The Pub Closes With A Crash
By Paul Ewen.
Julian Maclaren-Ross, Selected Letters (ed. Paul Willetts), Black Spring Press, 2008
A story about Julian MacLaren-Ross that always sticks in my mind is the time he was locked in a room above a Charlotte Street pub (the Northumberland Arms, I think) and wasn’t let out until he had finished writing a book he had already taken an advance for. If my memory serves me, he was fed drinks upon completion of each chapter.
This story gained more significance as I attempted to complete this review, which as I write this, is now two months late. It was Sunday 29th June when Andrew Stevens at 3:AM first wrote to me asking if I would be interested in doing a piece on Julian MacLaren-Ross: Selected Letters. I know it was this date because I’ve just been reading through all the correspondence between us in relation to this review and other matters. The most recent letters from Andrew are rather pressing, firing rockets up my bottom and threatening to pull the review entirely [surely some mistake? — Ed] But our written exchanges, when compared with the correspondence in Julian MacLaren-Ross Selected Letters, have actually been rather tame.
Here is a MacLaren-Ross’ letter to Rupert Hart-Davis, director of the publishing firm Jonathan Cape:
to RUPERT HART-DAVIS
‘HQ’ Company/No 3 Infantry Depot/Southend-on-Sea/Essex
My Dear Rupert,
Please come at once. Saw the medical officer this morning and he wants to have me sent to a Mental Home. I want you to come and help. Please ring up Major Backus at Northfield Hospital and find out what he thinks. Try and get the address of my specialist, Major Ross, and contact him before he goes abroad. I’m sure that was not his intention and I’m not going to be railroaded like this, with a stigma of insanity. Please come immediately: if I don’t talk to someone I really should go mad!
And here he makes mention of his perceived split personality, where he doubles as the Hooded Terror:
to Winnie Devlin
…I have the conviction that if we could meet face to face, all this nonsense could be tidied up in a moment: though not if she meets me late at night, when the personality of the Terror tends of recent weeks to take over and is apt even to break out in violence if provoked – as when I suddenly took hold of a rude man in a club and half-throttled him with his own scarf: also stamping several times at intervals on the ankle of an outrageous scrounger….
Love to all,
Ironically, Julian MacLaren-Ross also wrote book reviews, but if his letters are anything to go by, it seems he was actually rather punctual in this respect, often working through the night, and occasionally writing for days without food or sleep. It was through the writing of these book reviews, TV & film adaptations, French fiction translations, radio plays and numerous articles and criticism that he was able to earn money to survive, selling the review books after each commission to help pay for his drinks and amphetamines (and occasionally his rent). However, the returns from these smaller, lowly paid jobs were all to quickly absorbed into a lifestyle he could not afford to maintain, despite believing it one that he rightly deserved. More tellingly, it was this need to earn money in the short-term that greatly stalled his larger writing projects, with the tragic result being that many of his own fictional projects were never realised, and in some cases, never left the ground at all.
New Zealander Dan Davin, along with his wife Winnie, were two of JMR’s closest friends, and as a result, were long-sufferers to his bouts of desperation and need. Here, in the introduction to his book Closing Times, a set of recollections about seven of his recently deceased writer friends, including MacLaren-Ross, Dan Davin offers a rather painful summation of his extroverted friend:
“… unable to believe that society did not recognise it owed a living to its writers, and a good living at that; still more unwilling to accept that, instead, society expected its writers to pay taxes as if they were ordinary men. A man who burnt up money and burnt out himself in the pursuit of the opulence he thought he needed…He wanted to have both his pride and drink it but, because his real gifts were those of a solitary, he could not earn a living at anything that involved being a member of a team or conforming to an office routine. So he was unable to use the BBC as a way of living, still less as a way of life. And the immense strain he put upon his own physique and fortitude, remarkable both, carried him off before the turning of luck which he always counted could be put to the test.”
As a New Zealander myself, it was through the writings of Dan Davin that I first came into contact with the life of Julian MacLaren-Ross. When I arrived in London, I duly headed straight for the Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, the drinking spot of choice for both JMR and Davin, and the place they had originally met.
But it was actually Paul Willetts’ exceptional biography of JMR, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, published in 2003, which encouraged me to take up the fiction of MacLaren-Ross himself. In the past six years, JMR and his work have thankfully had a resurgence of interest, thanks in no small part to Paul Willetts, who has also edited these Selected Letters, the Collected Memoirs, the Selected Stories, and JMR’s collection Bitten By The Tarantula & Other Writing. A couple of years back, I attended a fundraiser evening at the Wheatsheaf pub, where a gathering of JMR supporters (including his son) had come out to raise money for a headstone for his unmarked north London grave, offering further proof that he has garnered a whole new generation of admirers. (Despite this, MacLaren-Ross still doesn’t get a mention on the walls of the Wheatsheaf pub today, where photos, articles and book passages pertaining to some of the pub’s other literary names (Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Anthony Powell) are prominently on display.)
Julian MacLaren Ross: Selected Letters begins in 1938, shortly before he was conscripted into the army to undergo infantry training. Despite the many bleak letters that were written until his release in 1943, he used his time in the army to produce a much lauded collection of short stories that were published in the leading literary magazines of the day, earning him a reputation as one of England’s most promising writers.
After being discharged and civilianised, he quickly established himself amongst bohemian London, basing himself around the pubs and drinking clubs of Fitzrovia and Soho. “Even among his more flamboyant contemporaries, he stood out, thanks to his gangsterish dress sense as well as his habit of wearing dark glasses and clutching a cane.”
His address details varied regularly, depending on how flushed he was. On the 17th of May, 1945, he was staying at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, which boasted “a Turkish bath, a winter garden, a restaurant and dancehall.” At other times he would be camped in bedsits, often months in arrears with rental payments, and later, he would even be forced into sleeping on benches in train stations.
Gathering a reputation as a difficult writer amongst many potentially influential sources, Julian MacLaren-Ross was uncompromising to say the least, and was quick to set out his own terms with prospective employers. While his manner may have appeared to be rude and rather tiresome, on closer inspection it is possible to see that he was exceptionally passionate about what he wrote, and would protect his carefully considered work from slap-dashers at all costs. In his reviews and articles, he was also quick to praise others he deemed worthy, while not being afraid to voice his criticisms at those he did not.
Julian MacLaren-Ross: Selected Letters is a wonderful book, and also a rather telling one. The insights it gives to the struggling writer, determined to work for themselves, not the market, reminded me of George Gissing’s New Grub Street, written about fifty years before these letters and set just around the corner from Fitzrovia. Both are invaluable guides for the aspiring writer today.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Paul Ewen is the author of London Pub Reviews.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 27th, 2008.