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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Life writing on the edge: Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia and other Julian Maclaren-Ross adventures

This week’s reading has been the seediest of double helpings. Having enjoyed the Collective Memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross, I felt that I could not leave the story uncompleted and picked up the wonderful Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: the Bizarre Life of Writer, Actor, Soho Raconteur: Julian Maclaren-Ross by Paul Willetts. For those who are strangers to Maclaren-Ross, he was a gifted writer who came to represent the dissolute and chaotic life of London’s Soho in the middle of the last century. The sordid colours of his person and lifestyle evolved to overshadow his versatile and interesting work. He spawned numerous fictional characters of whom the most famous was the dreadful X Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Long before his death in 1964 he had become part of the myth of Fitzrovia – that tiny pub lined area north of Oxford Street and west of the Tottenham Court Road.

Paul Willetts conveys an excellent sense of Maclaren-Ross; sharp suited; Malacca cane carrying; hard drinking; sharp tongued observer; whilst at the same time extracting his subject from a welter of myth and half truth. His biography looks under the carpet of the stories of generations and proves that truth really is stranger than fiction. In his short life Maclaren-Ross was a writer, door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, soldier, deserter, prisoner and regular at the Wheatsheaf pub. He was far from being the only deserter who washed up in Fitzrovia. During the course of the Second World War an estimated 80,000 men went “AWOL” from the armed forces and a healthy number drank out the war in a similar style to Maclaren-Ross. Willetts shows however that his desertion was far from stereotypical – he deserted having become frustrated to the point of madness that the army kept him behind a desk with a humdrum occupation rather than use his skills. Not the most self-sacrificing attitude maybe, but far from the plain cowardice suggested by mythology.

As well as looking under the carpet, Willetts has made a great achievement in even finding it. Maclaren-Ross wrote a series of memoirs (for which, read on....) but no biography can be credibly based purely on the words of the subject. His life was a mind-bending chaos of poverty, homelessness, hotel dwelling and psychosis. Women and friends came and went with speed and left little behind for the intrepid biographer. Willetts triumphed over disaster by seemingly following every tiny clue. A biographer who is willing to search telephone directories deserves a bit of credit in my view. This book shows what I have always suspected; that biography at the fringes of fame is by far the most worthwhile.

Maclaren-Ross’s own Collected Memoirs surprised me in their tone. I knew the myth of the man and was expecting his narrative voice to be far more abrasive and harsh than I found it to be. In fact, his memoirs are a series of keenly observed and sparely composed period pieces that display a grasp of character and a detachment from stereotype, which I found most impressive. Probably the most interesting are his Memoirs of the Forties in which he rubs shoulders with Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas (and of course many others) in hilarious circumstances. The stories are witty and revealing and far more self-deprecating than I suspected.

Julian Maclaren-Ross had an almost pathological dislike of being photographed and so there are limited images of him available. I have included what I can find together with a still of Sean Baker as one of his fictional alter egos X Trapnel in the 1997 adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time.

10 comments:

  1. He does sound interesting, although I'd never heard of him before. I've sometimes thought of reading A Dance to the Music of Time, but don't really know much about it or if I'd enjoy it.

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  2. Hi Carolyn - Thanks for visiting and commenting. JMR is fascinating - quite awful in lots of ways but both life and work are worth dipping into. A Dance to the Music of Time is good but it is husgely long - it is composed of umpteen books and takes a long time to get through. I would recommend the 1997 adaptation which is also long, but not quite as time consuming as the book.

    Have a great week

    Hannah

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  3. I never knew Powell based Trapnel on Maclaren-Ross - of whom I had never heard. He does sound an interesting character.

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  4. It said my comment was published but I never saw it (I waffled about not realising that Powell had based Trapnel on M-R

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  5. How wonderful to read about these books on my first visit to your blog, Hannah! I read Maclaren-Ross's novel Of Love and Hunger a while ago, more or less on a whim, and was surprised by how many people out there rate his stuff and still read him. At the time I was determined to get hold of his letters etc, but never did. Your review has spurred me into finally doing so - thanks!

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  6. Seedy and sad. My fiction reading has also been of the seediest variety, Helene Tursten's The Torso. :<)

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  7. This was a very informative post, thanks a lot Hannah!

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  8. Fans of Julian Maclaren-Ross might like to explore Fitzrovia and Soho in his footsteps courtesy of author Paul Willetts on Thursday 1 July 2010 at the Fitzroy Tavern, 16 Charlotte Street, W1T 2NA http://www.lfa2010.org/event.php?id=281&name=noho_noir See also http://fitzrovianews.wordpress.com/lfa2010fitzrovia/

    Linus -- assistant editor, Fitzrovia News

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