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 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.’
‘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.