Francis King

A Soho stalwart

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’.

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