Drink and drug-fuelled writing that should not exist, but thank goodness it does

Collected Memoirs - Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing
December 2, 2005

The last words of a life devoted to words, spoken by the writer and journalist Julian Maclaren-Ross to his then girlfriend after a heart attack in November 1964, were: "I love you". He was 52 and had been addicted to alcohol, amphetamines and unhealthy food long enough for his demise not to come as too much of a shock. More surprising, noted but not commented on by Paul Willetts in a recent excellent, if chastening, biography of Maclaren-Ross, is that before "I love you", the dying author gasped two other words: "Graham Greene".

Maclaren-Ross was divorced, and his final relationship was one of many since the split; so it is tempting to speculate that his valedictory declaration may have been addressed to Greene, who certainly cast a long shadow over his existence. In 1938, Maclaren-Ross was contemplating an adaptation of Greene's novel A Gun for Sale and visited the author at his home on Clapham Common. Although an undying self-belief would have prevented him from admitting as much, by the time he wrote up the incident in 1964 Maclaren-Ross cannot have failed to notice the yawning chasm between Greene's brilliant career and his own chaotic one.

When Maclaren-Ross met him, Greene was already the model of a successful author. Brighton Rock had just come out, and he was heading for Mexico, a trip that would be immortalised in The Lawless Roads and The Power and the Glory . Greene's working life was methodical, his oeuvre lengthening and reputation mounting as inevitably as the passing of the years, while the house in Clapham extended a vision of domestic felicity - a housekeeper deflected unwanted fans, and two lovely children were in the charge of a doting wife.

Whereas Maclaren-Ross's domestic arrangements were shambolic in the extreme. Alone, with a girlfriend or with his wife and son, he spent brief periods in a succession of hotels and flats, which he left when evicted for not paying the rent or did a moonlight flit leaving a trail of unpaid bills. At other times he relied on the indulgence of friends, but they would invariably weary of his impecuniousness and tendency to stay up late drinking their booze while delivering interminable monologues or lengthily re-enacting scenes from his favourite films. If nothing else presented itself, he would repair for the night to a Turkish bath or sleep in the waiting room of one of London's railway stations, his bench of choice being located at Marylebone.

Although his mind was continually turning on ideas for novels, story collections, radio plays or reviews, many of which came to fruition, Maclaren-Ross seemed unable to hang on to money. Creditors dogged him, and Punch magazine banned him from collecting review copies from their offices when hordes of bailiffs turned up to wait for him there. He regularly managed to persuade bodies such as the Royal Literary Fund to bail him out, but as with all the money he got his hands on, he drank it all away.

His pill-popping gave rise to a variety of delusions. He believed that a confederacy of female novelists was trying to destroy him by modelling their characters on him. A recurring fantasy was that his personality had been taken over by Mr Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , at which times he would ask to be addressed as "Edward Hyde".

Given such a messy personal life, and the testimonies of many chroniclers of the period that he was to be found in the same spot at the bar of the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place every moment that the licensing laws permitted, it seems little short of miraculous that Maclaren-Ross wrote anything at all. But as his Collected Memoirs and Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing amply demonstrate, his output was voluminous and of an extraordinarily high standard.

Even more remarkable, a great deal of it was written in the middle of the night after Maclaren-Ross returned home from a long evening of holding forth in the pub. Initially he doped himself with benzedrine to stay awake, but he later moved on to a more potent stimulant prescribed by a dodgy doctor that was so strong that when Maclaren-Ross urged a friend to try one he talked maniacally for a day and a half and then fell into a deep depression.

The writings should not really exist but thank goodness they do, with some now reissued for the first time since publication. The most famous work in Collected Memoirs is "Memoirs of the Forties", which includes the Greene episode. Along with Maclaren-Ross's 1947 novel Of Love and Hunger , inspired by his time as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, it is probably his best-known work. Perhaps anticipating how the subjects of his reminiscences would react, Maclaren-Ross carefully noted: "I have an extremely good memory, and almost total recall where the actual material of conversations is concerned..." Well, maybe. The posthumous publication of "Memoirs of the Forties" placed him beyond litigation, but despite minor chronological slips there is enough evidence to suggest that his portrayals of some of the behemoths of the age are pretty faithful.

And even if they are not, the results are hugely entertaining. As an evocation of an era, of London as it was during the war and its aftermath, and of the characters who succumbed to the fatal attractions of a literary life, it is unceasingly fascinating. Anecdotes flowed compulsively from Maclaren-Ross, regarding the well known (Dylan Thomas in the days when he and Maclaren-Ross loafed around the offices of a documentary film company; Cyril Connolly regally presiding over the literary magazine Horizon ) and the now obscure (the poetry pundit Tambimuttu).

There is also a salutary account of Maclaren-Ross's vexed relationship with the BBC, whose bureaucratic inefficiency was echoed in the short stories he wrote about his troubled time in the British Army. One episode gleefully recounts how Maclaren-Ross received two letters from the BBC in a single post, one regretting the loss of a manuscript he had sent, the other expressing delight at accepting it for broadcast.

As when sketching pithy, gently derisive portraits of the publishers who brushed him off (there were many), Maclaren-Ross used his pen as a highly effective weapon of satirical revenge. It is a tragedy that he died before completing projected chapters on figures such as Henry Green, Anthony Powell and Eric Ambler - although they may have been relieved. His portraits contained too much psychological truth for comfort.

The other substantial memoir in Collected Memoirs is "The weeping and the laughter", the beginnings of an autobiography published in 1953. It tells of his childhood in Bournemouth and the south of France, and considering how badly he got on with his parents later in life it is notable that he looks back with affection rather than in anger. A menagerie of eccentric relatives is fleshed out, whose adventures are taken up in the autobiographical essay "My Father was born in Havana", where we learn that Maclaren-Ross's grandfather died eating peas in defiance of medical advice and that "Uncle Ronnie, in an attempt to retrieve the family fortunes, went off to the Gold Rush and died, frozen stiff as a board, in the Klondyke".

Other good things in the volume include sections of an abortive sequel to "The weeping" called "The rites of spring", a section of which tells of an amusing brush with Frank Harris, a former acquaintance and later biographer of Oscar Wilde.

One of the passions that stirred the young Maclaren-Ross was the cinema, "a circumstance that was to change the whole course of my later life - and not always, by any means, for the better", he later wrote. The ruefulness was occasioned by being ripped off by various unscrupulous film producers, but he continued to enjoy the cinema, even though Anthony Powell always regarded Maclaren-Ross's launching into another impersonation of Sydney Greenstreet's performance in The Maltese Falcon as a sure sign that the evening had come to an end.

Nonetheless, Maclaren-Ross contributed some memorable film criticism to various magazines from 1945 onwards, all of which is collected in Bitten by the Tarantula . Film noir found particular favour as reflecting the "darkness of our times" and offering "a picture of greed and disintegration which might well be the world of modern diplomacy in microcosm".

Maclaren-Ross had seen enough of authority in the Army and elsewhere to know he was against it.

As well as being ahead of the game on film noir, he took a serious interest in early Alfred Hitchcock, before the appearance of the 1950s films that are now so lauded. He relished the outlandish and outrageous - the weird James Whale film The Old Dark House , for example - but conscientiously drew attention to merit in well-achieved genre movies of a softer nature, such as Brief Encounter .

The title novella, "Bitten by the tarantula", accords better with Maclaren-Ross's own modest assessment than the high praise some have showered on it, but it is never dull and nor is anything in either of these volumes. A batch of short stories cast in his typically breezy and vernacular style, owing something to Hammett, Hemingway and Kipling but recognisably his own voice, is still immensely readable today. A series of book reviews and longer essays of literary criticism are also impressive.

Perhaps surprisingly, Maclaren-Ross was a careful and extremely thorough reviewer who always filed his immaculate long-hand manuscripts on time, whatever his body's chemical balance. His enjoyment of unrespectable genres such as thrillers and science fiction was heartfelt and unashamed, as magisterial essays on Georges Simenon, Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho ) and M. P. Shiel confirm. His judgments were scrupulously fair, always striving to see the best in a piece of writing.

Regrettably, though, it was often hard to see the best in Maclaren-Ross himself. Self-absorbed and egotistical, he was no doubt the primary author of his misfortunes. But for too long his personality has impeded appreciation of his work. Now, at last, his star is in the ascendant. Long may it shine.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer specialising in film and music.

Collected Memoirs

Author - Julian Maclaren-Ross
Publisher - Black Spring Press
Pages - 442
Price - £8.95
ISBN - 0 948238 30 5

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