Julian Maclaren-Ross: A Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature
Julian Maclaren-Ross’ Collected Memoirs are a master-class in autobiographical writing. His recollections strike an off-beat chord, shifting between dolefulness, mirth, vulgarity and the genuinely outré. Published in a beautiful moss-coloured paperback by Black Spring Press, the book showcases Maclaren-Ross’ talent as a great wit, and a man of intellect and erudition. Often remembered as a Fitzrovian gadabout, a fine raconteur and a literary mendicant, Maclaren-Ross remains an esoteric figure, revered among a select number of fellow writers but largely forgotten by the reading public. His Collected Memoirs are full of experience; his childhood in the south of France, wartime army barracks, down-and-out boarding houses and subfusc sordid little pubs scattered around the midnight metropolis of London. As with much of his fiction, Maclaren-Ross uses informal, colloquial language to convey his life in all its fascinating detail. This use of a demotic vocabulary constitutes a literary style, redolent of cigarette smoke and drink, which is entirely his own. Booze was a lifelong crutch in Maclaren-Ross’ life, so much so that he seemed unable to face the world without it. Accordingly, he could usually be found holding court in one of the many infamous saloons in the nub of Soho, partaking in the revelry that has come to define his work.
In the 1930s Maclaren-Ross worked as a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman in Bognor, a part of his life that was later documented in the novel Of Love and Hunger (1947). He recollects: “I was there because I had answered an advertisement which began INTELLIGENT MEN WANTED, and found out too late that it meant learning to sell vacuum cleaners. The firm, however, paid an advance of £2-10 and the fare to London, find your own digs, so I’d enrolled at the training school.” Needless to say Maclaren-Ross didn’t quite make it as a salesman. He did, however, while not selling vacuum cleaners in London, meet several publishers. Among them was Jonathan Cape, who would prove instrumental in getting Maclaren-Ross to write more short stories, which his House would undertake to publish. Maclaren-Ross’ reminisces: “Jonathan Cape has been dead for some time now, but I have never forgotten the white head and charcoaled black suit, the tall square figure standing on his doorstep in Bedford Street, one hand raised to wave good-bye and point the way to where I could best catch my bus.” Yet despite this encouragement, it was really the war that provided him with the necessary material to write. After a short stint in the army from which, following desertion, he was eventually discharged due to mental health problems, he published a book of topical shorts called The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944).
At the peak of his penurious fame, he was producing reviews, radio scripts and journalistic features by the dozen, working through the night after hours of drinking and converting wild impassioned pub discussions into fascinating vignettes. Although forever scraping by on the charity of friends, acquaintances and publishers, Maclaren-Ross was known as much for his writing, his formidable intellect, as he was for a lifestyle that often saw him broke, sometimes homeless and perpetually in poor health. A typical denizen of nocturnal Soho, he was once described by friend and fellow writer Anthony Powell as having the “air of a broken-down dandy, though just what breed of dandyism was not easy to define.” It seems, by and large, that Maclaren-Ross’ talent and career was impeded by self-destruction, a theme that runs through the Collected Memoirs with a kind of abject theatricality. These reminiscences often include stories about his time on the battlefield, but the snapshots of war he relays tend to tell human stories, rather than document the atrocities of combat. Here he is in one entitled Company X: “I remember one night standing in a trench next to a corporal when all sounds of strife had long since faded and any danger was clearly past, both of us frozen to the bone despite long woollen underpants, battle dress, greatcoat, balaclava helmet and woollen gloves…when I cursed our lot the corporal stolidly replied: ‘Could be worse mate.’ I said: ‘How could it be worse?’ We’ve been here two bloody hours frozen solid…so how could it be worse?’ The corporal said stolidly: ‘Could be bleeding sight worse mate. Could be pissing down with rain as well.” Maclaren-Ross talks of his time in the army with reluctant fondness, despite the fact that he was almost killed while working on a firing range. A wayward bullet had caromed off his helmet, and he recalls that “For years I carried this bullet about as the One with My Name On it, possession of which, according to army superstition, guaranteed immortality, at least for the duration.” He later lost it down a city street drain.
He also lost many friends; but then he made many too: Anthony Powell, George Orwell, Nina Hamnett, Henry Green, Eric Ambler, Joyce Cary, Brian Howard. And (perhaps the closest of these friends) Dylan Thomas, whom Maclaren-Ross met in 1943 while working as a screenwriter for Strand Films (producing short, government-funded propaganda). The two became regular drinking partners, and could often be found at the Wheatsheaf, a popular pub near Oxford Circus. Inspired by the bustling bohemian subculture of 1940s London, Maclaren-Ross resolved to write his memoirs, destined for serialisation in the London Magazine. The first instalment depicted his friendship with Thomas, and it is here that we learn of their initial, and slightly awkward, meeting: “…in the office assigned to us”, Maclaren-Ross recalls, “Dylan and I stood uneasy and shame-faced, like two strange children sent off to play alone by a benevolent adult, in the belief that because they are contemporaries they’re bound to get on well.” But they did get on, encouraged to do so by the Strand’s boss Donald Taylor. Eventually, Dylan confessed to have read Maclaren-Ross’ work long before the two were introduced: “He didn’t tell me, nor for a long time did I find out, that he’d read the stories aloud to Taylor, insisting that I’d be taken on at the Strand when discharged from the army: that in other words, I owed my job to him.” This quiet fraternity encapsulates the nature of their relationship, and Dylan’s unrelenting belief (“You’ll pull it off one day”) in Maclaren-Ross’ talent.
And pull it off he did. Posterity hasn’t been kind to Maclaren-Ross, depriving him off his deserved prominence in English literature, but his work speaks for itself. The Collected Memoirs contain a considerable range of topics, anecdotes and incidents written in a variety of styles. The highly literary childhood reminiscences in The Weeping and the Laughter, with their evocative descriptions and vivid narrative syntax, recall the work of Vladimir Nabokov. They are full of brilliantly eccentric characters, numerous idiosyncrasies, acutely deadpan humour – in fact, these qualities pepper the memoirs throughout. Lackadaisical passages slowly unfold with droll interpositions and qualifications, vibrantly recapturing the fears and fixations that define the lives of “delicate” children. And then there is Maclaren-Ross’ father, the most important of the book’s characters. Speaking of him in The Coloured Alphabet, he recalls: “He discouraged, even in wartime, anything likely to promote hatred between nations and would not countenance the use of the term Boche nor allow me to draw the Kaiser’s head on the shell of my breakfast-egg and then smash it in with a spoon, as other children did. This attitude, combined with his dislike of all militarism, which as an ex-officer wounded in the Boer War he felt entitled to express whenever he liked, was apt to be misunderstood when aired in public, and led to his half-strangling a man on a bus who accused him of being unpatriotic and pro-German.” Another character of note is Maclaren-Ross’ nanny, who was Belgian and whom he called Nanna. We learn that “She had an accent in speaking English not dissimilar from that of the French governess in Uncle Silas, if what she said were phonetically rendered and though her disciplinary methods did not resemble those of this fictional prototype, they were at the time quite severe enough to keep me in check. She also had a moustache which prickled unpleasantly when she kissed me; this did not happen often, luckily, as all demonstrations of affection were kept for public exhibition only: in private our relations were on a strictly practical plain…Unbeknown to me, however, Nanna’s days with us were numbered. It was a passion for atrocity stories that finally earned her the sack.”
This facility in depicting the eccentricities of character is evident throughout, yet Maclaren-Ross’ is especially perceptive when it comes to describing the people he knew best among them his fellow drinkers. In Regulars, Wits and Bums, talking about the hierarchy of boozers in the Wheatsheaf, he explains: “They made up the background and the unsung chorus and occasionally, on an off-night, the entire cast. These fell roughly into three categories: Regulars, Wits and Bums. Regulars, of whom Mrs Stewart was the doyenne, included the old Home Guard who though extremely old wore on his tunic medal ribbons of more campaigns than even he could possibly have served in: it was thought that the tunic or the ribbons had been handed down to him by his grandfather, and I was using him as a model for the old sweat in the Home Guard film which Dylan and myself were then writing. Then there was the Central European sports writer, now relegated to the middle of the counter from which it was not so easy to get a drink; the orange faced woman (so called because of the many layers of make-up which she wore which made it impossible to assess her age), whose presence in the pub made it sound like a parrot house in the zoo and who was reputed to have silk sheets on her bed (though no man was brave enough to investigate the rumour); and Sister Ann, the tart who was more respectable than many other female customers: she mostly moved in a no-man’s-land between public and saloon bars and patronised both as it suited her . . . Wits came in various shapes and sizes, but could be distinguished by the fact that none was ever heard to say anything witty: indeed one elderly Irishman, who wore a grey wideawake hat and was supposed when young to have written a very witty book, never said anything at all . . . Bums (some of whom under their new designation as Beats are still about), were of two kinds: (1) young men and women just down from provincial universities and wrapped in college scarves which after going several times round their necks were still long enough to hang down behind: these were known to us as the Slithy Toves since members of both sexes resembled facially the curious corkscrew-like creatures depicted by Tenniel in his illustrations of Alice [in Wonderland], and (2) a number of shaggy bearded types who had managed to dodge the service and lived communally in the cellar of a blitzed building, where they made lampshades and toy animals out of pipe cleaners while dealing in the black market on the side for a living. Their leader was known, for obvious reasons, as Robinson Crusoe and they called themselves the Young Anarchist Movement. None of them had any political convictions.”
Even when Maclaren-Ross is entertaining, much of his writing is underpinned by pathos. This, to a certain extent, was a product of his frustration with the absurdity of the world, and this frustration occasionally prompted sessions of morbid introspection. These feelings, however, were not new: as he himself documents, they had been with him since childhood: “The solitary, the strange and the withdrawn always fascinated me as a boy; perhaps I recognised in them a foretoken of my future self.” Speaking further of his childhood in The Coloured Alphabet, Maclaren-Ross’ remembers how he had been “born with red hair. Later on this fell off and brown hair, which became progressively darker, took its place. My father had started life with auburn hair and my mother’s was black, so presumably both parents were satisfied: though not always with my subsequent conduct. Indeed there were times as I grew older, when my father expressed the opinion that the Devil had got into me, and my mother that I took after my uncle Bertie: a relative (her brother, incidentally) for whom a bad end had frequently been predicted, and who did finally figure in a case that achieved international publicity.”
When Maclaren-Ross’ isn’t regaling the reader with accounts of meeting the famous (“I glanced around and as I did so Graham Greene himself appeared quite silently in the open doorway. I was startled because not even a creak on the stair had announced his approach. Seeing me there gave him also a start, and he took a step back. He was wearing a brown suit and large horn-rimmed spectacles, which he at once snatched off as if they had been his hat.”) or expounding about his rambunctious nightly adventures, he writes quiet – and beautiful – stream-of consciousness prose. It feels like the reportage of an observing spectre. Here he is in the End of a Perfect Day, sitting sedately in the reading room at the Plaza Mickey Rooney, watching the world around him: “I settle down to write, someone plays the same tune over and over again on a piano in the games room. Men step over your feet with plates of cakes and cups of tea slopping into the saucer. One trips and drops the lot. Shattered china and a steaming brown puddle on the floor. An incredibly old man with a purple nose peddles newspapers: Anyone like the latest? A lance corporal asks me for a light; some men start singing to the piano; a girl of about 16, daughter of one of the servers, sits down in the next armchair and talks. I kissed her once under the mistletoe at Christmas and she’s never got over it. It’s impossible to work here, I decide to go back and type out what I’ve written.” And what this Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature has written is a spectacular body of work.