Selected Letters, by Julian Maclaren-Ross, edited by Paul Willetts

Belated cheers for a low life devoted to high art

Reviewed,Virginia Ironside
Friday 11 July 2008 00:00
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Julian Maclaren-Ross epitomises the traditional idea of a writer. Permanently out of funds, permanently hungry, living out of a suitcase and rushing from hotel to bed-sitter to girlfriend's flat to station waiting room, spending the days in bars and the nights on amphetamines, writing till the dawn – this was pretty much his life. And it is really to his credit that even though these letters consist mainly of pleas for money, or attention, they can still make such utterly compelling reading.

First in this splendid collection are a pitiful series of letters to his friends, desperately asking them to help him get out of the army in the 1940s. Once out, with a brilliant novel under his belt – Of Love and Hunger – and having briefly earned a living, along with Dylan Thomas, writing government propaganda films, he swiftly found himself on his uppers. To Anthony Powell he wrote that "things are absolutely desperate with us: we've been living for the last few days selling books, pawning clothes, and only getting a limited number of shillings in the process of these activities. Now my laundry has been impounded because I couldn't raise the requisite number of shillings, and the hotel bill itself impends".

When he's not begging, he's raging at his publishers, who clearly dread receiving envelopes from Ross. "I have called you several times on the phone – passed by but you were not in". "If you would ring me up in reply I should be obliged, as an extra day means a lot to me whereas two minutes cannot mean so much to you."

An editor at Hamish Hamitlon wrote in answer to an enquiry about him: "The last time he called on us he demanded his taxi-fare home before he would leave and when a guileless editor called a cab and gave him a few shilling to cover the fare, Ross threw the money in his face, ran off and never came to see us again. A great pity, as he wrote brilliantly".

He was a pub bore and wasted a lot of good writing time on furious or desperate letters, but all the time he was producing short stories for Horizon, fragments of autobiography, and film and book reviews. But despite Evelyn Waugh giving him a rave review for the Royal Literary Society, to which he applied for funds, he never got on his feet financially, and it's only recently that his talent has been properly recognised. Typically, he died drinking a bottle of whisky, celebrating the arrival of a royalty cheque.

V irginia Ironside's 'No! I don't want to join a bookclub' is published by Penguin

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