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.

It would be interesting to know what was going through Mrs Ross’s mind when she decided, shortly after her husband’s death in 1935, to bestow on Julian the paternal fountain pen and – the most distinctive feature of her husband’s carefully presented appearance – his malacca cane. (Trapnel’s response to the destruction of his last novel by Lady Widmerpool is to hurl his precious cane into the canal where the manuscript is slowly sinking.) At 21, Julian left France to try his luck in London. Publication was still a long way off; in the meantime, he practised for the role of the writer. The walking-stick and a splendid head of dark, wavy hair provided sound foundations for the part of a Wildean dandy; usefully, he was also tall, debonair and effortlessly bilingual. (He later became a shrewd appraiser of contemporary French fiction.) Next came the famous camel-hair coat, won from a friend during a ferocious game of Monopoly, and worn, winter and summer, like an amulet. It is not clear where or when the dark glasses which completed the new look were acquired. The hint of menace which these, together with the cane, conveyed, was surely intentional: an eager follower of any story containing a hint of criminality in his teenage years, Maclaren-Ross remained fascinated by the underworld. The French criminal Eugene Weidmann, on whom he based a novel, was one of his favourite topics for pub orations. Radio plays which earned him the title of ‘radio’s Alfred Hitchcock’ had such titles as The Newgate Calendar, The Confidential Agent, adapted from Greene’s novel, The Midnight Men and Until the Day She Dies.

Willetts, perhaps from an excess of familiarity, is often unsympathetic to his subject. He sees nothing heroic in the readiness of the young and recently married Maclaren-Ross to abandon the excitements of London for a drab life in Bognor, near his newly widowed mother. His reservation owes much to the fact that one of his few living sources was C.K. Jaeger, Maclaren-Ross’s staunch friend and supporter during the Bognor years. Jaeger’s recollections are consistently derogatory. Jaeger, too, was a writer, about whom no book has been written, which may help to explain the acid tone. In Bognor, he remembers, they joined the local Opera and Dramatic Society, where Mrs Jaeger played a glamorous leading role while Maclaren-Ross strutted in the shadows. Calling at his home one day, the Jaegers noted Maclaren-Ross standing idly at a bedroom window in his silk dressing-gown; on entering, however, they discovered their host ready for them, immaculately dressed and posing at the drawing-room piano.

Jaeger’s asperity is understandable. By the age of 22, Maclaren-Ross was single again and living in the Jaegers’ spare room. Tantrums over evening games of Monopoly and a serene belief that he had the right to be indulged made him a trying lodger. A sudden dip in income, when the family trust which had been providing him with a monthly allowance was terminated (the reasons are unclear), led to a burst of activity. Money was needed and the easiest way to get some seemed to be by becoming a salesman for Electrolux vacuum cleaners. Jaeger was easily persuaded to follow suit, and the ground was laid for Maclaren-Ross’s best-known work of fiction. He travelled down to Hove to be instructed in the art of selling vacuums to unwary housewives. A handsome face and an attractive manner took him some way as a salesman, but not far enough. Sacked after he was found to have passed off a secondhand cleaner as new, he knew that he had found the raw material he needed. The 28 steps of the salesman’s Show More Dirt demonstration went straight into the first draft of Of Love and Hunger, as did a pencil-moustached, pipe-smoking tutor, who urged new recruits to join him in a chorus of ‘We Are All So Happy’ before congratulating them on having joined the ranks of successful salesmen, ‘ambitious men like yourselves who have got to the top’. Jaeger and Maclaren-Ross embarked next on a garden maintenance partnership in which, according to Jaeger, he did the spadework while his friend languidly attempted to mow suburban lawns in his best suit. Their next venture, part-time work at the Bognor funfair, came to an end when Julian left a cage door open and released the canaries intended as winners’ prizes on the ‘loo-pit’.

Maclaren-Ross was not yet having much success as a writer – the editor of the Bognor newspaper rejected his stories with the observation that they weren’t exactly Shakespeare – but his resolution never waned. Greene gave his blessing to an adaptation of A Gun for Sale; Val Gielgud at the BBC made friendly noises about some short radio plays. Work on a novel about the experiences of a vacuum-cleaner salesman went steadily on, even if rejections remained the routine result of his communications with publishers.

The transforming moment in his writing career came in 1939, when Cyril Connolly, seeking new fiction for the first edition of Horizon, read and liked a batch of his terse, sharp-edged stories. The best known, ‘A Bit of a Smash in Madras’, convinced Connolly that the author had spent time in India; later, Maclaren-Ross admitted that his only knowledge of the East had come from a friend’s anecdotes and sporting tales published by his maternal grandfather.

In some ways the war came at a good time for him. The shortage of paper meant that short stories, so hard to get published in earlier years, were now hungrily sought after; for a man capable of writing three in a single day, this was a golden period, with Army experiences a rich source of satire for the 25 ironic tales collected as The Stuff to Give the Troops. From every other point of view, Maclaren-Ross’s war years were wretched. He was by now a reasonably successful author with 17 published stories to his credit, but a rash decision to desert from the Army, which declined to see him as officer material, led to threats of court-martial. Confinement followed at one of the grim convalescent hospitals – little had changed since Siegfried Sassoon was sent up to Craiglockhart to revise his opinions – designed to get patients quickly back into the firing line. Maclaren-Ross developed an enduring sense of persecution and sending the Army up in his fiction was insufficient consolation. His final degradation, when ruled medically unfit, was to be given a job as a lavatory cleaner.

A dramatic change of persona marked his transition back to civilian life. Deprived of an officer’s uniform, he created his own. Magnificent, first in a mustard waistcoat and crimson jacket and subsequently in his teddy-bear camel coat and dark glasses, Maclaren-Ross became a pillar of the Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia, establishing a precise point, to the left of the counter, from which to command a sometimes reluctant troop of listeners. Willetts is meticulous in charting his subject’s progress through a good many other bars, but the Wheatsheaf was the place around which the myth was woven of a man who behaved like the prince of a small court, declaiming on the art of the novel with a loud relentlessness which has caused him to be remembered by some as the most fearful of bores.

It is sad that this single aspect has come to obscure Ross’s more admirable qualities. ‘Soho dandy’ and ‘actor’ make up two-thirds of Willetts’s own definition of his subject: more attention to Maclaren-Ross’s writing would have been welcome. He was, for example, a writer of acute parodies for Punch at a time when the magazine was crammed with witty pieces. Malcolm Muggeridge was his editor, and an admiring one, and few of Maclaren-Ross’s contributions were turned down. ‘Not Good Enough for Punch’, the sour title that he first chose for the collection finally entitled The Funny Bone, shows his anger that none of these pieces was included in an anthology of the magazine’s best writing. Was this unfair? Not entirely. Maclaren-Ross had a light, superbly ironic touch, but he was not really a comic writer. What he excelled at was quicksilver mockery, often with himself as the prime target:

‘You were thinking of somebody else.’

‘I do sometimes. It’s my unselfish nature.’

The ghost of Wilde can be sensed behind exchanges like this one, from his 1945 novel, Bitten by the Tarantula. Another example, from ‘The Virgin’, appears in his 1946 collection, The Nine Men of Soho: ‘“I’m a conscientious objector,” I said. “I’m frightfully conscientious. I object to everything.”’ The same gift is put to sharper use in Memoirs of the Forties, where Maclaren-Ross describes seeing a graffito in a public lavatory: ‘No lousy Jews or Communists allowed in here.’ ‘One cannot be too careful,’ he commented, ‘especially with Fascists about.’

It is worth remembering that, for all his failings, Maclaren-Ross was also a man of great kindness. Successful requests for loans were almost invariably followed by a sharing out of his newly acquired funds. Powell over-egged the pudding a little in saying that Trapnel never drank and always spent his money on others: Maclaren-Ross drank his share and, unlike Trapnel, frequently borrowed from other writers. His warmth shows in his writing. His parodies were never cruel; when one of his victims, H.E. Bates, sued him for defamation, Maclaren-Ross repaid the favour with a warm review of his next book. He also possessed a striking ability to identify new talent. He was the first reviewer to recognise the brilliance of Flannery O’Connor; he sought an English audience for Raymond Queneau; in 1961, he proclaimed the genius of Harold Pinter. (Pinter has since returned the favour by reading two of Maclaren-Ross’s stories on the radio.)

Willetts valiantly charts his endless moves from one grim lodging to another, in Willesden, Finchley, Cricklewood, Paddington, Bayswater and even, during one desperate period, a trestle in an all-night Turkish bathhouse. (‘I hate staying in the same place for long,’ Powell’s Trapnel says. ‘It has a damaging effect on work.’) Willetts plods through a grim litany of narrow stairs, drab divans, flowerless front gardens and dank back views.

Absent from this inflexibly chronological account is any attempt to examine Maclaren-Ross’s lifelong penchant for disguise. We are told that he was obsessed with certain books by Robert Louis Stevenson, but no convincing explanations are offered. Why was he so eager to adapt The Suicide Club, Stevenson’s strange tale of a group of men who agree to act as each other’s executioners? Willetts doesn’t tell us. Edward Hyde, a sinister choice of alter ego, first emerged as a feline interviewer of Nancy Cunard and the comedian Jimmy Edwards in one of Maclaren-Ross’s parodies; later, for reasons which are insufficiently explored, he adopted this most amoral and ruthless of fictional characters as his secret sharer. Taking rooms in a hotel, he signed himself and his companion in as Mr and Mrs Edward Hyde; haranguing agents, publishers and friends who failed to help him when the need for money became peculiarly urgent, he again made his demands in the name of Hyde. Why? Willetts suggests that his increasing reliance on methedrine capsules, his ‘green bombs’, was a deliberate echo of Dr Jekyll’s dependency on medical stimulants. It seems an insufficient explanation.

Maclaren-Ross retains his mystery despite the mass of documentation that Willetts presents. It is good to know that some of his best writing, too long overlooked and still greatly underrated, is being brought back into print. It would be better still if an imaginative critical appraisal were to follow. Anecdotage has camouflaged a remarkable talent: it’s to be hoped that Willetts’s book will be the harbinger of a larger sense of Maclaren-Ross than as the ultimate pub bore.