London. Sooner or later we were always going to have to talk about London, that teeming agglomeration of places you wouldn’t want to live that casts its baleful eye over the rest of the country and looks for fresh prey. It started with Middlesex, most beautiful and unassuming of counties, despoiled beyond recognition – what price Betjeman’s “rural Rayner’s Lane” now? – and then began work on the people and places further afield, sucking talent and opportunity away from the rest of the country in its insatiable lust for commerce.
Of course, there are nicer parts, Wimbledon is generally lovely; Soho has a mystique all its own; but for every place you’d want to live there’re two where you’d only exist. Most of west London, for example, for which the best that can be said is that the house prices aren’t as bad as Fulham; or Angel/Islington, that weird combination of Guardian reading public school luvvies and Telegraph reading public school lawyers and city types – not that you could put a cigarette paper between them. Or Stoke Newington: about as “edgy” these days as Bloomsbury was in the 1890s.
London has always been a graveyard of hopes and dreams, but this has occasionally led to great art – as poverty, in a clichéd fashion, sometimes does. Patrick Hamilton has been experiencing something of a renaissance lately, his chronicles of lower middle and upper working class London life in the interwar period (most notably “Hangover Square” or the trilogy “Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky”) perhaps chiming with the uncertainties and economic hardships of our own time.
Hamilton, of course, was an uneven writer – his star burned brightly enough to begin with, and reached its zenith with “The Slaves of Solitude,” before beginning the long slide into mediocrity with the Gorse trilogy (the last volume of which, “Unknown Assailant,” is probably only worth reading for the sake of completeness; the reader is long past caring about the story or the character).
Then there’s Julian Maclaren-Ross. You’ve probably come across Maclaren-Ross, even if you haven’t realised it. He was the template for the self destructing idiot writer; a prototype for the sort of chap (other than himself) that Cyril Connolly had in mind when he wrote “Enemies of Promise.” He was also the model for X Trapnel, far and away the most intriguing character in Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time.” If you haven’t read this sequence, then go and do so immediately – for Trapnel’s appearances you want volumes 10, 11, and 12, respectively – or, for the York Notes crib, just watch Sean Baker’s brilliant portrayal in the Channel 4 adaptation from the late 1990s.
JM-R was, in truth, a bit of an oddball. A somewhat peripatetic childhood in France, and broken schooling, eventually saw him washed up in pre-war London. He didn’t really trouble the literary world over much until towards the end of the Second World War when, managing to extricate himself from the army, who were probably as glad to see the back of him as he was then, he became a fixture of the Soho scene. Reading his excellent “Memoirs of the Forties” is like having a front row seat in a parade of mid 20th century British greats. Waugh is there, as is Betjeman (both of whom were admirers of his prose), Orwell, Tambimuttu, Connolly and Horizon magazine….
Maclaren-Ross completed only one “literary” novel (as opposed to some dreadful penny shockers), 1947’s “Of Love and Hunger,” but this alone would be enough to see him occupying a creditable place in the English novelist’s second XI. I’ll be honest that it probably doesn’t sound totally promising when I say it’s about a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman in 1930s Brighton, but it speaks eloquently of lost love, drudgery, hardship and heartbreak. Much as with Waugh, the bad end unhappily and the good even more so, but it is crystal clear prose that you can lose yourself in. Possibly the only comparable prose stylist working today is Edward St Aubyn.
The chief glory of the JM-R oeuvre, however, is the short stories. You can still pick up first and second editions reasonably cheaply, but they have been collected into a couple of volumes that are easily available on Amazon, notably “Selected Stories” and “Bitten by the Tarantula.” These demonstrate Maclaren-Ross’ pitch perfect ear for dialogue, particularly the army stories, which limn with devastating accuracy the predicament of the over intellectual under achiever conscripted into the machine of total war. Then there’re the peppery ex colonials, the young men on the make, and a cast of grotesque suburbanites and central London bohemians. He was on to a good thing and, during the war when there was a hunger for reading material of all types, literary magazines were booming in the publishing mainstream, and the short story was enjoying its last hurrah as an artistic form, he made absolute hay.
Maclaren-Ross was however afflicted with Sohoitis in a big way – Tambimuttu’s term for spending all one’s time in the pubs of Soho and never getting any work done. He spent periods of time sleeping rough, suffered psychotic episodes (in the grip of one of which he stalked and plotted to murder George Orwell’s widow Sonia), and died much too young in the 1960s. Paul Willetts did an excellent job of bringing him back to life in his 2005 biography “Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia,” which is heartily recommended.
I thought about Maclaren-Ross as I sat in the bar of the Fitzroy Tavern the other week. Sam Smiths have managed to keep the place looking appropriately unmodernised, and it was easy to imagine the man in the dark glasses and the teddy bear overcoat, wielding his swordstick and knocking back the drinks as he kept the hordes of hangers on entertained before going home to get on the Benzedrine and write until dawn in his miniscule handwriting. Essays, reviews, short stories, parodies, begging letters to the Royal Literary Fund…. For a short time London came alive again, and its depressing descent into plastic consumerism was arrested. The provinces have had their literary hymners too, Priestley say, or Francis Brett-Young. But it is perhaps appropriate that the chronicler of 20th century London should have been so heroically underachieving.
Julian Maclaren-Ross, then, in the words of Paul Willetts “a mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent.”