June 1, 2008

Julian Maclaren-Ross: Of Love and Hunger

Posted in Maclaren-Ross Julian, Penguin Modern Classics at 10:54 am by John Self

In my regular trawls through the silver (now white) spines of Penguin Modern Classics in bookshops, here is one title I’ve only occasionally come across and never paid much attention to. The cover is pretty dreary by their usual high standards, and the title offputting. Nonetheless, having PMC withdrawal symptoms in Cambridge last week, I picked it up and read with interest about Maclaren-Ross’s life as a true bohemian dandy of the mid-20th century, of which you can read a little more here (“April 1957: Briefly imprisoned. June 1957: Embarks on the first of numerous popular radio serials for BBC”), together with extracts from his work.

Of Love and Hunger

Of Love and Hunger was Maclaren-Ross’s first full length novel, published in 1947 but set in the nervous time immediately before the onset of the second world war. The milieu is down-at-heel, down-on-its-luck Brighton, peopled by boarding-house drifters and problem drinkers; like the Paris of Jean Rhys though without her mad fluidity, or the England of Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton, in fact, is the most obvious comparison, though Maclaren-Ross has a gentler and less hard-nosed touch. He’s still capable of poking fun at the denizens of low-rent hostels, just as Hamilton did so brilliantly in The Slaves of Solitude:

Someone switched on the wireless in the sports-room. One o’clock news. The set was turned very loud so the old girls could hear what was going on. At the same time the other loudspeaker in the lounge began to talk too. Albania and the Italians. King Zog. President Roosevelt’s appeal for ten years’ peace. Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler and Mussolini with the soup, with fried liver to follow, with the bread pudding and the coffee that came out of a bottle. Hitler and Mussolini all through the meal.

The not so deaf sister said: ‘Terrible, terrible,’ at intervals to herself. She said to me: ‘Isn’t it terrible, Mr Fanshawe, the things they do.’

‘Terrible.’

‘That poor Queen. Hounded out of her own country.’

I shook my head to show I thought it terrible. The other sister shook her head in sympathy. ‘Whatever will happen next?’ the not so deaf one asked me.

‘It’s hard to tell.’

‘I beg pardon?’

‘Terrible,’ I said, to save time. They both nodded.

We are in 1939, the febrile year when the threat of war stifled plans and hopes (“‘It’d shake some of these women up, anyway.’ ‘The wrong people always get the shaking in a war. Not those who deserve it'”), though it’s likely that for the narrator Fanshawe, his plans and hopes were pretty unformed anyway. He has taken a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman, his days filled by canvassing reluctant housewives for the slim chance of giving them a demonstration of his wares, for the even slimmer prospect of actually making a sale. Salesmen are ever under threat of the sack for not selling enough, and have to contend with bumptious superiors and facile encouragements in song (“Dust-pans are forgotten / A cleaner home begotten / And I’m going to sell ‘em one right now”) and crass advertisements.

Posters on the walls showed two contrasting homes; one of a haggard-looking housewife brushing up the floor by hand: coughing children, clouds of dust, germs dancing delightedly on the cheese, and so on: the headline for this one was YOU are responsible for the dustpan and brush! The other showed the same home with Sucko installed: radiant housewife ten years younger, germs beating it through the open window, kids eating off the carpet, and a doctor beaming congratulations at the door.

One colleague, Roper, with whom Fanshawe has begun to socialise, doesn’t make the grade, and ends up taking a job as a steward on an ocean liner. He asks Fanshawe to keep an eye on his wife: “If only you’d see her sometimes and have a talk.” Fanshawe reluctantly agrees.

‘You’re a good fellow, Fanshawe,’ he said.

‘No. I’ve never been a good fellow,’ I told him.

Fanshawe has problems of his own in that direction. He is tortured by the memory of his ex girlfriend Angela, and Maclaren-Ross brings out his regrets in passages all the more affecting for their brevity and understatement.

Truth was, I didn’t altogether want to give up my bachelor life in Madras. I wasn’t really ready for that yet: mem-sahib, settling down, and so on. I earned enough to have a good time, and if I married it’d be cut down by half. So I said, ‘Wait,’ not knowing she’d had enough of waiting, that she wasn’t prepared to wait any more. And she never told me: how was I to know? She said once she’d wait for ever.

As a reader with no patience for ‘backstory’ in novels, I revelled in this: that’s the way to do it. We are given enough – of Angela and of Fanshawe’s memories of his father too – to identify the causative factors, and to know how much they circulate stagnantly in his mind, without hammering the points home. As a result the book maintains a tricky balance between sympathy and a pleasing misanthropy, and the epilogue brings together the threads of war and personal life. In the end Of Love and Hunger seems like a perfect example of its kind.

That offputting title, by the way, comes from Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland:

Adventurers, though, must take things as they find them,
And look for pickings where the pickings are.

The drives of love and hunger are behind them,
They can’t afford to be particular:
And those who like good cooking and a car,

A certain kind of costume or of face,

Must seek them in a certain kind of place.

Which just shows that you can take your inspiration from two celebrated poets, and still end up with a terrible title – and still end up with a terrific book.

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22 Comments »

  1. JRSM said,

    I absolutely loved this book. There are a couple of collections of Maclaren-Ross’s short stories and autobiographies available, and they’re all well worth tracking down. They have all the virtues of this novel, too–very funny, well-written and sporadically dark. You’d be wanting ‘Selected Stories’, ‘Bitten by the Tarantula’ and ‘Collected Memoirs’.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks JRSM – delighted to know he’s not such an unknown quantity as I first thought. There’s a volume available in the UK titled Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writings, which includes stories, journalism and parodies, and is probably my next port of call. It’s published by Black Spring Press, who publish some of Patrick Hamilton’s works here too; they’ll also be issuing a volume of Maclaren-Ross’s letters this month.

  3. Jack Mottram said,

    Paul Willets’ biography of Maclaren-Ross Fear And Loathing In Fitzrovia is well worth a read, too, even if it gets a bit bogged down in financial details at times (though since Maclaren-Ross was on the point of penury for most of his life, I can see why).

  4. Alan said,

    I remember hearing about this on Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’ a few years ago, and it sounded good enough to want to read it. Your positive comments about it have provided a reminder!

    Keep up the book review blogging John.

  5. JRSM said,

    I think he was also the basis for a character in ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’–X Trapnel, the penurious writer who loses his manuscript.

  6. John Self said,

    That’s right, JRSM: it’s one of those nuggets that crops up everywhere when reading about Maclaren-Ross, as I’ve discovered recently. There’s possibly an interesting game to be had of predicting when certain keywords will appear in these articles. …X. Trapnel! …Fitzrovia! …Gold-topped cane!

    Jack, thanks for the recommendation. There’s an awful allure in details of writers’ finances. I remember the introduction to Fitzgerald’s The Pat Hobby Stories, which contained numerous pleas to Esquire magazine:

    Once again the address is the Bank of America, Culver City, and I wish you’d wire the money if you like this story. Notice that this is pretty near twenty-eight hundred words long. I’d like to do some more of these if your price made it possible.

    Well, I suppose drink was expensive during those difficult prohibition years.

    Alan, thanks for your comment. I keep meaning to listen to A Good Read as they seem to turn up some interesting titles. And I have no plans to stop the blogging just yet!

  7. Hi John,

    I wanted to let you know (as a fellow website admin) that one of your div’s appears to unintentionally cut through your right column. It looks like it should be horizontally flipped. Other than that your site looks charming.

    Thanks for the reviews!

    –Matthew Laufe Scheer

    My site: http://www.threekeywords.com

  8. do any of the aforementioned writings make any reference to ‘The Stuff to give the Troops?’ I’m looking for a copy. It seems neigh on impossible to find any copies of the book other than paying £1500 with the rare books brigade and needless to say they know where they can stuff that.

  9. praymont said,

    There’s quite a bit about Maclaren-Ross in this TLS article on Powell by Jeremy Treglown:

    http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25338-2009553,00.html

    One tidbit related by Treglown is that Maclaren-Ross was, along with Dylan Thomas, among the very few contributors to the TLS who demanded payment up front for their articles.

  10. John Self said,

    Money again eh! Thanks for the link Paul – I see the article also mentions William Gerhardie: I picked up his novel The Polyglots recently. His books are being reissued by the print-on-demand service Faber Finds shortly.

    Michael, I’ll have to leave your query to those who know a little more about Maclaren-Ross than I do: I’m a beginner, as you can see. £1,500 though! I can understand your response.

    Thanks Matthew, I take it you’re referring to the Author Index. I noticed it some time ago but it’s a little like a loose floorboard that a homeowner gets so accustomed to that they stop noticing it altogether. I’m afraid I use a standard off-the-shelf WordPress template for my blog which I don’t think is alterable – and CSS is a closed book to me so I can’t design my own page. But I’ll keep it in mind!

  11. Jack said,

    Michael – if memory serves the Selected Stories has a couple from The Stuff To Give The Troops. Faber Finds might be our only hope of reading the lot, though.

    John – if you liked Fitzgerald’s attempts to wheedle cash, you’ll probably love Willets’ biography. Maclaren-Ross’ money-grubbing chutzpah is breathtaking at times – at one point he managed to extract regular advances from the BBC, despite owing them five previously commissioned radio plays. (The financial details do get awfully depressing after a while, though – hundreds of midnight flits from hotels for want of a few quid, stints living in a cubicle at a Turkish baths, &c.)

  12. John Self said,

    stints living in a cubicle at a Turkish baths, &c.

    Great stuff, Jack. I do hope it’s not mere Schadenfreude that makes me find this so fascinating. There’s something quite heroic about being able to turn out great writing in such dire circumstances: I’m thinking too of the likes of Patrick Hamilton and Richard Yates, though as far as I know they hadn’t the same penury as Maclaren-Ross, just the same drink problem keeping them from the desk. I think the Black Spring edition of Bitten by the Tarantula and other writings is my next step and I’ll keep the Willets in mind thereafter.

    Faber Finds for the story collection: a good idea. As an unreconstructed bibliophile, I’ll be getting one of their titles when they become available, just to see if they’re worth having as books, or if they’re as nastily produced as every other print-on-demand title I’ve ever seen. When I first read about them, I’d heard that they needed to sell just 50 or so copies to start turning a profit on each title. But then when I heard a piece about them on radio last week, they said they needed to receive 50 orders in order to start printing each title. I hope the first is the correct answer.

  13. Paul said,

    There’s a review of MR’s Selected Letters in the Guardian at:

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,,2287968,00.html

  14. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul. I’ve just picked up my print copy so shall look forward to that later. It was also reviewed in last week’s Observer by the brilliant Philip French.

    And there’s an unpublished story by him in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, taken from the new book (not sure if this link will expire soon).

  15. I’d missed that you’d covered this, it’s one of my favourite novels. In fact, originally my blog was going to be called Of Love and Hunger, but that had already been taken on blogspot so I went for Pechorin’s Journal instead.

    The comparison to Hamilton is very apt, as is that to Rhys I suppose though I agree Hamilton is much closer. Perhaps to some Orwell too, though it’s an age since I’ve read any of his less famous stuff (I recall I loved Keep the Aspidistra Flying).

    It’s a marvellous portrait this one of an England of twitching curtains, intrusive landladies, genteel decay and petty-mindedness. I dimly recall it, and don’t mourn its passing. A terrible shame Maclaren-Ross didn’t write more, and a terrible shame too I was beaten so comprehensively to the X Trapnel comparison. Ah well.

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks for bringing this one back up to the top, Max. It reminds me that I still want to get hold of Bitten by the Tarantula and other writings. I’m also kicking myself that I didn’t buy a copy of Maclaren-Ross’s Letters which was in my local bookshop a while ago and is now gone. I know I could order it online, but I try not to do that these days if possible…

  17. I was delighted to find it John.

    The feature I’d most like on my own blog, and indeed on the blogs I follow, would be a link on the main page to a random old post each day. I’d love it if someone visiting my page as well as seeing what I’ve written about recently, saw something I’d written about say a year ago or four months ago or whenever, just to get them some fresh air from time to time. And I’d love to see the same here and on the other blogs I frequent.

    Sadly it’s not a feature that seems to be available. A shame, as there are usually gems in most folks’ archives.

  18. John Self said,

    Max, that is a brilliant idea. And in fact I have just googled and found that it is available! Here is how you do it:

    http://theasylum.wordpress.com/?random

    Works for WordPress blogs only, of course… I will create a link somewhere on the sidebar for this.

  19. That link takes me to the random posts John, did you do it with a plugin?

  20. I just got it working, brilliant. Well, and there I thought it couldn’t be done.

  21. John Self said,

    “This book shows what I have always suspected; that biography at the fringes of fame is by far the most worthwhile.”

    An excellent review of Paul Willetts’ Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia and Maclaren-Ross’s Collected Memoirs on Hannah Stoneham’s blog.

  22. samcutting said,

    About to embark on my own piece about JMR’s short fiction, having read the Black Spring Press edition mentioned above. Enjoyed the piece above – many thanks!


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