Thursday, 21 October 2010

Fear & Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willets

Describing itself as The Bizarre Life of Writer, Actor, Soho Dandy Julian MacLaren-Ross this extensive biography sheds light on one of the 40s most promising writers. Fêted by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh among others, MacLaren-Ross is not so well known now, perhaps because he fell from favour later in life, his talent compromised by booze and debt.


Born in South Norwood, his family moved to the French Riviera when he was young and it was there, supported by a generous monthly allowance, that he became something of a dandy in his early twenties. Back in Blighty, the money dried up and he found himself living on the charity of friends and working as a vacuum cleaner salesman. Throughout all this, he nursed a burning desire to write.

His first real successes came during the Second World War (a shortage of materials meant that short stories were never more popular). It was at this point that he started to make his way to Soho when on leave, gravitating towards the Fitzroy Tavern:

The pre-eminent meeting place in that area, sometimes called North Soho, was the Fitzroy Tavern on the corner of Windmill and Charlotte Streets... It consisted of the relatively smart, L-shaped Saloon Bar, and the smaller Public Bar, the bare boards of which were strewn with saw dust... their atmosphere of raucous fraternity enhanced by music from an electric pianola and by an array of potent drinks like the peppery concoction sold as ‘Jerusalem Brandy’...

After a disastrous stint in the army, he found himself discharged in 1943 and reappeared back in London. Dressed to the nines in a trademark ‘teddy bear’ overcoat, dark glasses and a malacca cane, he once more made his way towards the familiar boozy territory west of the Tottenham Court Road.

Proudly attired in his latest get-up, his coat habitually draped round his shoulders in the style of a smooth but sinister Hollywood hoodlum, he passed the long summer evenings reacquainting himself with the riotous wartime Soho pub scene. Sometimes he went to the huge, high ceilinged Swiss Tavern on Old Compton Street, its subdued lighting lending it a murky intimacy. Normally abbreviated to ‘the Swiss’, it had a raffish ambience that made it popular with painters and writers... who didn’t mind the tarnished walls and the barman’s dirt-soiled white mess-jacket. Unable to afford pricey bottles of black-market booze, he had to rely on the normal quota of, at most, two pints of beer each night.

Supported by occasional publications and at one point full time employment working alongside Dylan Thomas (they drank together in a members bar stocked with Irish whiskey, its availability a perk of Ireland’s neutrality) MacLaren Ross slowly began his descent into the boozy caricature he was to end up:

Conscious of the Fitzroy’s associations, Julian preferred the Wheatsheaf. In the run-up to 6.00pm, he’d be waiting outside the front door. When opening-time at last arrived, he’d breeze through the Public Bar and into the Saloon Bar, always making a beeline for the extreme lefthand end of the counter, where it was easiest to get served... Finding himself in the company of devoted drinkers, nursing their precious pints, he began to increase his alcohol intake. Most of the time he drank acidic, suspiciously watery Scotch Ale, served by an ill-assorted trio of bar-staff... Apart from the way his normally unobtrusive eyelids lowered as the hours drifted by, Julian was capable of consuming any available alcohol with no tangible effect. He was so inordinately proud of this, he often used to boast about it. Slowly but steadily soaking up the booze, he’d cling tenaciously to his spot at the bar until closing-time approached. Or until the supply of beer ran out: a common occurrence on particularly busy nights in wartime pubs, where chalked signs declaring NO DRINK would spring up.

He continued writing at a tremendous rate between opening hours, staying up through the small hours with the assistance of green bombs of speed. In many respects though, his magnum opus was himself; Julian the raconteur, the ultimate writer and artist:

Bang on opening-time, Julian would make ‘his entrance, pushing the doors open with his malacca cane with the pinchbeck top. He entered, head held on high like a king, King Julian.’

After the war his writing became less sought after and he died broke in 1964. He was, as his biographer puts it, a mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent.

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