Tuesday 10 November 2015

On Julian Maclaren-Ross

Last week - Tuesday November 3rd to be precise - marked the anniversary of the death, in 1964, of the wonderful writer Julian Maclaren-Ross.

So this is a belated blog, prompted by the great Soho chronicler's passing, just over half a century ago. He died broke and it was only a few years ago that, thanks to the heroic efforts of the  journalist Virginia Ironside and members of the Sohemian Society, a gravestone was belatedly commissioned and put in place. I was present at the ceremony and delivered the following heartfelt doggerel, as whiskey was poured over the elegant headstone and cigarettes left, for what use is an afterlife without booze and baccy?

Maclaren Ross is the subject of one of the very best literary biographies you'll ever read:  Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts.

The poem was, and is, dedicated to Julian's son Alex.

Lines to Mark the Unveiling of a Headstone

For Alex Maclaren-Ross

Dear Julian Maclaren-Ross,
     You wouldn’t give a tinker’s toss
     For all this fuss. This is for us – the living.
We’re here to perpetrate an act of giving.

It’s true our congregation’s small in number -
     Not sure what quorum constitutes a wake.
     We’ve interrupted your eternal slumber
To celebrate a dandy and a rake,

Who loved the rough sodality of pubs,
     Cocoon’d by fugs of gossip, banter, quips,
     Spoofing the hours away in coppers, tanners, bobs;
And pints of  bitter, scotch and filter tips.

You have a headstone now. It’s kindly meant -
     Confirming you as WRITER AND BOHEMIAN,
     And elected unopposed as president
Of a club that we - don’t snigger! - call Sohemian.

We’ve gathered here today for this unveiling -
     Your unmarked grave now marked for all to see.
      I’m pleased to say the atmosphere prevailing
Is one of simple camaraderie.

Alex is here, your son - a grown man; 
     (There wasn’t time for you to get acquainted);
     He knows you now as well as a son can,
Aware you’re never likely to be sainted.

We love your tales of squaddies, spivs and chancers;
     Of clots and colonels, pukka sahibs, drunks;
     Of chaps in digs, of salesmen, tarts and dancers,
How some are decent types and others skunks.

Your style, M-R, is simple, tough and supple -
     You buttonhole your reader with each word;
     You’re free of bullshit, clich√©, cant and waffle,  
And have a master’s sense of the absurd.

Are you surprised you’re more read now than ever?
     That most of what you wrote is back in print? 
     Your critics and your public think you’re clever,
(Of Love and Hunger must have made a mint).

You have an active afterlife as Trapnel,
     It can’t be long before you get a plaque
     Or some such reputation-forging shrapnel.
It’s fair to say at last you’ve made your mark.

But where are they, those other Forties spirits?
     Where’s Sister Anne and Tambi, Nina, Ruthven?
     Well thanks to your biographer Paul Willetts
They’re here, and still by fear and loathing driven,

As though they’ve just nipped out to bounce a cheque,
     To lunch with Rotha, hoping for a break;
     At work to salvage something from time’s wreck -
A paragraph that isn’t glib or fake.

Their fading Wheatsheaf shades prop up the bar,
     A pissed-up mist of spite and spleen and ink;
     They’ve settled in, they won’t be going far;
A miasma of pills and fags and drink.

But let me at this point bring in and honour
     A quondam Chelsea Bird with whim of iron
     Who got Tom Waugh to carve your name upon a 
Granite block (with words that suit Lord Byron).

You’d really like Virginia, I think:
      A writer too – commanding large advances.
      She’d match you yarn for yarn and drink for drink
And show you how to cope at beat club dances.

Now let’s agree, before we get the rounds in -
     What‘s great about your stuff? Why does it last?
     What is it that your writing most abounds in?
What keeps it fresh, unfettered by the past?

Good questions all, but I don’t have a clue.
     Can’t do lit. crit., and think it would be mad to.
     But here’s a wonky insight, partly true:
You wrote the way you did because you had to.

Hounded by creditors, landlords and editors
     Clobbered by taxes and exes and sex, 
          Fizzing with benzedrine, twitchy with dexies 
               Years of bad eating and mountainous debts.

You fabulous, bibulous arch self-inventor -
     With cane and dark glasses and camel-hair coat.
          Seductive, productive, intransigent mentor
               To thinkers and drinkers and this pisspoor poet.

Enough! It's nearly time for us to go.
     So from us all and all your readers too,
     It's “Toodle pip old man” and “Cheerio”,
We're off to raise a glass or three to you,
Dear Julian Maclaren-Ross,
     Who wouldn’t give a tinker’s toss

     For all this fuss. Please join us – the living.

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