Lazarus in Dark Glasses
16 Sep 2007
Paul Willetts, the author of the standard life of the writer Julian Maclaren-Ross and who has edited several collections of Maclaren-Ross's stories, letters and writings, reflects on how he became interested in his subject and has built up the writer's profile.
It’s more than twenty-five years since I became interested in the chaotic life and, at that time, obscure work of the Soho dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64). I was around seventeen when I first read some of his strikingly original, once popular short stories about his experiences during the Second World War, stories endowed with a distinctive tang of cynicism, melancholy and wry humour. From what I remember, I was particularly impressed by two aspects of his writing. Here were stories about life on the Home Front that didn’t conform to any of the clichés of stiff upper-lipped fortitude. For Maclaren-Ross’s narrators, the war wasn’t a heroic struggle between good and evil. It was—to use the idiom of the period—just a damned nuisance. What also impressed me was the simple yet elegant way in which the stories had been written. They possessed a casual quality that felt as if their narrators, mainly authorial surrogates, were talking to you, the voices of those narrators audible across the intervening decades with undiminished zest and clarity. My admiration for Maclaren-Ross’s work intensified when I later acquired a copy of his finest novel, Of Love and Hunger, which Anthony Powell bracketed alongside Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-up as one of the best books of 1947.
Inspired by reading his posthumously published Memoirs of the Forties, an amusing Withnail and I-like portrait of 1940s London bohemia, I began to hunt for anything I could find about his life. References to him in the reminiscences of his friends and acquaintances served to consolidate the image of him as the flamboyant and rebellious precursor to many other self-destructive literary talents, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski among them. I couldn’t help noticing the sharp contrast between Maclaren-Ross’s crisp, restrained prose style and the excesses of his life, where heavy alcohol and amphetamine consumption wreaked havoc. In the Soho pubs and clubs of the 1940s and 1950s he seemed a ubiquitous figure, eyes hidden behind dark, aviator-style glasses, teeth clenching a cigarette-holder. His favoured aura of theatricality was enhanced by a heavy coat draped round the shoulders of his suit and a malacca cane propped beside him, the whole idiosyncratic ensemble calculated to project the foppish menace of Sydney Greenstreet or other celluloid villains.
Suffice to say that Maclaren-Ross was endowed with more than enough of the attributes necessary to achieve cult status. Until recently, however, there hadn’t even been a concerted attempt to ignite a revival of interest in him. Not long after I’d decided to write his biography, eventually published as Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, I recall keying his name into Google. Only three entries appeared—a result that highlighted the neglect into which this brilliant writer, whose fans included Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, had fallen. Apart from a couple of unsuccessful paperback reprints of Memoirs of the Forties, his work was long out of print and hard to obtain.
As a first-time biographer without a publishing contract, my subject’s obscurity would prove an imposing obstacle to getting the book into print. I’d always hoped that the release of my Maclaren-Ross biography would be linked to the republication of a couple of his books. A year after my life of Maclaren-Ross had been completed, though, it still hadn’t found a publisher, the lurking threat posed by two rival biographies-in-progress heightening the inevitable tension. Meanwhile, I’d arranged for the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency to attempt to get some of Maclaren-Ross’s work back into print. In defiance of the confident predictions of another agent, Andrew quickly persuaded Penguin to buy the rights to Of Love and Hunger. Together with a snappy introduction by D.J. Taylor, the Penguin edition ended up appearing about six months before my book, which had at last been bought by a much smaller firm. That company was Dewi Lewis Publishing, best-known for its photographic books and its list of novels, one of which had just been short-listed for the Booker Prize. Thanks to the considerable publicity that Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia generated, most of it positive, Dewi agreed to my suggestion that I put together a volume of Maclaren-Ross’s Selected Stories. The publicity also enabled Andrew to sign a deal with Robert Hastings at Black Spring Press, who hired me to edit a companion volume. At first Robert merely wanted to reissue Memoirs of the Forties, but I soon persuaded him to publish a chunky volume of Maclaren-Ross’s Collected Memoirs. That way, we’d give readers the chance to savour all sorts of other autobiographical non-fiction, hitherto obtainable only as expensive first-editions or by sifting through old magazines. One such memoir was the touching and atypically lyrical childhood reminiscence, The Weeping and the Laughter. By publishing a volume as substantial as the Collected Memoirs, I felt that we were providing a corrective to the conventional, wrong-headed notion that Maclaren-Ross was a writer with a small output and an even more limited literary range.
To boost the commercial prospects of both the Selected Stories and Collected Memoirs, I talked Black Spring Press and Dewi Lewis Publishing into synchronising their release dates and trading back-page advertising space. Our tactics worked because the two books were, as intended, widely reviewed in tandem. The reviews were uniformly excellent, echoing D.J. Taylor’s opinion that ‘Maclaren-Ross is one of the great unsung heroes of the 1940s and, at his best, a figure to rank with Orwell, Waugh and Connolly.’ Much to my delight, the press coverage led to impressive sales, these in turn prompting Black Spring Press to invite me to put together another collection.
Entitled Bitten By The Tarantula and Other Writing, this second collection offered yet more persuasive evidence of not only the breadth of Maclaren-Ross’s talent but also his status as a major twentieth-century writer. Alongside the title novella, a slight but entertaining yarn set on the French Riviera during the the summer of 1930, I included short stories, literary parodies as well as essays on other writers and the cinema. Like its predecessors, Bitten By The Tarantula has sold well, fuelling a sustained revival of interest in Maclaren-Ross. Look on the internet now and there are dozens of pages devoted to him. He’s even spawned an entire website (www.julianmaclaren-ross.co.uk), from which short stories, memoirs and essays can be downloaded. I hear that it’s attracting 19,000 hits each year.
For a literary evangelist like me, the knowledge that Maclaren-Ross is gaining a steady flow of converts is immensely gratifying. Numerous writers are to be found among these new recruits. ‘It was a great treat to discover the writing of Julian Maclaren-Ross,’ the novelist Sarah Waters recently declared. ‘Witty, smart, eccentric—he never ceases to entertain.
Paul Willetts is currently editing a volume of Maclaren-Ross’s Selected Letters, due for publication by Black Spring Press in 2008. Besides being Maclaren-Ross’s biographer, he is the author of North Soho 999: A True Story of Gangs and Gun-crime in 1940s London. Writing in The TLS, Philip French described it as ‘a tour-de-force that provides a fascinating account of a vanished Britain.’