having happened swiftly, given my youth and his persuasive powers. However, I now recall an incident which establishes that I must have held out for at least three months, although during that time I was already virtually doing his bidding. In June of that year Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, held a meeting at Olympia, a big hall in West London. The Fascists were very much in the news and were recruiting fast, with energetic support from one of the most popular newspapers in the country, the Daily Mail. Communists with forged tickets were at the meeting in some numbers and tried to break it up. The uniformed Blackshirt stewards used spectacular brutality in throwing them out. There were cracked skulls, broken bones, ambulances racing to and fro.
This event caused a great deal of public debate. It was quite unlike British politics heretofore. Our family newspaper, now the News Chronicle, was staunchly against the fascists but it also condemned the communists. I echoed it in my argument with Gollan; we did not want Nazi storm-troop behaviour in London but neither did we want communists also resorting to force and denying free speech. Gollan leaned forward, jabbed a bony forefinger at me and said, quietly and intensely, “Our people there were bloody heroes. And they were fighting for you!”
Did he, I wondered, mean because I was a Jew?
It must have been very soon after this that I recognised that I was now a communist, one of Gollan’s entourage. I was not formally recruited. In the fourteen years of work for the Young Communist League and the Communist Party that followed I never officially joined either organization or paid a week’s dues, although I became a leader of the YCL and an apparatchik (a member of the apparatus or core of full-time professionals) of some standing in the Party.
I learned early on that my writer acquaintance, John Douglas (his real name was Urquhart) had until recently worked in Moscow as a leading official of the Communist Youth International (KIM), a sub-section of the Communist International or Comintern. He had been sent back to London for a reason of which I learned in time: he had been denounced. Perhaps London was a healthier place for him to be. A resolution appeared in Moscow publications condemning him as a politically bankrupt deviationist. His wife, who had brought me to the flat, had worked in the Comintern or the KIM as a secretary. After a couple of years they went back to Moscow.
Douglas’s flat seemed to be a point of arrival for visitors from Moscow, “the other side” or “over bye” as it was always called. One of them was Alex Massie, who at that time was very high up in the International. At our first meeting he sat down with me and engaged me in earnest talk. I still remember his mild, encouraging voice. A Party courier who travelled between London and Moscow also appeared often, sleeping on the spare divan for a night or two before he disappeared again. Julie, the Party member who had led the factory girls’ strike which had sparked off my blurted appeal at the Labour Youth meeting, lived nearby: I met her at the flat. She looked like one of the Sweater Girls who were soon to become popular in the cinema, stars like Ann Sheridan and Lana Turner. She had a mop of black, curly hair and she wore a high-necked white jersey with a swishing black skirt and a shiny red belt. She was now a rising star in the Party and inspired awe in me. She once gave me an armful of books, several volumes of Lenin and works by Stalin, whose tedious texts I faithfully read.
Douglas’s wife was active in the local YCL and took to bringing members to the flat. One evening while they were talking, Douglas walked into the room with Gollan behind him. He listened to a few murmured words from Gollan, then shouted, “Out, you lot!”‘ As they started to go out he said, “I don’t want to see any of you here again.” I had got up to leave. He put out a hand to stop me and said, “Not you.” I sat down, proud to be one of an inner circle.
In all my years in the movement I never had any experience of life in a local branch. I had only a view-from-above of the rank-and-file. The only communists I had much to do with were leaders, first of the YCL and, very soon, of the Party. My mother, I suppose, would have had better reason to weep if she had known that at the age of sixteen I had tumbled, entirely by accident, into becoming an apprentice to communist leaders and men from Moscow.
An extract from Alexander Baron, Chapters of Accidents: A Writer’s Memoir. Edited by Colin Holmes and Nick Baron. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2022.
 Sefton Delmer (1904–1979). Well known journalist. Often called “Der Chef.” Employed on black propaganda for the Allies during the Second World War. Often associated with his work for the Daily Express.
 Dorothy Woodman (1902–1970). Socialist and journalist. She reported on fascism in Britain and Germany in the 1930s. She was considered by MI5 to be a ‘near-communist’, but suspected by the Communist Party leadership of being an agent. See TNA, KV2/1607.
 John Gollan (1911–1977). Lifelong Communist. His papers are to be found in the People’s History Museum, Manchester. Intelligence files on him are in the National Archives (TNA KV2/1772–8). In 1956 Gollan succeeded Harry Pollitt as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. See Matthew and Harrison (eds), ODNB., Vol. 22, pp.706–7. There is file on him in the Comintern archives, held in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History in Moscow (the former Soviet party archive, hereafter RGASPI), f. 495, op.198, d. 22.
 For an account of Baron’s subsequent career in the CPGB, see Andrew Whitehead, “Very heaven it was to be a Young Communist,” in Susie Thomas, Andrew Whitehead and Ken Worpole (eds), So We Live: The Novels of Alexander Baron (Nottingham, 2019), pp.55–82.
 The Olympia meeting, organised by the British Union of Fascists to showcase its political programme took place in June 1934. On this event and its significance of the meeting, see M. Pugh, “The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Meeting,” Historical Journal, Vol. 41 (1998), pp.529–42.
 The Comintern, known also as the Third International, was established in 1919. Stalin dissolved it in 1943. See K. McDermott and J. Agnew, The Comintern. A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin (New York, 1997).
 John Douglas (Urquhart). Born 1906–7. Joined the Young Communist League in 1926 and served later as its National Secretary. Attended the Lenin School in Moscow in 1930–31 (see p.148 footnote 5 below). Fluent Russian speaker. He might be the Douglas mentioned in a KIM Executive Committee document in the Comintern archive, RGASPI, Moscow, f. 533, op.4, d.317. He resigned from the CPGB in 1939 following the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Worked later in John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde before becoming a tutor-organiser for the WEA. Married Annabel (Bunty) Urquhart. Since they met only in 1939, she could not have been the woman who took Baron to the flat in Stamford Hill. (Baron’s giving Douglas the name of Urquhart confuses the situation.) Douglas died in 1996.
 Alex Massie. Leading activist in Young Communist League. Author of numerous books and pamphlets, including The Chartist Youth Response (London, 1930) and Labour’s Case for Ownership and Control (London, 1945). Associated with the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School. Died 1948. There appears not to be a personal file in the Comintern archives but some of his communications to the KIM Executive Committee can be found in RGASPI f. 533, op.10, d. 341 (letters from J. Gollan, A. Massie, 1938); f. 533, op.10, d. 366 (letters from Massie and Povey).