The Salesman Only Rings Once

I was nineteen when I first developed an enduring fascination with the life and work of the long-dead bohemian writer Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64). Perhaps best-known as the model for the ill-fated X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time, Maclaren-Ross was a celebrated figure in the dimly lit watering-holes of both Soho and its northern annexe, known as Fitzrovia. There he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Aleister Crowley. Typically dressed in a flamboyant costume combining fin-de-siècle foppishness with gangster chic, he’d hold forth to his fellow drinkers, more often than not delivering interminable monologues that were really short stories-in-the-making. Despite his notorious self-absorption, he possessed enviable powers of observation. These enabled him to immortalise the sleazy allure of that now far-off world in his writing. And it was his writing that first aroused my interest.

Mooching around a secondhand bookshop one afternoon, I came across a 1940s anthology containing a short story by him. Probably because of its odd title, Welsh Rabbit of Soap, I read the opening paragraphs. These had a Runyon-esque vivacity, a conversational immediacy I’d never encountered in English fiction from that period, so I bought the anthology and finished reading the story.

Over the next few years, I hunted for his books as well as the miscellanies and mass-circulation magazines that showcased his work. Though his entertaining, much-quoted Memoirs of the Forties soon reappeared in paperback, the rest of his surprisingly extensive output was hard to obtain. Due to their scarcity, his books commanded prices way beyond what I could afford. When I mentioned this to a former flatmate who had access to a well-stocked reference library, my friend offered to smuggle out the ones I wanted. The first of these was the 1947 novel Of Love and Hunger, handed over to me in a furtive rendezvous. I then photocopied the entire book before returning it. Confronted by a stack of smudgily duplicated pages, I felt like a Soviet dissident poring over a samizdat volume.

The book’s contents exceeded even my high expectations. In sharp, demotic prose and terse, plausible dialogue, its first-person narrator told the tragi-comic, mildly risqué story of an adulterous romance, set against the doom-laden run-up to the Second World War. Here was a book that deserved to be ranked alongside Hangover Square and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, yet few people had heard of it.

Excited by my latest find, I combed the literary histories and memoirs of the period in search of references to its author. From what I unearthed, I could tell he was one of those rare writers whose life, only the barest outline of which was then available, appeared just as fascinating as his work. Not that the two were always easy to distinguish.

Besides mining his life for raw material, in the process blurring the line between fiction and memoir, he devoted inordinate creative energy to projecting his distinctive persona. Taking his cue from Oscar Wilde, he approached life and art with the same self-mythologising zeal. Between his teens and early thirties, he underwent an improbable metamorphosis from shy, tongue-tied Jimmy Ross into the imposing, imperturbable Julian Maclaren-Ross. He also transformed himself from an aspiring writer into one of the most important new literary voices of the 1940s, admired by such luminaries as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I finally made the leap from collecting material about Maclaren-Ross to researching what would become Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, his authorised biography. I already knew that Of Love and Hunger — originally entitled The Salesman Only Rings Once in a jokey allusion to James M. Cain — had grown out of his experiences in Bognor Regis during the Depression. According to what I’d read, he and C.K. Jaeger, another struggling writer, to whom the novel was co-dedicated, had worked as door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesmen. I clearly needed to track down Jaeger, if he was still alive. Short of hiring a private detective, which would have been too costly, I couldn’t think of any better way of finding him than by ploughing through all the British phone-directories. My uncharacteristic patience was rewarded by the discovery of a listing for ‘Jaeger, C.K.’.

Within about six weeks, I was drinking tea with him in his pretty, knapped-flint cottage, tucked in the grounds of the private school where he’d ended up teaching. Instead of the austere character whom his telephone manner had conjured in my imagination, he turned out to be a dapper octogenarian with a welcoming smile and a whimsical sense of humour, his watery eyes regularly narrowing in amusement. Over two consecutive days, he described his long-standing friendship with Maclaren-Ross and their spell as hapless salesmen.

Midway through my second visit, he started rummaging round in his cluttered bureau. From there he extracted a small but crisp black and white snapshot of the pale-suited Maclaren-Ross, sitting next to him in the garden of the bungalow they’d shared in Bognor. I was struck by Maclaren-Ross’s boyish good looks, the air of pride in his chosen profession, and the residual shyness conveyed by his stiff pose. I’ve a copy of the photo beside my desk now. There’s something touching about it, about the way it preserves an Elysian pre-war moment before chaos enveloped his life.

Only twenty-four years after that sunlit day, Maclaren-Ross was buried in an unmarked grave, the victim of an extraordinarily turbulent existence, blighted by what Cyril Connolly dubbed ‘the enemies of promise’. In this case, they included imprisonment, homelessness, amphetamine addiction, alcoholism, litigation, poverty, near insanity, marital discord and, most bizarrely of all, a murderous obsession with George Orwell’s glamorous widow. Maclaren-Ross nevertheless produced an influential if uneven body of work which has attracted the admiration of Harold Pinter, Michael Holroyd, and D.J. Taylor among others. Of Love and Hunger’s republication under the Penguin Classics banner will, I’m sure, earn him many more devotees and prevent him from fading into the undeserved obscurity that once beckoned. 

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