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King Dido

Book Review by Jack Farmer, December 2009

Alexander Baron, Five Leaves, £9.99

It is 1911 and while the coronation bells at Westminster inaugurate the reign of George V it is in the East End that Alexander Baron's newly reissued novel charts the rise of a rather different king of men.

The eponymous Dido is the eldest son of the Peach family who reside in Rabbit Marsh near Brick Lane. Dido's two teenage brothers are, under his rough but earnest guidance, becoming men - mixing an uneasy cocktail of drinking, working and fighting. Their mother is a widow, recently rid of a violent husband.

The residents of Rabbit Marsh are appropriately fearful and docile. A gang family called the Murchisons rule the roost with a drunken fist, extorting money and generally lording over their speck of London with the connivance of the police.

Barely has this situation been established in the novel before it is torn to shreds in a bloody confrontation. Provoked by the elder Murchison, Ginger, Dido smashes his authority with a hammer to the jaw. In a flash of extreme violence, Dido becomes King of Rabbit Marsh. Thus begins a "Bildungsroman" (coming of age narrative) - but with Dido in place of the usual middle class protagonist.

As the Murchisons retreat, the vacant position of antagonist in the novel is filled by the vile police inspector, Merry. He hopes to achieve a life of middle class ease and in the meantime acts as an arbiter of oppression: ignoring the crimes of the rich (from whom he accepts bribes, when offered) he prosecutes the working class residents of the East End according to his judgement of their inherent criminality, ensuring that rebellious elements are incarcerated for as long as possible.

He is a self-conscious, self-congratulatory oppressor of the working class, and it is only with him as a counterpoint that Dido achieves a fleeting, troubled heroism.

The ultimate demise of Dido is never in doubt, but the journey is worthwhile. This novel does not pose as elegantly written. Baron's words are roughly wrought. His sentences trace the ragged outline of lives lived in the streets, of jobs that break men's backs, the fuzziness of drunken nights and sex exchanged quickly and regretfully.

Baron wrote the book in 1967 - and it shows. Dido is every bit the "angry young man". For reasons that he struggles to grasp, he is driven to defend his kin from the surrounding squalor and to try to shape them into a middle class family unit. This leads him to Grace, and a marriage consummated in rape, sustained without any hope for the future.

Dido's mother articulates most clearly the contradictions of his plans. She longs for her younger son, Shoony, to get a middle class job in an office and to acquire the trappings of a gentleman.

By contrast, Dido advocates a kind of puritanical isolationism as a way of marking the family as superior to their neighbours. Both plans rest on a rejection of their working class environment, aiming instead towards the kind of bourgeois bliss easily enjoyed by Inspector Merry.

Hardly a cheerful read, this book nevertheless represents a serious attempt to write working class life. Its reissue represents a challenge to the traditional boundaries of the literary canon and the novel bears witness to the fact that class oppression is written into the deep structure of the novel as a form, itself an articulation of the structure of class society.

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