Category Archives: Baron Alexander

The Lowlife by Alexander Baron  

Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware of my love of the great British boarding house, a setting that provides writers with all manner of possibilities for interesting fiction in a seedy, down-at-heel environment. Each boarder typically comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact in the communal areas of the house. Alexander Baron’s 1963 novella The Lowlife is a splendid addition to this genre – an entertaining, picaresque story of a likeable Jewish charmer with a penchant for Emile Zola and a somewhat tortuous past. (My thanks to the Backlisted team for covering this gem on their podcast – spot on with their recommendations again!)

The anti-hero in question is forty-five-year-old Harryboy Boas, a lovable rogue with a conscience who feeds his gambling addiction with occasional stints as a Hofmann presser in the East End rag trade.

You must understand from the start, although I am a cadger where necessary, you will never find me with the unshaven face, the dirty collar or frayed cuffs of a schnorrer. One thing about me, I always dress smartly. A good suit, midnight blue mohair, this year’s cut. Dazzling white shirt, quiet tie of silk, rust-colour. Buy your clothes good if you have to starve afterwards. (p. 4)

Harryboy likes nothing more than a bit of peace and quiet, allowing him to read Zola novels all day in his room at Mr Siskin’s Hackney boarding house, preferably untroubled by the need to work. At night, Harry is usually at the local dog tracks, gambling away what little money he has. Occasionally he heads over to Finchley to see his older sister, Debbie – now respectably married to a wealthy bookmaker, Gus. Debbie, who still feels very protective over her younger brother, would love to see Harryboy settling down with a steady job and a nice, respectable woman to keep him on the straight and narrow. Harryboy, however, is too independent to succumb to this vision, preferring his solitary, easy-going bachelor lifestyle despite its lack of security.

Everything changes for Harryboy when the Deaners move in, a development that disturbs the relative peace and quiet of his familiar world. Vic and Evelyn Deaner and their young son Gregory have decamped to the Hackney boarding house from the suburbs of Ilford, much to Evelyn’s disgust. Vic, a trainee accountant studying to become a company secretary (a position Evelyn is determined he must get), spends his spare time poring over his books, leaving young Gregory at a loose end. While his parents argue over money and Evelyn’s plans for the family to move elsewhere, Gregory is fascinated by Harryboy, whom he sees as a friendly presence in the house. While Harryboy would much prefer to be on his own, his sympathetic nature (and painful events from his past) cause him to soften towards Gregory, especially given the tensions between Evelyn and Vic. Moreover, Harryboy feels a bit sorry for Vic, who is clearly being driven mad by Evelyn’s demands, so he takes Vic to the dog tracks, keen to paint himself as someone flash with business interests.

Naturally, with Harryboy’s help, Vic has a run of beginner’s luck, winning big on the night, much to his delight. Sadly though, the thrill of the win proves to be Vic’s undoing. All too soon, this under-the-thumb clerk lands himself with gambling debts, stealing money from the accounts at work in a desperate attempt to win it back. Unfortunately, the situation also creates no end of trouble for Harryboy as he tries to find enough money to bail out the hopeless Vic. Before Harryboy knows it, he’s hitting the racetracks and losing big-time, ‘borrowing’ (aka stealing) money from a friend, leaning on Debbie and Gus in desperation for a loan and running for his life from a local gang of thugs.

What Baron does so well here is to paint Harryboy in such a way that elicits the reader’s sympathies despite his obvious flaws and failings. We know that Harryboy is a serial gambler and no good will ever come of his bravura in front of the Deaners, and yet we want him to pull through, eager for him to pull off the impossible to save Vic from being rumbled. It’s a skilful trick to pull off, but Baron nails it, investing his protagonist with a degree of charm and generosity that feels both genuine and unexpected.

Beneath the outward display of easy-going lethargy, there is a more poignant side to Harryboy too, a tender, tragic backstory that adds depth to his character. In truth, Harryboy is haunted by guilt, a hangover from the horrors of the Holocaust and an affair from his past. When Harryboy served in France during WW2, he had a relationship with a French-Jewish girl who ended up pregnant – a revelation that only came to light once his days in France were over. The fates of the girl and the child remain unclear, but Harryboy fears that both perished in the Nazi death camps – a thought he struggles to suppress. Naturally, this terrible sense of guilt goes some way to explaining Harryboy’s feelings of responsibility for Gregory and Vic, despite the mess it creates for himself.

Baron is equally strong on the depiction of gambling addiction, skilfully capturing both the adrenaline rush of the win and the sheer desperation of losing – particularly when the loses pile up.

You reach a point where you have lost so often that it seems impossible you can lose any more. It is sheer, staring, obvious commonsense that you must win next time. And having lost, lost, lost, lost, lost, you wait for the next wage packet so that you can hurry to the track—and by now you are hurrying like a stupid, eager, knownothing punter—to place the bets that must, this time they must, they positively must, win. (p. 129)

The characterisation is universally excellent too, particularly Evelyn Deaner, whom Harryboy has taped from the start.

I could have told you all about Evelyn before she spoke. A suburban. Our street must be like the bottom of a dustbin to her. I could have told you from this flat. In the front bedroom (I had seen before the curtains went up) a full bedroom suite. In this room, a three-piece lounge suite plus dining-room table and sideboard. Not to mention the telly. An Evelyn must have all this even if she’s living in a cupboard. It’s her wedding ring. She will pay for it on the never-never and feed her family on rabbit food. The furniture is her ultimatum to the husband. He was to work like some foredoomed male insect till he can get the house all this is meant for. (p. 23)

Evelyn is pushy, nervy and intolerant, constantly nagging Vic in her efforts to progress. When the de Souzas, a black couple of West Indian heritage, move into the Siskins’ boarding house, Evelyn practically explodes with rage. Even though the de Souzas are polite, reliable and generous, frequently sharing their food with the neighbours, Evelyn despises them, making no attempts to hide her racist prejudices. For someone as small-minded as Evelyn, sharing a house with a black couple is the equivalent of living in a slum – another reason for her to give out to Vic, upping the pressure for him to act.

As the story plays out, Baron brings everything to a satisfying conclusion – there’s even a suitably ironic twist at the end, which I won’t reveal here. So to summarise, this is a marvellous addition to the boarding house genre and a wonderful evocation of post-war London life. It’s also one of the first British novels to feature characters of Caribbean heritage, deftly reflecting the city’s rapidly changing social landscape in the 1960s. Highly recommended for lovers of 20th-century British fiction.