From garrulous, gangrenous Jeffrey Bernard to stovepipe-hatted Sebastian Horsley, Soho’s decadents and dandies have proven an entertaining if somewhat trying tribe. Many were far less interesting than their own egos would have them believe, as you’ll know if you ever visited Soho’s notorious Colony Room, a bear pit of strawberry-nosed drunks bellowing witlessly at one another.
Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-1964) fitted the classic profile of a Soho flaneur. A Scottish-Cuban Anglo-Indian, educated in the South of France and the Bournemouth suburbs, he contributed to various literary magazines but never took one path for long, skiving and diving from one set of debts to the next, robbing Peter to pay Paul (sometimes literally), forever in need of a few bob, hastily following his suitcase out of windows, and generally behaving like an utter cad.
But unlike many of his counterparts, Maclaren-Ross was the real deal. The story of his career is one of a spiralling descent, and his biographer Paul Willets described him as “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent”. In Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time he’s lightly fictionalised as a novelist. Careless, feckless, cripplingly impractical, he squandered his grand ability, the talent to write.
Through the Forties, Fifties and Sixties he remained one of the most colourful inhabitants of Soho and Fitzrovia (he could usually be found propping up the bar at the Fitzroy Tavern), and his memoirs are a scurrilous joy. He knew and wrote about Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, Dylan Thomas, Nina Hamnett, Woodrow Wyatt and others, peppering his encounters with ever more fraught financial ploys involving delayed postal orders and post-dated cheques.
Always the dandy, with his waved hair, elegant overcoat, and silver-topped Malacca cane, and an effortlessly riveting raconteur, his shambolic life of short-leash rootlessness tacked around the fringes of the literary establishment, involving permanent insolvency and occasional bouts of homelessness. He was also a dab-hand at the short story, and his Nice-set novella, Bitten By The Tarantula, has the uncomfortable honesty of an eavesdrop on the smart set that reveals their disappointing shabbiness. His comic timing and crisp dialogue owes so little to his own bibulous background that he must have become a different person when he sat down to write. His curse was to be born slightly out of time, too late for the Waugh set, too early for the Angry Young Men, but his biography is back and his books are starting to reappear.