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Julian Maclaren-Ross: Our Man in Soho
Matías Serra Bradford interviews Maclaren-Ross’s biographer, Paul Willetts, for The Buenos Aires Herald
Go stalk the Sunday fairs and jumble sales in search of sun-glasses, a long cigarette-holder, a gold-topped cane, a silver snuff-box and a teddy-bear coat. By pass the sellers of secrets and keepers of crooked keys. Get yourself a rechargable Parker with a decent mileage and try your hand at some writing. Odds are you’ll never turn out paragraphs like those of Julian Maclaren-Ross. Short-story writer, novelist, radio playwright, film scriptwriter and one of the most magnetic bohemians of the 1940s and 50s London, Maclaren-Ross (1912-1964) cloaked his talents in dandyism and well-timed prose. This once vacuum cleaner door-to-door salesman has finally been awarded a long overdue afterlife: Paul Willetts’s scrupulous and moving biography, Fear & Loathing in Fitzrovia (Dewi Lewis Publishing).
From Croydon to the French Riviera, from Bournemouth to Bognor Regis, tilting between egomania and generosity, adversity and determination, this bon viveur’s peripatetic existence is closely followed by Paul Willetts’ vivid and poignant pace. The biography can even be read as a perfect mirror to Maclaren-Ross’s powers of total recall. His life fits the stereotype of the brilliant failure, but not the works. Novels like Of Love and Hunger, autobiographical output like Memoirs of the Forties and The Weeping and the Laughter, the parodies of The Funny Bone and stories such as those of The Stuff to Give the Troops still shed the charm of a keenly handled métier and make up an achievement to last for several lifetimes. Quick, clipped, clear-cut vernacular admired by the likes of Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell, who portrayed him as the unforgettable Xavier Trapnel in his Books Do Furnish a Room. Unlike others, Maclaren-Ross’s style was on a level with the myth and Fear & Loathing matches both. Paul Willetts washes away the stale perfumes of apathy and posterity and Maclaren-Ross’s haunted journey stands today as a good corrective to the bland careerists of our time.
M.S.: When was the first time you read Maclaren-Ross’s work and what happened that day?
P.W.: Oh, back in the early 1980s, in my late teens. In one of those happy accidents that can, with the benefit of hindsight, appear fateful, I wandered into this ramshackle secondhand bookshop where I often used to browse. I suddenly caught sight of an orange-spined copy of The Saturday Book, which turned out to be a compilation of all sorts of things. That particular edition just happened to include the strangely titled Welsh Rabbit of Soap, a longish story by Maclaren-Ross. It was so readable and entertaining I ended up buying the book. I then started collecting other magazines in which Maclaren-Ross’s work appeared. Luckily publications from that period were pretty cheap at the time, so they were well within my limited budget.
M.S.: If Boswell and Johnson’s friendship serves as a “matrix” for biographers, what kind of imaginary friendship did you strike up with Maclaren-Ross?
P.W.: In researching the book, I interviewed numerous former friends and acquaintances of his, many of whom still had such vivid memories of him that it came to seem as if I’d met him. By studying his letters and notebooks, I began to get a feel for aspects of the man that had been invisible to most of the people who knew him. That intimacy was enhanced by the knowledge that I was unearthing lots of information about his life that only he and I knew. Mind you, had I encountered him in some pub or club, I shouldn’t think a real friendship would’ve developed, because he was far too egotistical for my tastes. Strangely enough, I suspect that my fascination with him may well have been diminished by meeting him. It would’ve removed part of the element of mystery which I found so fascinating. I really liked the idea of defying the odds by reconstructing the life of someone who led such a shadowy existence.
M.S.: Lytton Strachey regarded biography as ‘the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing’...
P.W.: I’d agree that biographers do require a certain amount of delicacy, especially when they’re dealing with people from the present or recent past. From what I can see, the whole point of writing biographies is to provide some insight into their subjects’ motives and the world that shaped them. Now this is going to sound strange, but I must admit I’m not a great fan of biographies. All too often, I find most literary biographies extremely dull, the lack of narrative drive not helped by the way they tend to become clotted with chunks of plot-summary. I suppose I was inspired by Maclaren-Ross’s own writing and by 1960s New Journalism. My biography aims to present facts in a novelistic style. Unlike conventional literary biographies which focus on the subject at the expense of the world they inhabited, I wanted to provide the reader with a strong impression of both Maclaren-Ross and his milieu. After all, a good portrait painter never abstracts the sitter from the location. There’s always an interplay between the two, the light bouncing off the adjacent walls, colouring the subject’s skin.
M.S.: The vertigo of his lodging-house and hotel life is superbly conveyed, as is his amazing productivity and the quality of it- in the face of failure and neglect…
P.W.: Until I began to unearth revealing information about his itinerant antecedents, I didn¹t realise that he was, to an extent, only imitating the behaviour he¹d grown up to regard as the norm. The same was true of his spending habits. He clearly had the misfortune to come from a family who had never learnt to manage their money. I find it a bit disheartening to see how people can be hamstrung as much by nurture as nature.
M.S.: It is surprising to keep hearing about Maclaren-Ross as a promise unfulfilled when people like Alan Ross and John Betjeman have remarked once and again that there are more than enough books to remember him by…
P.W.: You can’t really divorce him from the problems that blighted his career. Many of these were, you see, of his own making. Then again, it’s wrong to portray his abundant talents, recognised by fellow writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, as being unfulfilled, because he left behind an impressive legacy. It could, however, have been even more impressive. For all his failings and disappointments, Maclaren-Ross is an inspiring figure. I’m in awe of his resilience, and his determination to pursue his literary ambitions, regardless of the obstacles placed in his path.
M.S.: In a way, his change of name from James to Julian turned out to be his first line of fiction, no?
P.W.: Definitely. Like the dandies of earlier eras, notably the 1890s, he devoted as much attention to shaping his image as to creating more conventional works of art. The irony is that he presented himself as this haughty, pseudo-aristocratic bohemian, yet he appears to have been unaware of his genuine blue-blooded connections.
M.S.: His two-faced approach to reality -ever short of money but a dandy of sorts; short of time but a true professional, etc- is clearly outlined in your prologue and seems to constitute the key to it all…
P.W.: That’s one of the captivating aspects of biography as a genre. Endowed with the opportunity to view the entire sweep of someone’s life, you can see how it was shaped as much by his or her personality as by external factors. Besides constructing his own dandified persona, Maclaren-Ross was, as I’ve mentioned, also the author of many of the problems that beset him. His extravagant spending, for example, gobbled up the advances he was often paid for novels, forcing him to take on journalism that would raise prompt payments. That journalism then prevented him from getting on with the novels he genuinely wanted to write.
M.S.: Maclaren-Ross was also a magnificent cinema and literary critic and wrote countless radio plays & cinema scripts. What ‘treatment’ would he have given your biography if he had been in charge of scripting it?
P.W.: As someone who saw himself as a tough, resourceful film noir protagonist contending with menacing forces, he’d probably have turned it into a paranoid thriller.
M.S.: How did the title Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia come up?
P.W.: In the course of writing the book, it went through various titles, none of them ideal. Given that most people would be unfamiliar with Maclaren-Ross and that the book's selling point was Soho/Fitzrovia, I decided that I had to come up with a title that incorporated that word. I got so desperate that I made a deal with a TV screenwriter with whom I play football three times-a week. He too was looking for a title to one of his programmes, so we agreed to a trade. For several weeks, we swapped ideas, frequently in the middle of matches. A heavy tackle would be followed by one or other of us quickly calling out a potential title, few of which were, as it turned out, much good. I settled on the eventual title because it was catchy and alliterative. On top of that, it hinted at the alcohol and drug-related excesses of Maclaren-Ross's life.
M.S.: Did Fear & Loathing compel you to take some distance or assume some sort of identification? In what way did his life modify your sense of your own?
P.W.: Writing a biography of someone is such a time-consuming, arduous, and risky process that you’ve really got to be passionate about them before you go ahead, especially if, like me, you haven’t been commissioned to do it. I can’t imagine that anyone with that level of commitment wouldn’t feel some form of emotional attachment to their subject. For me, though, it certainly wasn’t a case of identification. I wrote the book from the point of view of someone who’s sympathetic towards Maclaren-Ross, whose tenacity and much of whose work I very much admire. Yet I tried to present him in a way that wasn’t coloured by either hero-worship or a spirit of iconoclasm. When you examine someone else’s life in such detail, it’s hard not to learn a few sobering lessons. And Maclaren-Ross’s life offers plenty of those. Indeed, I was so alarmed by the deleterious effect of alcohol on his career that I stopped drinking for well over a year… I’m glad to say that my life is remote from Maclaren-Ross’s. I don't, in other words, make a habit of sleeping in station waiting-rooms, running up ruinous hotel bills, consuming copious quantities of booze and amphetamines, or failing to deliver books for which I've already been paid.
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J. Maclaren-Ross Talks to Eric Phillips
J. Maclaren-Ross is something more than a mere writer. He is also a calligrapher. All his manuscripts are written in longhand in handwriting which is clear, individual and beautiful to look at. And if, since good handwriting is almost a lost art, you should feel tempted to think that Maclaren-Ross is behind the times, then you must re-read some of his short stories of the Second World War. They were acclaimed as masterpieces when they first appeared. Today, they read like an avant-garde writer of the sixties.
Maclaren-Ross — impossible to call him Ross — has a personality that somewhat belies his acute awareness of the times we live in and the vernacular expressions of everyday speech. There is no hint of condescension in his repeated use of the words: ‘My dear boy…’ It is just a part of his breeding and natural dignity. He takes a drink and smokes a cigarette in the manner of a man who enjoys smoking and drinking. With him, smoking and drinking are positive pleasures — not habits — as they are with so many of us.
I have known him, though not very well, for some years. When I first suggested an interview he was cagey. As soon as I got to know him better — or he got to know me better — he promised to fix up a meeting. I eventually nailed him down to a date at a little club, off Great Portland Street.
‘You have been successful in many different fields of literature — as a novelist, as a writer of short stories, as a writer of scenarios and, more recently, radio drama. Which of these mediums did you find the most difficult?’
‘I found none of them difficult. I’m a natural writer. I study my mediums first. One studies a medium for years as a reader, a listener or a film-goer. One studies what one likes and also what is lacking, and one attempts to simplify what is lacking for people like oneself. The idea that readers and listeners are morons is nonsense. I have been interested in films since I was seven years old, but the trouble with films is that the producer has the control, so I don’t like working in films unless I work with a producer who has the same ideas as I have. Radio I find very satisfying. A radio producer will give me my own cast — unlike film directors who always think they know best, and don’t. To work with a radio producer and a fine cast is a fine experience for a writer who wishes to find his own ideas as well produced as they should be.
‘Why are there so few good short stories nowadays?’
‘Writers aren’t paid enough. Therefore they turn to radio or TV where they can earn more. A publisher will always tell you that books of stories don’t sell.’
‘Some short stories are almost completely factual. What is it that distinguishes such stories from reportage?’
‘Talent. The man who just gives reportage is a journalist. The man who turns a true experience into a story is a writer. They are rare.’
‘Both in your novels and your radio plays your dialogue is markedly good. Do you find it easy to write good dialogue? Why, in your opinion, do some writers find it so difficult?’
‘I have a natural ear. When I was young I used to stand for hours, dead still and silent, listening to the way people talked. Maybe that’s why I talk so much now — a dig at myself! First of all you have to be accepted by people as one of themselves. Then they will talk to you. I used to stand in pubs, boarding houses and hotels — in any place where people congregate — and listen — repeat — listen!’
‘Apart from rank bad work, what would you say was the principal reason for stuff being rejected by editors?’
‘An editor — a good one — once told me that he didn’t know what he wanted until he saw it. Most editors are no good because they are failed writers. I had rejections for years until Cyril Connolly accepted a short story for HORIZON. Then other editors followed suit.’
‘How do you construct a novel?’
‘It takes me about three years to develop the idea from the germ, and then the novel is written in five or six weeks flat. Construction? Well, I first draw up a plan of all the incidents — and rarely keep to it.’
‘Because in the writing one frequently finds that certain incidents included in the plan are not necessary to the general scheme. The ending, for example. Suddenly one reaches a certain point and realises that the novel should end here — not twenty pages further on as per plan. As for what novelists frequently say about characters taking charge — this is rubbish. I am completely in charge of my characters.’
‘Do you draw characters from real life?’
‘’Yes, but they’re always composites. When writing in my latest development — tales of terror, I call them, and NOT thrillers — I have created characters who have no basis in real life. These authentically develop themselves without, however, taking charge of me. That I’m able to do this is merely due to years of experience in writing.’
‘What do you think about the younger generation of writers?’
‘Few novelists are any good. But in drama Harold Pinter and J.P. Donleavy have qualities which every writer should have.’
‘Before we parted I asked Maclaren-Ross for some details of his career.
‘I was educated entirely in the South of France,’ he said. ‘My first short story was accepted in 1940. I’ve been writing ever since. My latest novel was published last month. It’s called DOOMSDAY BOOK. I’ll send you a copy.’
Then with a sigh of relief, Maclaren-Ross got up, giving me the impression that — the interview over — he was once again free to get on with the serious pleasure of living.
This article first appeared in The Writer, p.3-5, September 1961.