Drab Divans

Miranda Seymour

  • Fear & Loathing in Fitzrovia: The Bizarre Life of Writer, Actor, Soho Dandy, Julian Maclaren-Ross by Paul Willetts
    Dewi Lewis, 403 pp, £14.99, March 2003, ISBN 1 899235 69 8

In October 1964, BBC2 put out a programme about literary life in Britain during the Second World War; the contributors included John Betjeman and Cyril Connolly. The show was stolen, however, by a figure in a voluminous overcoat and dark glasses, whose recollections were delivered slowly, deadpan, between puffs on a large cigar. A month later, at the age of 52, Julian Maclaren-Ross died of a heart attack in Ladbroke Grove. His last words, apparently, were ‘Graham Greene’ and then: ‘I love you.’

Obituaries expressed regret that Maclaren-Ross never wrote the great novel that had been expected of him, although friendly comments were made about ‘The Weeping and the Laughter’, a superb and enragingly incomplete recollection of his early years, and his novel, Of Love and Hunger, praised in the Times as ‘his best and profoundest book’. Memoirs of the Forties was unfinished when he died; published posthumously, it attracted more enthusiastic reviews than any he had enjoyed in his lifetime. Seven years later, Anthony Powell published Books Do Furnish a Room, where he characterised Maclaren-Ross as the brilliant but undeniably odd writer, X. Trapnel. The speed with which the voracious ice-queen, Pamela Widmerpool, bolts from her husband to live in penury with Trapnel is a tribute to his late friend’s remarkable effect on women; Maclaren-Ross may have lacked funds, but he was never short of adoring women.

‘People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true,’ Trapnel remarks at the beginning of a long monologue on the art of biography. Placed beside Paul Willetts’s oddly spiritless biography, Powell’s portrait seems remarkable. ‘I’m a master of disguise,’ Ross once boasted to a friend, after delightedly – and wrongly – spotting a version of himself in one of Iris Murdoch’s early novels. The trouble, as Powell saw it, was that his friend chose too many roles:

Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognised the following day as the most neglected genius of the age.

A fondness for playing roles ran in the family. His father, John Ross, tall, good-looking and a bit of a dandy, spent twenty years failing to complete a Life of Napoleon. More skilled at revising his own past than finishing books, he held his son enthralled with stories of wounds gained in the Boer War, of his attendance at the trial of the Tichborne Claimant, and of the great day when he succeeded in putting down Oscar Wilde in conversation. James, as he was named at his birth in 1912, was impressed and remained influenced for the rest of his life by this elegantly remote and unfulfilled man. By the age of 16, when the family was living in the South of France, he had changed his first name to the more impressive sounding Julian, and added Maclaren for resonance. A clever if rebellious schoolboy, he thought that he, too, would like to become a writer; but Nice was able to offer him the chance only to make occasional contributions to that most trivial of ex-pat papers, the Monte Carlo and Menton News.

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