Philip Hensher

A bit of a smash in Soho

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Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia

Paul Willetts

Dewi Lewis, pp. 392, £

The legendarily catastrophic life of Julian Maclaren-Ross has tempted biographers before. But the task of pursuing him, like the Hound of Heaven, through the sordid backstreets, rented basements and sodden saloon bars of his progress has always proved too much of a challenge. It is an extraordinary story of profligacy and waste which has been told, up until now, only in a million awed anecdotes and fragmentary glimpses of this Neronian figure. This biography is not quite what one might have hoped for, but I have to take my hat off to Paul Willetts for his sheer industry in following his subject to places where few literary biographers need to tread. It casts a great deal of light on one of the most tantalisingly shadowy of English novelists, and gives him what he thoroughly deserves, a career and an oeuvre.

Maclaren-Ross must be the most thoroughly fictionalised novelist of the last century; he was one of those people like, weirdly, Princess Margaret whose persona was so highly evolved that he could be put into a novel without any exaggeration. Most famously, he is immortalised as X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, but there he is, unmistakably, in Olivia Manning, Rayner Heppenstall, and lots of completely forgotten books by his acquaintances and friends; he was once bizarrely turned into a badger in a children's book. It is even possible that Iris Murdoch put him into The Flight from the Enchanter; certainly Maclaren-Ross thought so. He was paranoid from amphetamine abuse, and egomaniacal, true; on the other hand, it must be conceded that they were out to get him.

The reason he attained this curious immortality was that, quite simply, he embodied a moral tale with unique clarity. He was like a character in Theophrastus. A writer who, it was rumoured, was a great genius, who might one day produce a towering masterpiece, his life was conducted in an atmosphere of delirious chaos and recklessness. Perpetually dunned by bailiffs, pursued by vengeful landladies and incredulous tax officials, he nevertheless kept up a magnificently dandified appearance. His smoked glasses, worn obstinately even in the black-out, and 'teddy-bear' coat made quite an impression on one memoirist after another. The receipt of a cheque led to a few days of taxis and the CafZ de Paris; when, more customarily, he was completely boracic, he could devote considerable ingenuity to sponging off friends, rooking the hapless local butchers out of vast turkeys on credit, and keeping one step ahead of a vast army of victims. That degree of shamelessness always has a measure of allure, and Maclaren-Ross was never without an adoring girl, a patient editor, a distinguished admirer or two. In the end, he always trampled on them.

It is astonishing to see quite how many dazzling chances Maclaren-Ross had, and how predictably he threw them away by the insanity of his behaviour. He knew, it seems, every interesting and intelligent editor of his time - Cyril Connolly, John Lehmann, Alan Ross. An extraordinary number of powerful and distinguished writers took a lot of interest in his writing, and tried to further his career, including such wildly disparate figures as Woodrow Wyatt, Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas and Anthony Powell. In the end, it was no good; Maclaren-Ross was so impossible to deal with that very few people were prepared to endure his peremptory demands and gigantic ego, whatever the quality of the writing.

Inevitably, Maclaren-Ross fell into the sort of life which is dedicated to drinking in Soho pubs and complaining about his own neglect. The Soho life of the period is very well documented, and here is the entire cast - Nina Hamnett, Quentin Crisp, Tambimuttu, e tutti quanti. From the outside, he was a near-complete failure. What is interesting and inescapable is the conclusion that he repeatedly engineered his own failures and rejections. He came from quite a wealthy family, and grew up in very glamorous society on the French Riviera; by the 1930s, however, he had fallen out irrecoverably with his family. Back in England, for a time he earned a living as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He had a 'bad war'; a mental breakdown and a spell in a mental hospital led to his discharge as unfit. And subsequently the literary career took off, which is a story of steady decline from young promise to old wreck.

Maclaren-Ross actively, though unconsciously, sought out failure because it was his subject. He dwelt on the lowest periods of his life lovingly, as more conventional writers dwell on childhood; his best writing is inspired by his inglorious career in the army, the brief period he spent selling vacuum-cleaners, or accounts of long wasted afternoons in Soho. He was an intensely autobiographical writer; where others could write about failure by observation, Maclaren-Ross needed to experience his great subject directly, and clung, sometimes quite obstinately, to the awfulness of his life.

And the truth is that he is a dazzlingly talented writer, effortlessly funny and natural; he had enormous gifts, and should have come to command a big audience. Of Love and Hunger is an amazing book; set among those desperate vacuum-cleaner salesmen, it has an extraordinary mastery of tone and an exceptionally confident ear for dialogue. Narrated by one of the salesmen, it moves into traumatic and grave territory without ever sacrificing the truthfulness of the style. Other novels cover similar territory - Coming Up for Air or Patrick Hamilton's work- but Of Love and Hunger, which is hardly known at all by comparison, is vastly superior. The wonderfully natural quality here, or in the enchanting sketches of life in the army, or the flip Soho episodes collected by Alan Ross posthumously as Soho in the 1940s, is so marked that it is tempting to think that here is a spontaneous, artless writer. Just how cunning Maclaren-Ross really was only emerges when you consider his prose parodies, collected in The Funny Bone. His parodies, even of writers very remote from him, like Henry Green, can be devastatingly cruel and accurate. They show a writer unusually conscious of the construction of a prose sentence, who, perfectly capable of reproducing in every respect a characteristic H. E. Bates sentence, say, must be equally conscious of his own characteristic effects. His raw exuberance, from 'A Bit of a Smash in Madras' onwards, a story as marvellous as its title, is calculated in every degree.

Paul Willetts has put a great deal of effort into the difficult job of researching this ramshackle life, and has made a lot of sense out of it; he deserves gratitude. Nevertheless, it is not quite the book that one might have wished. Somehow, it fails to convey Maclaren-Ross's slightly appalling vitality, both in life and in his writings - there could certainly be more in the way of quotation. I get the impression that it relies too much on the written record, rather than interviews with Maclaren-Ross's surviving friends. It might have been improved by an occasional willingness, too, to concede quite how frightful he could be; for instance, his constant attempts to borrow money from publishers are just reported, as if they were quite reasonable behaviour. He doesn't suggest, either, what everyone says, that like most people of his sort, Maclaren-Ross could be an intolerable bore, often reduced to retelling the plots of films at great length if he had nothing better to say. Nevertheless, though this doesn't begin to rival its subject's sparkle and exuberance, it is solid enough to bring a fascinating, powerful writer into focus. Until now, Maclaren-Ross has been confined to walk-on parts in other people's anecdotes; he deserved rather more than that.