Review: King Dido

Baron is back, so prepare to be scared


By Alexander Baron
New London Editions, £9.99

It is almost exactly 10 years since Alec Baron died. He was one of the outstanding Anglo-Jewish writers of the post-war period. The Guardian called him “the greatest British novelist of the last war” and his novel From the City from the Plough sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

For 30 years, he was also a leading television dramatist, writing original plays for Armchair Theatre and adapting classics like Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair for the BBC. Recently, some of his best novels have been republished with excellent new introductions, none finer than Ken Worpole’s essay in this new edition of King Dido.

King Dido is one of Baron’s best novels, a gripping thriller of underclass crime in the East End Baron grew up in and knew so well. Set on the eve of the First World War, it tells the story of Dido Peach, who is drawn into the violent world of protection rackets and gang warfare. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York and you would have a good image of the man and his world: “His face was a frame of strong, brutal bones, so hard, the set of his jaw so aggressive, that it brought to mind Teuton warriors, shouts, winging of axes, berserk.”

Peach has his father’s violence and strength and his mother’s concern for living respectably and decently. He rules his younger brothers with a rod of iron and woos a respectable young girl from a local tea-shop.

His family’s attempt to lead a good life brings them into conflict with a local dynasty of toughs and thugs led by the monstrous Ginger Murchison. One of Murchison’s boys comes into Peach’s mother’s shop and asks for money. Her younger son, Shonny, takes him on. Soon after, Murchison himself comes visiting and without saying a word just urinates on her floor. Peach seeks him out and after one of the most vicious fights in modern literature, establishes himself as the strong man of the neighbourhood, King Dido.

He catches the eye of the police inspector — Merry, a sort of Javert to Dido’s Jean Valjean. From here on the novel gathers speed, with Dido chased by the violent Murchisons on the one hand and the more cunning and relentless Merry on the other.

Baron had an extraordinary eye for period detail and was highly knowledgeable about East London slums. But his greatest gift was storytelling and the creation of unforgettable characters. His rediscovery is long overdue.

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