Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Of Love And Hunger (Julian MacLaren-Ross)

I got out my dem book to look up the old girl’s name.

     Always address the prospect by name:  it pays.  Makes ‘em feel at home, see?  The personal touch.

     This one was called Miss Tuke, 49, The Crescent.  Small house, two storeys, villa-type; small dark drawing-room full of knick-knacks, thick old-fashioned hangings full of dust.  No maid, no cleaner, woman in once a week.  A cert, if I played it right.

     Miss Tuke didn’t seem a bad old girl either.  Bit jumpy:  kept looking up at the ceiling as if expecting it might fall on her any moment.  Couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw what I got out of her carpet.

     ‘But I don’t understand. I had the carpet cleaned.  Two days ago.  I had a woman in.’

   ‘This dirt didn’t accumulate in two days, Miss Tuke,’ I told her.  ‘It’s been in your carpet for years.  The ordinary methods of cleaning won’t remove it.’

    ‘Then what can I do?’

     ‘There’s only one thing ,’ I said, pointing to the cleaner.  Miss Tuke looked at it and swallowed.  I wanted to let the idea sink in.  It was too soon to start on her yet, but I felt in my pocket to make sure I’d an order-form ready when the time came.  It was there all right.

     Miss Tuke said: ‘And how much did you say the price . . .’

            ‘A pound down,  a pound a month.’

     ‘Oh, I wouldn’t dream.  I don’t hold with hire-purchase.’

    ‘It’s much the best way, Miss Tuke.  We never advise buying one of these machines outright.  Think of the advantages you become eligible for under our instalment-system.  Free service every six months.  A thorough overhaul of your cleaner twice-yearly free of charge.  After all, you wouldn’t pay your maid a year’s wages in advance, would you?’ 

    ‘Of course not.’

           ‘Well we look on this cleaning system as a mechanical maid.  More efficient, naturally, as this dirt goes to show.'

     Always bring ‘em back to the dirt.  I switched on again and pushed the cleaner to-and-fro across the carpet.  I was a No. 1 model, the biggest sort and the one that costs the most money.  Kicks up a terrific row, but you get round that by saying you can only silence the machine at the price of efficiency.


     Several years ago or more (or more, I think), my friend Gerry Howard introduced me to Julian MacLaren-Ross’s writing.  Gerry had acquired Memoirs of the Forties (I don’t recall why) and liked the book for reasons that would quickly become apparent to any first-time reader.  Gerry’s enthusiasms (any of them) and recommendations (ditto) mean a lot to me, so I bought and read the book. 

     I think Gerry fell in shallow; I fell in deep, but at the right time because the Julian MacLaren-Ross revival -- a series of republications through Black Spring Press, Paul Willets’ remarkable biography Fear  And Loathing In Fitzrovia, internet chatter and other enthusiasms (including the attention paid by many dedicated readers to Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music Of Time; MacLaren-Ross was the model for the novelist character, X. Trapnel) was afoot and picking up steam.

     I’ve previously posted other examples of this author’s work -- short story and memoir excerpts, as well as a haunting snippet from his autobiographical novel, The Weeping and the Laughter, concerning a World War I zeppelin raid on Ramsgate, MacLaren-Ross's childhood home before his family decamped for a life on the Côte d’Azur, an event that turned out to be a mixed blessing in terms of the author's personal and professional future.  The passage above, taken from the first chapter of Of Love And Hunger, his great novel, is new here.  Set in cusp-of-World War II Brighton, the book is based on MacLaren-Ross’s experiences selling vacuums door-to-door.  As he told Graham Greene, it was Depression-era labor, the best he could find after losing, through no fault of his own, his private, family income, fortune, i.e.,  he wasn’t just collecting material to write about in a novel.  

     Of Love And Hunger is a fully-accomplished, deeply moving work of art, the  summation and apotheosis of J M-R's great work of the 1940s, which included the publication of his best and most popular short stories.   All his subsequent writing (journalism, book and film reviews, radio plays, memoirs, astonishing literary parodies, other novels), whether superb or somewhat less so, never matched this novel’s perfect, sustained emotional pitch and style subsumed, immersed, in every single sentence and scene.

     Re-telling Julian MacLaren-Ross anecdotes (they are as outlandish and improbable as any stories about intense, esoteric literary or artistic eccentrics maintaining  24-hour schedules until inevitably checking out too early) all night is an entertaining thing to do to delight old friends and new companions.  One can still do so today, standing in J M-R's usual spot at the Wheatsheaf bar in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia.  What I find really difficult to fathom, however, is the degree to which my life has come to resemble aspects of Richard Fanshawe’s life in Of Love And Hunger.

1 comment:

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