Francis King

A Soho stalwart

Text settings

Selected Letters

by Julian Maclaren-Ross, edited by Paul Willetts

Black Spring Press, £9.95, pp. 351 ISBN 9780948238383✆ £7.85 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655, pp. , £

Like Angus Wilson, Julian Maclaren-Ross immediately grabbed the attention of Forties reviewers and readers with a series of short stories at once ruthlessly observant and irresistibly entertaining. However, unlike Wilson, admirably self-disciplined in the organisation of a career that eventually carried him to the centre of the literary establishment, Maclaren-Ross, alcoholic and wasteful of his gifts, soon drifted to its periphery. It is only recently that he has come once more to be recognised as a writer of the stature of Saki or Firbank, minor certainly but no less certainly a cherishable joy.

It is clear from this selection that the people who kept his letters were rarely those who, their lives as itinerant as his, were closest to him. Such characters were certainly not going to cart bulging files around with them. The majority of the letters therefore derive from the archives of the BBC, the Royal Literary Fund, publishing firms, film companies and magazines and newspapers. Although they record in detail how this wily, desperate and determined inhabitant of New Grub Street flattered, bullied and cajoled professional contacts into giving him immediate and full payment for books not yet published or film-scripts not yet written, they are rarely concerned with a private life so dramatically punctuated by brief infatuations, sudden desertions and incandescent rows.

People tended to dismiss Maclaren-Ross as a mere flâneur. But in fact, as this selection repeatedly, even monotonously demonstrates, he put a great deal of work into both his writing, much of it skilful but ephemeral literary journalism, and his cadging. One might have thought that the former of these occupations would have made the second unnecessary. But as the New Zealand writer and publisher Dan Davin, one of Maclaren-Ross’s most long-suffering benefactors, recorded, here was someone for whom money ‘melted like snow in the hot hands of a child’.

As a result Maclaren-Ross was obliged constantly to stay up all night, high on amphetamines, sometimes to labour at one of his dazzling novels or works of reminiscence but more often to meet an overdue deadline for an article or review, to write yet another letter demanding instant payment of a fee, or to complain to his publisher that this or that retailer stocked not a single copy of his latest book.

Two of these letters sum it all up. One, to Dan Davin, begins ‘Being as usual in straightened circumstances …’ The other confesses ‘I am uncertain of my exact whereabouts from tomorrow onwards’. As the headings of his letters indicate, Maclaren-Ross’s addresses constantly changed, as he was obliged to abscond, bill unpaid, from some expensive hotel to a friend’s sofa or even a bench in a park or a railway station.

In his prime Maclaren-Ross, so mordantly portrayed as X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, was a popular figure in such Soho pubs as the Wheatsheaf and the York Minster. Looking like a combination of West End dandy and East End crook, he would be dressed in camelhair coat, well-cut suit and mirror-glasses. With him he always carried a Malacca cane. Once he announced to a crony of his, my then brother-in-law Conan Nicholas, in the ominous tones of a character in one of the American gangster-films that he so much admired: ‘If I lift this stick and point it at you, you’re in trouble.’

Fellow drinkers would gather to listen to this heterosexual reincarnation of Oscar Wilde as he held forth in a manner that did not brook the impertinence of an interruption. Then, gradually, this reverential attitude changed. People wearied of the endless conversational arias and even more they wearied of the scrounging, arrogance and rudeness. Olivia Manning, whose husband, the BBC producer Reggie Smith, had for so long been one of Maclaren-Ross’s patrons, summed it up for me when, having been invited to one of her parties, I asked her to invite the old reprobate as well. ‘No! He’s become such a bore. Even Reggie is fed up with him.’ It took a lot to make Reggie fed up.

At one point Maclaren-Ross was so much obsessed with George Orwell’s widow Sonia (Olivia Manning cynically suggested to me that he was more obsessed with the Orwell money than with a woman already past her prime), that he became, in effect, her stalker, even dementedly talking of murdering her when she rejected his advances. This volume contains long letters to John Lehmann on the subject. But for a full and really fascinating account, it is to Willetts’s biography Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia that one must turn. That wonderful book is so informative and so psychologically perceptive that, merely by the act of writing it, the author deprived this later book of any raison d’etre.

Putting this selection together must have been a hard trek. But, sadly, one has to ask ‘Was your journey really necessary?’

The discount offers on books in this section remain open for three months from date of publication. Email: