Literary London wins battle to raise memorial to the Dandy of Soho

By David Randall
Sunday 29 January 2006 01:00

A campaign to rescue one of the legends of literary London from the oblivion of an unmarked grave is about to bear fruit. If all goes well, the final resting place of Julian Maclaren-Ross - novelist, short story and script writer, boulevardier, drinker, debtor and Soho barfly in the mould of Jeffrey Barnard - will soon bear a headstone.

Thus he will be memorialised more than 40 years after he swilled a brandy to celebrate a new commission, had a heart attack and died aged 52.

The campaign, headed by The Independent agony aunt Virginia Ironside, has had to battle indifference and the arcana of grave-plot law, but has now won through.

A fund-raising event will be held next month, and, through City and Guilds, a student has been found who will design the headstone. In a delicious happenstance, it is Tom Waugh, grandson of Evelyn, who once said that Maclaren-Ross's writing showed "accomplishment of a rare kind".

The efforts to mark his grave in a cemetery in Mill Hill, London, chime with the recent literary resurrection of a man who, until a few years ago, was known chiefly as a Soho dandy and for the Grub Street tangles with publishers and bailiffs that made him the model for X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Two collections of his stories and writings have been republished after many decades, a novel issued as a Penguin Modern Classic, Paul Willetts's biography Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia appeared, and his selected letters are to be published.

His Memoirs of the Forties is recognised as the definitive portrait of London's bohemia of that time, and his first editions can sell for thousands. Figures such as Michael Holroyd, Harold Pinter, Jonathan Meades, Lord Bragg and Lucien Freud are known Maclaren-Ross admirers.

Born in a suburb of Croydon, but raised and educated in France, Maclaren-Ross had tastes and aspirations unsuited to a family trust fund that would soon wither. He moved to Bognor where, from a succession of addresses, he wrote and was rejected. He was driven to work as a gardener (spectators would gather to watch him mowing lawns in his natty suitings, cigarette holder in hand), as a vacuum cleaner salesman (the basis for his novel Of Love and Hunger), at a fairground (fired for leaving the canaries' cage open), and then to Bognor Labour Exchange, where he became the claimants' hero by knocking on the closed gates and crying, in a plummy voice: "Open in the name of the People."

He was called up in 1940, but a gammy knee meant that this intelligent, bilingual man spent his time as a clerk. His frustrations grew, until, in 1943, via arrest for desertion and a spell in an army psychiatric hospital, he was discharged. His stories had now begun to be accepted, he wrote film scripts with Dylan Thomas, and became a fixture in the pubs and clubs of Fitzrovia and Soho.

His books were well received (John Betjeman hailed him as "a genius"), but sales never took off and cheques arrived all too intermittently. Living in a series of hotels and lodgings, and taking whatever work provided the speediest fees, he often ran the gauntlet of creditors, landladies and publishers to whom he had promised manuscripts. One even locked him in an upstairs room of a pub, with a large gin the incentive for every completed chapter. By the late 1950s, nights spent sleeping in Euston station or the Turkish baths in Russell Square were not unknown. When he died, in 1964, barely any of his 11 books were still in print.

That has now changed, but the lack of a headstone on his grave rankled with the likes of Virginia Ironside. She is not alone. Biographer Michael Holroyd told The Independent on Sunday that Maclaren-Ross is now gaining "the beginning of a literary immortality".

The fund-raiser, with readings from his works, will be held at the Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place, London W1 at 7.30pm on 9 February


On meeting Dylan Thomas:

"In the office assigned to us Dylan and I stood uneasy and shame-faced, like two strange children sent off to play alone by a benevolent adult, in the belief that because they are contemporaries they're bound to get on well."

On his Belgian nanny:

"She also had a moustache which prickled unpleasantly when she kissed me; this did not happen often, luckily, as all demonstrations of affection were kept for public exhibition only: in private our relations were on a strictly practical plane."

On his first meeting with J Meary Tambimuttu, founder and editor of Poetry London, at the Swiss public house, Soho, circa 1943:

"'Only beware of Fitzrovia,' Tambi said... 'It's a dangerous place, you must be careful.' 'Fights with knives?' 'No, a worse danger. You might get Sohoitis, you know.' 'No, I don't. What is it?' 'If you get Sohoitis,' Tambi said very seriously, 'you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever.' 'Is this Fitzrovia?' 'No, Old Compton Street, Soho. You are safer here.'"

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