JULIAN MacLAREN-ROSS (1912-1964) delineated with brilliance and acuity the sleazy bohemian atmosphere of post-war Soho through a series of amusing short stories and eight novels. His writing style is lively, vernacular, even Americanized – think Scott Fitzgerald, maybe even Hunter S. Thompson. He made his mark with the opening line of a short story he wrote for Cyril Connolly’s Horizon in 1940, ‘A Bit of a Smash in Madras’. “Absolute fact, I knew fuck-all about it:” this as well as other lines had to be smoothed over by Stephen Spender, the piece as a whole as relentless in its insight as it is forthright, and powerfully persuasive.
‘Bop’ in his Memoirs tells of his visit to a beatnik club and how he felt yesterday’s man in the mid-1950s. His life – especially when placed alongside his fellow London novelists of his time, Patrick Hamilton and Colin MacInnes – can be seen as a provincial precursor to that of the more celebrated American beatnik. It was as self-destructive, indigent and wantonly dishevelled, and likewise his writing was as autobiographical. His wartime life was in the Home Guard, and his retelling of the war involved bureaucracy and buffoonery rather than the front line, antics similar to those recounted by the equally engaging Joan Wyndham; after the war the content of his writing sits on a bar stool next to him, day after day, night after night, drenched in either squandered daylight or neon-moonlight. He was not prolific – the care he lavished on his debauched lifestyle restricted his writing, also he gave up on many projects. His biographer, Paul Willetts, described him as a “mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent.” Many of his peer writers rated him immensely. John Betjeman described him as “one of our very best writers,” Elizabeth Bowen suggested that his best book, Of Love and Hunger (1947), had catapulted its author in to a “writer of the first rank.” As a personality though he was perhaps more feted than revered, more parodied than admired; he was the role model for walk-on characters in novels by Olivia Manning and Anthony Powell.
MacLaren-Ross had always been a liability. He was discharged from the army in 1943, absent without leave, and when found was in bed with a girlfriend (editor Rupert Hart-Davis rescued him from a court martial). The sensibilities of a normal existence were beyond him. When writing of work (or normality) you can detect his concentration wandering: the time he spent as a vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-war Worthing – described in Of Love and Hunger – was no blueprint for future fun and merriment. He was found usually in the saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place, a watering hole for the Fitzrovian set, and where he would hold forth, often reciting in boorish and boring fashion (his incomplete Memoirs of the Forties, published posthumously, certainly a polished gemstone in retrospect), often ransacking his near-perfect memory for bibliographic detail: he greeted Peter Vansittart, whose first novel published some years before had never sold, with the words: “Chatto book. Yellow cover. Title blocked in blue. Very pompous.” His bibulous and snug contemporaries included Joan Wyndham, Augustus John, Quentin Crisp, Aleister Crowley, Dylan Thomas and many others. To ensure that he stood out amongst such a colourful crowd he was rarely without his aviator sunglasses, cigarette holder, a silver-topped cane, and a sharp suit draped with a teddy bear coat and carnation. He lived in Oxford for a few years in the mid-1950s with Dan Davin (who described Ross as a “dangerous dandy”). His life was always lived on the hoof and at a minute to midnight. He was typically hung-over and generally wayward and with no discipline; he was always in debt, fleeing from a bedsit, always looking to source loans. Long hours each day in the snug, followed by Benzedrine and writing after hours, a bedsit, literary lock-in. Debauchment leads to dereliction, and he died aged only 52, a heart attack brought about by drinking a bottle of brandy to celebrate the receipt of a royalties cheque, his last spiral out of control.
A regular contributor to both London Magazine and Horizon, MacLaren-Ross was considered to be a supporter of the Labour movement, and the social deprivation of the time is the backdrop to his writing. The good timing that shines through his writing, either comic or emotional, was not there in the chronology of his lifetime: had he come of age with the Angry Young Men his stature today would be more assured.