Original Raconteurs: Julian Maclaren-Ross

Photo assemblage of a portrait of Julian Maclaren-Ross

Editor Alan Ross begins his Introduction to Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Forties with his claim that the book is the “front-line account of Bohemian wartime Soho by its longest-serving combatant.” Maclaren-Ross, a skilled raconteur held resident court at the Wheatsheaf Pub in “Fitzrovia,” an area popular with artistic types decked out in full dandy regalia, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, which included a carnation in his buttonhole, extravagantly tailored suits, a teddy bear coat, and a silver topped cane. His signature flourish was the long cigarette holder he used to consume exotic tobacco. (He is said to have smoked up to fifty cigarettes a day.) His apparent flamboyance, however, belied the clarity and concision of his economic prose, delivered in a style not unlike his Modernist contemporary and one-time literary hero, Hemingway, although with much less gravity, and a great deal more irreverence and sly humor.

Maclaren-Ross’ short stories about his experience as a soldier during WWII and the blatant absurdities of military life gave him his first taste of success and he later went on to write novels, radio plays, literary satires, critical essays, and noir fiction. He was also an excellent translator having been educated, for the most part, in the south of France. However, Maclaren-Ross’s love of women and alcohol, his inability or refusal to conform to convention meant that he spent much of his life firmly entrenched at the poverty line. As his biographer Paull Willetts puts it, he was the "mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent."

In Memoirs of the Forties, unfinished at the time of his death, the author recounts in vivid detail his experiences in London during that decade and his personal dealings with other major-players of the era – Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, the painters John Minton, Robert Colquhoun, Robert Macbryde, and others.

Certain anecdotes stand out for the way in which they shed light on famous or inscrutable personalities, such as Maclaren-Ross’ description of the time the grand mage, Aleicester Crowley, borrowed a copy of one of his short story collections, The Nine Men and returned the work with copious notes scribbled furiously in the margins. Maclaren-Ross describes them as “rather petulant old-world comments, such as: ‘Yes, yes, all very well, but why doesn’t he tell us what the girl’s background is?! Who are her people?!!’ and so on.” Crowley goes on to tell their mutual friend, who lent him the book, “Well next time you see him, tell him to be more precise about his characters’ origins. He seems to ignore all the traditional social values that make up the fabric of our civilization.’” Maclaren-Ross’ response was, “since I’d always understood that Crowley’s mission as Worst Man in the World was to tear this fabric down, [his comments] amused me quite a lot. But then maybe all diabolists are conservative at heart, or where would be the fun?”

Memoirs of the Forties and other of Julian Maclaren-Ross’ works can be found on Amazon.com.

Text by Anna Wittel