Paul Willetts interviewed by Andrew Stevens.
3:AM: What was your background before the books?
PW: Ever since I was old enough to possess an ambition, I wanted to be a writer, though I never saw myself producing non-fiction. I always aimed to become a novelist or a screenwriter. That said, I did have a period when doubts began to creep in, and I re-directed my energy into painting, which is what my mum did and my dad continues to do. They both taught in art schools and had a certain amount of success in the art world. After I’d finished university, I ended up paying my way through part of a painting degree course—a change of direction that proved a mistake. From art school, I drifted through a succession of typical writers’ jobs—door-to-door salesman, box office cashier, that sort of thing—before getting involved in publicity work.
I came up with the idea for a biography of the writer and Soho dandy, Julian Maclaren-Ross, in the mid-1980s, but I was dissuaded from pursuing it by Alan Ross, the poet and literary editor, whom I’d targeted as my first interviewee. He sent me a rather brusque postcard, refusing my request for an interview and telling me that I was wasting my time. Lacking the confidence to plough on regardless, I abandoned the project. I didn’t muster the courage and confidence to try again until about 1999. By that stage I’d reached the conclusion that I had to write the book. My attempts at writing fiction were going nowhere, mainly because I’d become fixated with literary style and voice, so the Maclaren-Ross biography offered an escape route. If I didn’t write it, I knew I’d never publish anything.
I hope that certain aspects of my past are palpable in the finished book, and in the books I’ve written since then. During my more confident moments, I like to think that my visual arts background is palpable in my writing. I’m always keen to convey the look and feel of the world I’m portraying. Some people regard these ingredients as superficial, but I feel they’re essential.
The possibility of bringing the past back to life, of telling vivid stories is what really engages my imagination. Over the years I’ve pondered the question of why I’ve been drawn to mid-twentieth-century London in general and mid-twentieth-century Soho in particular. I suspect my family history has a lot to do with my interests. My grand-dad on my mum’s side used to work in Billingsgate Fish Market and eventually set up a successful business as a fish wholesaler, supplying many of the restaurants in Soho and Fitzrovia. A more direct link with that part of the West End was provided by my mum who, from the late 1940s onwards, knew and loved Soho. In the early 1950s she became a student at St Martin’s School of Art on the Charing Cross Road, initially studying fashion before switching to painting. Her life-models included various now famous Soho characters, among them Quentin Crisp and Ironfoot Jack. She told me a lot lot about those days, during which she was immersed in the Soho scene. Being a very glamorous young girl, she seems to have had no shortage of boyfriends from that world, including a celebrated writer who penned a disparaging portrait of her.
Later she went on to the Royal Academy Schools where she met my dad, a working-class Brummie who survived as a student courtesy of a six-night-a-week job in a basement drinking club on the edge of Soho. He often talks about the place: Henry Williamson was one of the regulars, usually accompanied by an attractive young girl or two, undeterred by his ravaged appearance.
By the time I was born in the early 1960s, my mum was teaching at St Martin’s. As a little kid, she used to take me into work and, at lunchtimes and after work, show me round Soho. I well remember the old family-run shops, the streetwalkers, the smutty bookshops. I grew up listening to stories about London life and mixing with my parents’ friends, most of whom were painters or sculptors. These included Carel Weight, a lovely bloke who devoted most of his life to depicting the capital’s streetscapes. He continued working until his death. In that respect I look upon him as a role model.
3:AM: You wrote JMR’s biography and edited his short stories and letters, pretty much singlehandedly rescuing him from obscurity and leading to a resurgence of interest into the bargain. How did you come to write the biography and what do you make of current interest in his work?
PW: Though I count myself a fan of Maclaren-Ross’s work, I’m not the sort of fan who hates it when the subject of his or her enthusiasm threatens to become mainstream. Like most teenagers, I had several friends who’d be pathetically devoted to some fashionable new band, only to relinquish that devotion immediately their idols achieved widespread popularity. I can’t see myself being so disloyal if Maclaren-Ross’s work ends up reaching a large readership. I feel quite evangelical about his books, so I’m delighted that they’re back in print and acquiring a loyal following.
I always get slightly annoyed by people who trot out tired lines about how his bohemian way of life is more interesting than the work itself, how he never really fulfilled his potential, and how his drinking was responsible for a meagre output. Well, the evidence doesn’t support these arguments. Here’s a writer who led a fascinating life, yet who combined that with a prolific literary career which yielded writing every bit as good as that of British twentieth-century greats such as Waugh, Greene, Hamilton or Orwell.
I only discovered his writing by chance. One day I was browsing in an appropriately seedy secondhand bookshop, where I came across a 1940s edition of The Saturday Book, a hardback miscellany that featured a fantastic story of his. The story began with the line, ‘You know the Scotsman, off Soho Square? That’s where I met her. I was pinned in a corner between the fireplace and the door of the Gents, and before I could escape Hester Hewart had introduced us…’
Until then, I’d never read an English short story from that period which possessed such a wonderfully direct, conversational style. I felt as if Maclaren-Ross was talking to me at the bar of a pub. That impression, I later discovered, stemmed from the fact that a lot of his short fiction grew out of bar-room stories. He’d rehearse these over and over again in the Saloon Bar of the Wheatsheaf, a pub on Rathbone Place.
Gradually, I began collecting books by Maclaren-Ross, plus magazines and anthologies in which his writing appeared. Early in my relationship with his work, I read Of Love and Hunger. It really convinced me that he was a substantial and undeservedly neglected literary figure. Anyone who fancies reading his work should start with Of Love and Hunger, his Selected Stories, or Memoirs of the Forties which appears in his Collected Memoirs. They’re so fresh, modern, witty and distinctive, the humour tinged with beguiling melancholy. I find it hard to believe they’re not on every bookish young person’s bedside table.
3:AM: You’ve also written widely and given numerous talks on Fitzrovia (North Soho 999 etc.), becoming a social and literary historian for the West End in the same way that Ken Worpole is for the East End.
PW: I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to Ken Worpole. I see myself as more of a storyteller. I just write about stories that interest me and hope that the consequent books will interest other people. Mind you, my new book offers masses of social history and portrays the changing face of Soho. Entitled Members Only, the book is a biography of Paul Raymond (1925-2008), the theatre impresario, porn baron, property magnate, club owner and burlesque pioneer.
Whenever I’ve tried to write about something other than the West End, I’ve never been able to escape from its gravitational field. My next book is mainly set in that part of London, too. To an extent, the setting’s coincidental. I was primarily drawn to the story. The book’s just been commissioned by Penguin. I’m impatient to plunge into the research for it. Even at this point, I have a very clear idea of what the book will be like, but I’m pragmatic enough to realize that the finished volume won’t live up to my preconception of it. Finished books can never compete with their unwritten, blemish-free counterparts.
3:AM: How did the Paul Raymond book come about then? What did you unearth in writing it that we already didn’t know?
PW: Right from an early age, when my mum used to take me round Soho, I was aware of the Raymond Revuebar, the famous strip-club run by Paul Raymond. Facing Brewer Street, it had a beautiful, very stylish giant neon sign that featured a can-can dancer lifting her skirt. With its 1950s typography and all sorts of fantastic embellishments, it looked like it belonged in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas. I can remember peering up at it as we threaded our way through the market stalls opposite. The sign’s still there, but it hasn’t been switched on for years. It was a great West End landmark, which should’ve been given listed status.
Writing about either the Revuebar or its founder wasn’t something that crossed my mind until it was suggested to me by Matthew Hamilton, my agent. Like me, Matthew has a long association with Soho, in his case through his father, the poet, biographer, journalist and TV presenter, Ian Hamilton, whose influential literary magazine, The New Review, was based there.
Initially, I was a bit sceptical about whether I wanted to allow the late Paul Raymond to take up residence inside my brain for the next couple of years. I assumed that he was no more than an ultra-successful, rather shady wheeler-dealer. Along with most people, I used to read regular newspaper articles about his antics, news stories often accompanied by photos of him, tanned and jewellery-decked as he escorted some busty showgirl out of a nightclub.
But my preliminary research persuaded me that a biography of him was worthwhile. It offered loads of fascinating, amusing and downright odd material that spanned the worlds of 1940s spivs, 1950s variety theatre, late 1950s and early 1960s strip clubs, as well as the downfall of the Metropolitan Police’s notorious Porn Squad. I was blessed by wonderful material. Whether I’ve made good use of that material isn’t, of course, for me to say.
The process of researching a book, especially a book about someone as secretive as Paul Raymond, is bound to yield all sorts of unexpected discoveries. Without that, boredom would rapidly set in.
(reproduced courtesy of Maurice Poole)
All manner of surprises emerged from my detective work for Members Only. At the outset I didn’t realize just how glamorous the Raymond Revuebar was in the late 1950s and 1960s. Every night its huge lounge-bar was crowded with the cream of British showbusiness, augmented by visiting American stars such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.
Another thing that surprised me was the scale of the West End strip-club boom. During the early 1960s, the annual box office receipts from the dozen full-time clubs amounted to around £2.5 million—more than quintuple the entire British takings for Spartacus, one of the biggest blockbuster movies of the period. There were even claims that the Soho strip-clubs were bringing in nearer to £5 million-a-year once the income from part-time venues was considered. Striptease was, in other words, a major cultural phenomenon, not just some minor prelude to the Swinging Sixties.
I suppose my biggest discovery, though, centres on a period in Raymond’s life that’s akin to something out of a Hollywood thriller. I can’t help thinking this aspect of the Raymond story would make a great framework for one of the mooted biopics about him. He showed immense courage to survive the experience. I ended up feeling a sneaking admiration for the old rogue.
Other surprising revelations also arose from my research. Foremost among these was Raymond’s status as a culturally important figure whose battles against censorship shaped the society we live in now. That probably makes the book seem a bit po-faced. I don’t think it is. Lots of the material is intrinsically amusing and absurd, not least some of the variety acts Raymond staged, acts such as ‘The Nudes in the Lions’ Den’. There was even a show co-starring a white horse named Beauty, who was trained to remove a woman’s bra with his teeth. The training routine involved sewing sugar-lumps into the bra. Ultimately, the horse was so conditioned that he’d pull off the bra without the sugary reward. Who says biographies aren’t educational? For sheer strangeness, I’m convinced that the Raymond story trumps Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, my biography of Maclaren-Ross.
3:AM: Your métier is London history, is there nothing about the contemporary capital that holds your attention?
PW: My books may suggest the opposite, but I’m not one of those people who spends their time pining for the past and moaning about the state of the world. Come to think of it, I do spend a lot of time moaning about the state of the world.
For all its faults, for all its philistine attitude towards its own history, I love contemporary London. I feel invigorated by it. At the same time I can’t walk round it without being conscious of the people who’ve passed along those same streets.
If I had the time, I’d write about lots of other things. Whether you’re talking about specific sentences or entire books, writing is, however, essentially about choices—and my current priority is writing about London’s past, not its present. Yet anyone who writes about the recent past is, in some senses, writing about the present.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 30th, 2010.