Probably the first thing that ought to be said about the quintessentially flamboyant, hard-drinking, and doomed British author Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64) is that he could really write. Anyone familiar with the genre will know that there’s a long if not always proud tradition of debauched-looking men in black capes loitering around London pubs, a cigarette holder clenched between carious teeth, haranguing their audience about their latest work in progress, and not infrequently settling any critical dispute on the subject with their fists. Maclaren-Ross did all this and more, holding court most nights in some Soho dive on a steady diet of wine, gin, and Benzedrine before precariously making his way back, often on foot, to his current, and inevitably short-term, suburban lodgings. For a quarter of a century, his world was one of smoky rooms, unpaid bills, and spectacularly failed love affairs. In every way, he was the embodiment of 1950’s literary Bohemianism. Compared with him, his contemporary and sometime friend Dylan Thomas was just another mildly beery, garrulous Welshman drooped over a bar.
But Maclaren-Ross, unlike so many others of Soho’s artistic demimonde, actually delivered the goods. He wrote at a furious pace, often in a race to stay one step ahead of the bailiff, and in a breezily vernacular style of narrative exactly suited to the nature of his subject, which was more often than not a lightly fictionalized account of his own life and times. Between 1945 and 1963, Maclaren-Ross published three volumes of short fiction, two longer novels, a book of Soho reminiscences, and another of more conventional autobiography, a comic miscellany, at least four television screenplays of straightforward (if erotically tinged) horror, some enjoyably bawdy military tales, and an estimated 250 articles, essays, and reviews, many of which appeared in London Magazine or Punch. This is quite a lot to fit in with a life as a full-time character, and suggests there was more to Maclaren-Ross than the pantomime boozer he sometimes presented to the world. By common agreement, his masterpiece is his 1947 novel Of Love and Hunger (he knew his subject), which conjures up a wonderfully louche, prewar world where impecunious young men peddle vacuum cleaners by day and engage in furtive love affairs, always liable to be interrupted by a returning husband and a subsequent rooftop exit, at night.
Here is Maclaren-Ross describing some fellow commercial travelers:
Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy fair hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman. Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his shoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see his biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with.
Or contemplating the English weather:
The sky was clearing outside. I went to the door and had a look out. Rain’d almost stopped. Sun made a white rim on the edge of a cloud. Thunder rumbled faintly over to the west. Some other town’d catch it now.
In fact, from the novel’s first paragraph, written in that familiar conversational air, both of carefully weighted prose and breezy colloquialism, the reader is caught.
The new bloke’s name was Roper. Soon as I set eyes on him I knew he’d never make a salesman. He was about twenty-four and not very tall, and he’d a pink face with a long pointed nose and blond hair slicked straight back with the pink puckered skin of a scar running up into the roots of it.
The spare, slangy style owes something to Hemingway, but Maclaren-Ross was always far more than just another aspiring tough-guy writer operating in the margins between fiction and reportage. In his books and stories he consistently displays a mastery of dialogue, rarely if ever strains for effect, and knows how to sketch a fully rounded character in a few lines. And although he wrote as he saw things, his writing shows most vividly how he felt about what he saw. If the details were sometimes slighted, the picture as a whole—full of the emotional impact of the events on the people—was clear, lucid, and full. Evelyn Waugh, not one to fawn on a fellow scribe, was to say that Of Love and Hunger showed Maclaren-Ross had “developed his talent well,” while John Betjeman regarded the book as “one of very few modern novels at the top of the first-class.” Publisher Andre Deutsch recalled that Graham Greene had once told him he thought Maclaren-Ross “possessed a touch of genius.” Anyone who has read Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), the tenth volume of his A Dance to the Music of Time, will instantly recognize the character of the bibulous writer X. Trapnel, whose daily routine takes place against a backdrop of seedy pubs, down-at-heel hotels, voracious women, and ever-pressing creditors.
Probably the second thing that should be said about Maclaren-Ross is that he really lived the life. For those of us tempted to complain about the precarious calling of the freelance writer, it’s salutary to compare even the worst indignities of day-to-day existence with what he saw as normal. Take, for example, a representative week in April 1957. Maclaren-Ross is 44, until recently involved with one woman who had committed suicide by impaling herself on the railings below her flat, and now in love with another one, named Diana Bromley—a distant relative of Virginia Woolf—who would go on to give birth to their son. Wretchedly impoverished, he moves almost nightly between a series of sparsely furnished rooms; treated warily by most editors, he is tormented both by what he sees as the institutional stupidity of the British publishing industry, and, more immediately, by a plague of ungainly facial boils, possibly exacerbated by a diet that consists solely of alcohol and crackers. Despite these defects, he remains an imposing physical presence, clad in a once-formal dark suit, gray suede shoes, and a camel-hair coat, accessorized by an ivory-topped walking cane and a pair of mirror sunglasses he affects even by night. Speaking of his Maclaren-Ross ringer X. Trapnel, Anthony Powell writes,
The general effect, chiefly caused by the stick, was of the Eighteen-Nineties, the décadence; putting things at their least eclectic, a contemptuous rejection of currently popular male modes in grey flannel demob suits with pork-pie hats, bowler-crowned British Warms, and hooded duffels . . . The effect Trapnel made might indeed be a little absurd; it was not for that reason unimpressive. In spite of much that was all but ludicrous, a kind of inner dignity still somehow clung to him.
Anyway, it is the season of hydrogen-bomb tests, and petrol rationing, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, and Maclaren-Ross is living under the name Mr. Hyde, a homage to his favorite horror story, in an obscure hotel in north London. On the 12th of the month, a Friday, he found himself suddenly arrested in the street, charged under the 1869 Debtors’ Act for his failure to pay the owner of a previous hostelry, and thrown into jail over the weekend. He spent his time there working busily on a BBC-commissioned radio script, chatting to his West Indian cellmate, an accused murderer, and shuffling with him round the exercise yard, its “circular path worn slippery as a skating rink.” Bailed by a judge on Monday morning, Maclaren-Ross celebrated by taking his girlfriend on a drinking spree and renting a room with her in a relatively opulent hotel. Unable to pay the bill in the morning, he moved into a cubicle in the nearby Turkish Baths.
His self-confidence unimpaired, Maclaren-Ross went on to approach a publishing contact with the suggestion that he pay him a £200 advance (roughly $4,000 in today’s money) for an as-yet-unwritten novel. The publisher agreed, to his later regret. Half the money went straight back to the magistrates’ court, some was lobbed to the posse of other creditors, and the rest went as a deposit on a small flat where Maclaren-Ross and his now-pregnant girlfriend could live. This arrangement, too, would end abruptly, and he was obliged to do a moonlight flit out of an upstairs window and down a drainpipe. The new novel was never written, but a drinking acquaintance who happened to be a “quickie” film producer then appeared with a commission for Maclaren-Ross to adapt a crime yarn, called Puzzle for Fiends, for the screen. He achieved this task in one furious, amphetamine-fueled, 48-hour creative burst, enabling him both to mollify yet another indignant former landlord and to hire a solicitor to defend an action brought by the novelist H.E. Bates. For once, money wasn’t the specific point at issue in the case. Maclaren-Ross had recently published a biting parody of Bates, and Bates had announced that he would sue for libel if an apology was not forthcoming. Maclaren-Ross told him to jump in the lake.
Throughout this chaotic regimen, Maclaren-Ross was able to keep up a steady flow not only of creative work but of correspondence, no less varied or inspired, with his potential benefactors. “Dear Sir,” he wrote to the publisher Jonathan Cape,
Since the second impression of The Stuff to Give the Troops appears to be sold out in the bookshops and only obtainable direct from you, I wonder if you could see your way to advancing me whatever sum of money is due on this edition? I am aware that under the terms of our contract, the royalties are not due to be paid out until September, but the difference of a few months would make all the difference to me at the present moment; and, I am sure, none to you. Any cheque should be made payable to me personally and not to Messrs Curtis Brown, who are no longer acting as my agents.
Among his many virtues as a writer, Maclaren-Ross knew his audience. While the publishing chief got the formal approach, a more comradely tone was adopted for his friend and occasional editor Anthony Powell:
I’ve hesitated a long time before writing this letter to you, but the fact is things are absolutely desperate with us: in fact we’ve been living for the last few days selling books, pawning clothes, and only getting a limited number of shillings in the process of these activities. Now my laundry has been impounded, [and] the hotel bill itself impends. I know things aren’t so hot with you either, but I wonder if you could help us out? If so, will you draw the cash out and send it to me so I get it Saturday morning: these people are just about to make our lives unpleasanter than they are already. If you can’t, never mind. You know I would not attempt to borrow from a fellow writer unless there was absolutely no other way.
To the New Zealand-born Rhodes Scholar, military historian, and novelist Dan Davin, a drinking crony, Maclaren-Ross finally abandons caution and adopts a telegrammatic note of despair:
Look I’m in a mess. Can’t pay the bill, danger of being kicked out, clothes etc seized. No possibility of dough till next Thursday. Can you lend me £15. If you can, will save life . . . Will you wire money order Easton PO—and phone telling me when it’s there. No more now: pen running out. Love to all, Julian.
Maclaren-Ross, the quintessential inner-Londoner, was born on July 7, 1912, in the stoutly middle-class suburb of South Norwood—home to Arthur Conan Doyle—the youngest child of an Anglo-Indian mother and a somewhat raffish soldier-adventurer father whose literary ambitions had brought him into contact with the Oscar Wilde set. In the 1920’s, the family exchanged English suburbia for the shimmering blue seas and exotic flora of the French Riviera. Julian was educated there, and years later was more than once able to keep the wolf from the door by supplying quick but polished translations of modern French writers such as Simenon and Queneau. Other than a pronounced early love of jazz and absinthe, Maclaren-Ross showed little sign of the flamboyantly indigent character he became. Eventually moving back to England, he worked variously as an odd-job man, rat catcher, janitor, would-be screenwriter (with unfeigned pride, announcing of one sexually charged script that “several agents refused point-blank to handle it”) and, ultimately, a door-to-door salesman.
When war broke out in 1939, Maclaren-Ross was conscripted into the army. His subsequent desertion triggered a nationwide manhunt, and was by no means to be his last taste of pursuit by authority. Always keen to convert his experiences into lucrative form, Maclaren-Ross went on to publish a collection of barrack-room tales, The Stuff to Give the Troops, which editor and author Cyril Connolly rated a “work of formidable talent,” high commendation from one so sparing of praise. A second volume, called Better Than a Kick in the Pants (Maclaren-Ross took some care over his choice of eye-catchingly slangy titles), caused a succès de scandale when two firms of printers refused to set a story called “A Bit of a Smash in Madras.” Meanwhile, an early wife came and went. The first of a long line of bailiffs appeared. Benzedrine joined alcohol as a creative stimulant. By the age of 35, Maclaren-Ross had established himself as a rising star on the London literary scene, been compared with everyone from George Orwell to Dashiell Hammett, acquired the Malacca cane and aviator-style sunglasses that became his trademark, and been confined to a nightmarish army psychiatric hospital. In 1947 came Of Love and Hunger, which can justly be compared with Orwell’s Coming Up for Air in treating of suburban English life in the days before the outbreak of World War II, a brilliantly sustained feat of wit and psychological acuity in which the darkening world storm clouds are pierced by regular jolts of vivid observational comedy. Here’s Maclaren-Ross describing him and his fellow vacuum-cleaner salesmen being lined up by their boss one morning to sing motivating songs:
Mr. Playfair conducted from the platform. Everyone sang heartily. I bawled out with the best of ’em. Funny thing, I found I enjoyed the singing, spite of the words being such utter bilge. We sang several songs of this sort one after the other, including one called “Bye Bye Dustpan,” and then Mr. Playfair sang us one to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
It could with conviction be said that Maclaren-Ross’s career from here never quite realized its potential. He described the 1950’s as “a decade I could well have done without,” though there were certainly redeeming moments, such as the publication of his comic tour de force, The Funny Bone (which at one time the author himself had wanted to call Until the Day She Dies), and an unusually extended, cash-on-delivery arrangement with Punch, where his friend Anthony Powell was literary editor. He made his debut in the magazine in May 1953, with a parody of P.G. Wodehouse so accomplished as to elicit a letter of congratulation from Wodehouse himself. However, even this tenure was to come under strain when, in the words of Maclaren-Ross’s biographer Paul Willetts,
Word got round that he wrote for the magazine, and a mob of bailiffs convened outside its premises, waiting to nab him when he collected his review copies. Finding the front door repeatedly blocked by jostling bailiffs enquiring about Julian, Mr. Agnew—who, with his father, owned a major stake in Punch—asked Tony Powell whether he might dispense with the services of their troublesome contributor. Out of loyalty to his friend, Tony negotiated a compromise. The deal entailed Julian being able to carry on working for the magazine, but being barred from their offices.
Thereafter, Maclaren-Ross increasingly cultivated a life as a literary recluse as he retreated to his latest domicile—usually a transient hotel in London’s anonymous far-western suburbs—rather than expose himself to the attentions of his creditors.
It is often said of F. Scott Fitzgerald that he never entirely fulfilled the rich promise he showed with his publication, at the age of 23, of This Side of Paradise, or of The Great Gatsby just five years later. Today, that’s also the way it looks in assessing Maclaren-Ross, who had something of the same tendency to pass from literary enfant terrible to burnout case without any intervening years of sober creativity. (He’d actually rubbed shoulders, professionally speaking, with Fitzgerald, when both were included in a 1943 short-story anthology printed in Modern Reading.) Certainly from about the year 1950, it was an increasingly squalid and oppressed daily routine, which for the most part Maclaren-Ross met with remarkable good cheer. A hard-pressed freelance writer today might worry about the funds for his family’s summer vacation, or the arrangements for his own final retirement. For Maclaren-Ross, the concerns were of a more fundamental and immediate kind. At one particular stage in 1959, he, his wife, and infant son were essentially homeless. One irate landlady evicted the family by the expedient of throwing all their belongings into the street, where Maclaren-Ross found her predecessor’s legal representative waiting for him. On a hurriedly arranged visit to solicit funds at Punch, he was then handed a batch of menacing letters, most ominously from the Inland Revenue, who had instigated High Court proceedings against him in a bid to extract £544 in unpaid tax. Although Maclaren-Ross wrote to the Revenue courteously offering to settle the arrears at the rate of five pounds a month, he was not to live to see the discharge of the debt. Through it all, there were more books, articles, screenplays, and reviews, whose various fees never quite translated into an even precarious stability. After banking the proceeds from one BBC commission, Maclaren-Ross chose to invest in a fur-collared coat, mustard-colored velvet suit, and black “brothel-creeper” suede shoes with which to make an entrance to his local pub. “Sets the tone,” he remarked. “Like Scott Fitzgerald before him,” in Willetts’ measured phrase, “he was a mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent.”
Julian Maclaren-Ross died on November 3, 1964, of a heart attack. Over the next few days, there were several appreciative but not long obituaries, one of which mourned his failure “to produce the great novel which many people confidently expected him to write.” By then, his hardback fiction had long since fallen out of print. Perhaps aptly, the end came after a blistering row with a London taxi driver over the fare demanded, which saw Maclaren-Ross bolt from the scene and up a nearby flight of stairs. His last words, spoken to a girlfriend who was able to comfort him at the end, were, “I love you.” Maclaren-Ross was 52 years old at the time of his death.