Tag Archives: Alexander Baron

The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.

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Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green, part two

In ‘King Dido’, his 1969 novel about Dido Peach, a docker turned criminal, Alexander Baron set the action in a shabby Bethnal Green alleyway called Rabbit Marsh. This was directly inspired by Baron’s memories of Hare Marsh, a tiny cul-de-sac that still exists near Brick Lane. Here, Baron gives us a careful description of the squalid street.

‘In 1911, although the crowding was less abominable and the old Hogarthian bedlam had vanished, the street was still a slum, the roadway narrow and cobbled, the houses black and decayed, many of the ground floors turned into miserable shops and workshops… the railway lines ran behind high brick walls on an embankment behind Rabbit Marsh.’

It hasn’t changed much, has it?

Although a new block of luxury flats sits on the right-hand side, the left wall is an old workshop, the street is still cobbled and it ends abruptly and noisily at the railway. Dido Peach lived above his mother’s rag shop, so it is perhaps apposite that the building to the left is now a second-hand clothes shop.

Here it is again in 1973, in a brilliant, bleak image by Jonathan Barker on Flickr. Scroll down and Barker also has a great picture of it later that year with Cheshire Street’s atmospheric market in full swing.

Baron writes.

‘Imagine a narrow ravine whose floor consists of worn cobbles running between pavements of uneven flags. Such was Rabbit Marsh. That was all the street was; two narrowly facing rows of such buildings, leaning forward with age, cleft by an alley here or there or pierced at the base by a porch leading into a yard.’

Alexander chose his location carefully – the contrast between the rural idealism of the name and the reality of the space is crucial; the words ‘rabbit’ and ‘marsh’ also have insinuations, of over-breeding and of getting stuck  – but he also cheated a bit. Although we know that Rabbit/Hare Marsh is a short dead-end street in the book it is still large enough to contain several dozen shops and houses (Dido lives at No.34) as well as a pub (the Railway), and we are told it hosts a street market on Sundays. The real Hare Marsh simply isn’t large enough for all of that.

Nowhere in the book does Baron mention Hare Street (as Cheshire Street was then named), the now trendy road that links Hare Marsh to Brick Lane, and my assumption is that the author conflated Hare Marsh and Hare Street to give Rabbit Marsh a little extra space for him to play with than really existed. So Rabbit Marsh is stretched, the residents allowed more room in which to breath.

He did not have to imagine much. Opposite Hare Marsh is a pub that looks a lot like the one described in the book.

This is the Carpenter’s Arms. In another nod to reality, there is real villainy here. Dido Peach ends up becoming a kind of local enforcer, taking protection money from local shopkeepers, and the Carpenter’s was once owned by the Krays. All three Krays – Ron, Reg and Charlie – had their funerals at the nearby St Matthew’s church.

Baron’s descriptions of Hare Marsh are captivating, but they are necessarily evocative. Dido Peach’s universe is tiny, and we have to believe in it. This was true to life. In this era, the average Londoner was born, lived, worked and died within a three-mile circle and Peach’s world is similarly shrivelled. The furthest north he gets is Dalston; south is the impenetrable barrier of the river. His one trip west takes him as far as Liverpool Street station, where he heads for the Tube platform and sits watching the trains coming and going, but never considers getting on board.

In ‘The People Of The Abyss’, Jack London’s 1902 account of the East London poor, he writes of one young soak: ‘From the moment of his birth, all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake.’

This is also the tragedy of Dido Peach’s life, the limitations of possibility and how poverty destroys self-belief and any means the protagonist has of escape, but it is what makes the book so acute and so realistic. Seek it out, then take the pilgrimage to this tiny and otherwise forgotten dead-end alleyway in E2, where fact and fiction collide in gritty, grotty greatness.

Part one is here.

Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green

Last month, a friend bought me ‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron, a lost London novel written in 1969 that has recently been reprinted. It is set in the East End in 1911 and is about Dido Peach, a taciturn docker who almost against his will and certainly against his intentions becomes a vicious criminal, the boss of his manor. It’s a great book – lively, cynical, witty, violent yet thoughtful; it reminded me of Camus’ ‘The Stranger’, but filtered through a very exacting East End eye.

Off  Cheshire Street, south of where it meets St Matthew’s Road, you will find an easily overlooked dead-end street called Hare Marsh. This is where Baron’s mother grew up and it’s where Baron places Dido’s small and rather pathetic manor, renamed Rabbit Marsh in the book.

Originally, Hare Marsh was the name given to the entire area. It had been built on since before the 1670s, but had long been a slum by the time Baron’s book was set. He writes:

‘Rabbit Marsh acquired its name at the end of the seventeenth century, when it was a green and pleasant country place on the outskirts of London. Artisans came here to picnic, practise their sports and trap the rabbits, which abounded… The industrial revolution had turn the whole eastern quarter into an immense slum which had overrun Bethnal Green. Rabbit Marsh was swallowed up with the rest… ‘

This is why William Cobbett called London ‘the Great Wen’, a monstrous cyst that was consuming the country around it, and you can trace the development and decline of Hare Marsh in maps.

Here you can see it on this enlarged square of John Rocque’s London map of 1746. It’s towards the top of the map in the shape of a little lane coming south off Hare Street, the last turning on the right, and heading into fields. Bucolic, no?

To get some perspective, here’s a link to the whole map; Hare Marsh is in square 1F.

Now, here’s the incredible Horwood map of 1792 – Hare Marsh is on the far right, still an open and pleasant looking space but buildings are starting to encroach.

It hasn’t changed much by the time of the Greenwood map of 1827.

It’s the short street off Hare Street (as Cheshire Street was known until sometime between 1929 and 1945) directly below St Matthew’s Church right next to the big black square.

The square is the workhouse and Hare Marsh also contains almshouses, buildings that show there has been a change in the area’s status. But there’s still no sign of the railway, so even now Hare Marsh opens directly on to fields.

That was soon to change.

Here it is on Booth’s poverty map of 1898, coloured dark and light blue – not quite black (semi-criminal) on Booth’s colour coded scale, but not far off it. Bethnal Green is now entirely built over.

Again it’s the little turning off Hare Street – you can just see it between the ‘r’ and ‘e’ of street. By now, the railway is very much in place, closing in the inhabitants and offering them no escape. This feeling of dead-endness, of a lack of options, of claustrophobia, is central to the atmosphere of Baron’s book and partly explains why he chose this as the location. The railways brought London its greatest devastation since the Great Fire, and this is a great example of the adverse impact it had on individual streets.

Finally, here it is (square aD) in 1922 shortly after the period in which Baron’s book was set (and again in 1952, by which time Hare Street had become Cheshire Street). What had been a quiet lane, open to fields and on the very edge of London, was now a cul-de-sac, hemmed in by a noisy and polluting railway, in the heaving centre of London’s chaotic and overpopulated East End. The perfect location for a novel about poverty and powerlessness.

More on Hare Marsh later.

Many of these maps are available for purchase from the linked websites.