Julian MacLaren-Ross

Julian Maclaren-Ross (7 July 1912 – 3 November 1964) was a British novelist.

Background

He was born James Mclaren Ross in South Norwood, London, in 1912. His father, John Lambden Ross, was of mixed Scottish and Cuban blood, and his mother, from an Anglo-Indian family, was described as 'a magnificent Indian lady and the obvious source of his male beauty'. Maclaren-Ross was largely educated in the South of France, though his memoir The Weeping and the Laughter (1953) principally concerns his boyhood in the Southbourne district of Bournemouth.[1] In 1943 he was discharged from the army, having been found at home with a female acquaintance while AWOL.

Maclaren-Ross was a frequent contributor to literary journals, such as The London Magazine and Horizon. He was known to be a sympathiser of the Labour Party, and though he never dealt with explicitly political themes in his stories, the backdrop of inter- and post-war social strife was always intimated. Maclaren-Ross was fictionalised as novelist X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and as Prince Yakimov in Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and was the subject of a 2003 biography Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts. John Betjeman described him as 'one of our very best writers'.

His reputation as a dandy in post-war London Bohemia to some extent exceeds the actual stature of his recognised works. His turbulent life and pivotal role in the Fitzrovian milieu has ensured continued interest in his work. Debt, alcoholism and a love of debauched living all featured heavily in his life. His biographer referred to him as the 'mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent'.

In its review of the posthumously published Memoirs of the Forties, The Times on September 23, 1965, opined that MacLaren-Ross's army stories and Of Love and Hunger were 'small classics' but said that his writing had gone downhill in the Fifties. However, the paper considered his memoirs a return to form, saying, 'He wrote with economy and a formal elegance that marvellously suited his detached attitude to whatever in his surroundings seemed odd, ridiculous or wild; down it all went in curt graphic dialogue and deadpan description. There is nothing else that so conveys the atmosphere of bohemian and fringe-literary London under the impact of war and its immediate hangover. The book is comic, nostalgic and at times even moving, all without the least sense of strain.'[2]

In his Times obituary on November 6, 1964, the paper said MacLaren-Ross 'was a dedicated and highly professional writer who never quite found the right vein for his talents.' It added that his short stories:

'took him into the wartime literary world, where he became a conspicuous figure in Soho and Fitzrovia, blossoming out after his demobilization as a tall, slightly theatrical-looking gentleman with a silver-knobbed stick. This appearance, and the formal manners that went with it, were somewhat misleading. His stories of Soho, though aimed at a less important target than their predecessors, were still ironic, often tightly compressed and usually very funny. At the same time he was starting to work as a script-writer in films, a subject which always passionately interested him. Then he turned his attention further back: first to his unhappy prewar period as a salesman, which became the subject of his one really serious novel Of Love and Hunger (1947) then to his childhood as son of a none too prosperous Scottish father, dividing his retirement between France and a melancholy-refined English seaside. The Weeping and the Laughter, the first volume of this autobiography, appeared in 1953 and only took him up to the age of 11; unfortunately it was never followed by others, and from then on he was driven to do a great deal too much occasional work to fulfil his very real potentialities. Unfortunately for him perhaps, he was an admirable contributor of occasional articles and parodies to Punch and a valued reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, The Sunday Times, and, more recently, The London Magazine. He also did occasional film work and at least two thriller-serials for the Light Programme of the B.B.C. But in spite of his interest in, and encyclopaedic knowledge of, the thriller form in both novel and film his own incursions into the medium were never really successful, either in the artistic or in the commercial sense. His reviews made more demands on him; at least they showed his very wide literary knowledge and interests, which included much that was relentlessly highbrow in both French and English. It was only quite lately that his publisher managed to induce him to embark on Memoirs of the Forties, of which an admirably promising instalment appeared in The London Magazine for November. It was about half finished at the time of his death. For his best and profoundest book was Of Love and Hunger, which was recently republished as a paperback. It is a short, tragic work somewhat in the vein of Patrick Hamilton, but deserves to live in its own right. The army stories were collected in The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944): they are minor historic documents as well as very funny stories. Apart from the autobiography none of his seven other books comes up to this level, but anything he wrote has a certain distinction. His manuscripts were unforgettable, tiny neat writing with a slight slope and the odd baroque decoration, written perhaps in the Mandrake Club or in a pub. Ironic, self-controlled, slightly stilted, yet giving nothing away, they were very like the man himself.'[3]

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