Ken Worpole, one of Hackney’s most respected and prolific writers, is helping to re-launch Alexander Baron’s classic Bethnal Green novel King Dido. Nikk Quentin Woolf of Xstream East Radio gets the low-down.
Could you tell me something about the King Dido project?
It has its origin in the 1970s. I was involved in an oral history project interviewing people about growing up in the east end of London, and one of the people I interviewed was the writer Alexander Baron, who, certainly after the war, was regarded as one of Britain’s greatest novelists.
He was born and grew up in Stoke Newington. His reputation sort of went quiet in the 1980s, he turned to television writing, but in 1983 I made a very long interview with him, which I used at the time for a book I was writing.
In the last few years Baron has become quite a cult figure amongst those who are fond of writings about London. When I was asked by a friend, who runs Five Leaves Press, whether I would be interested in helping republish some of Baron’s novels, I was very keen.
We chose King Dido because it is a very fast-paced, gripping novel set in Bethnal Green just before the First World War. And although it’s all ostensibly about gang fights and street fights and the underworld and police versus thieves and so on, it’s got quite a lot of social content; you really get a feeling for the area in that time. That is coming out at the end of the month.
How typical is it of Baron’s writing?
He was a very political man. His first (and best) novel was about the build up to D-Day and was called From The City From the Plough. Published in 1948, it sold half a million copies and is still regarded I think as the best novel of the Second World War. He did several novels about that war and the Spanish Civil War.
He had volunteered to fight in Spain, but was called back because he was regarded as more politically valuable in London working for the cause.
He did a couple of novels about Spain and a couple of historical novels about ancient Egypt and several novels set in London after the second world war, one of which was Rosie Hogarth, another one we are thinking of republishing.
None of this material sounds uninteresting; to what do you attribute his decades of invisibility?
He wasn’t an officer. The view of the war from below was kind of submerged in the 1950s with a view of the war which was all about the heroic acts of the few – fighter pilots and submarine commanders and so on.
I’m not suggesting a conspiracy but nevertheless that quiet novel of the everyday misery of war was pushed aside by the heroic stuff. It was all part of post-war nation-building.
You’re a writer on architecture, first and foremost, but you have written on subjects as diverse as cemeteries, children’s play spaces, and so forth. How do you select your subjects?
Well, it’s a bit old fashioned: I just follow my nose. I’ve been lucky enough to earn a (fairly modest) living as a freelance writer. And I occasionally get some part-time work researching social policy issues.
While I am travelling I might come across, say, an unusual building in Denmark, and this will set me thinking about why the Scandinavian design of the 1930s became so popular in the UK in the 1960s for libraries and schools and so forth. So half of me earns a living and the other half of me pursues my own interests.
What are the hot issues in London architecture right now?
So-called iconic buildings. Why is so much architectural attention paid to the very big projects, whether they are Olympic buildings or skyscrapers, when the architecture that is of most importance is the architecture of the everyday: of the house, the school, the day-care nursery? Britain is famous for its big-name architects, and we are regarded as pioneers on a world stage, people like Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, etc.
I am very taken with the disjunction between the razzamatazz of the big glamorous projects and the paucity of the architectural thinking of the everyday – particularly both public and private family housing.
And do you actively try to take a part in correcting that?
Yes, the books I’ve written are very much about everyday architecture. I did a book called Here Comes the Sun, which my wife, a photographer, we travelled a lot in Europe, looking at things like libraries and playgrounds.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Britons were known throughout the world for our progressive attitude towards children – we had more progressive schools, we pioneered nursery education, our primary schools were very highly regarded. But then after the war we kind of lost interest in children, it seems to me.
If you go to Amsterdam or Copenhagen, you’ll find in the big cities more or less on every corner a playground that is publicly accessible, well-maintained. But we don’t have that here, we have ghastly bits of metal equipment stuck in a corner, vandalised, surrounded by broken glass.
I know you write for a cycling magazine as well, you’re a keen cyclist, Boris’ ambitions to turn London in to a cycling city – how successful is he being?
I think he is continuing a trend that had already started. London has for at least the last fifteen years dominated the cycling statistics of Britain, and Hackney has dominated the London cycling statistics.
So he can’t resist something that was already a massive trend, but I think he can be awkward and not really help it gain even greater importance. I used to enjoy cycling in London. Now, most of the time on weekends, you’ll find me cycling around the back lanes of Essex.
Ken Worpole and Nick Baron re-launch Alexander Baron’s King Dido at Bethnal Green Library on 23 October. More info here.