(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“I have an impression of unventilated corridors staled by cigarette smoke, of muzzy eyes; but a sort of Bohemia, dead for a decade, got staggering to its legs in the pubs between north and south Soho, the BBC and the MOI.” So says V.S. Pritchett, speaking of the 1940’s London literary scene in New Statesman (September 24, 1965). Such is the setting for Maclaren-Ross’ Memoirs of the Forties. Or perhaps one should say the set, for the book is structured very much like a drama, or a series of scenarios in which the author brings to the stage a cast of characters who, each in his turn, play their roles. The author himself is the foil for most of them. As noted earlier, chronology is not significant. Characters appear in their own right and in their own time—and Maclaren-Ross, while a part of it, stands above it all. Thus, at the same time that he presents his characters, he can observe and comment on them. It is this strategy that enables him to give the reader insights into the realities of Grub Street and Soho and into the people who struggled there to build their careers and to find meaning in their lives as they circulated among such pubs as the Wheatsheaf, the Highlander, or the Horseshoe.

Not all of these characters lived their days waiting for the pubs to open or to close. Some, such as Connolly, editor of Horizon, made it possible for the fledgling writer to get his work into print. Connolly’s round face, sloping shoulders, and shaggy brow belied his intellectual and artistic attributes. In his midthirties when Maclaren-Ross met him, he had published Enemies of Promise, a book of landmark importance to the generation of the 1940’s. More important, he was an editor who understood the plight of such neophyte writers as Maclaren-Ross. Without editors such as Connolly, many self-styled, or real, creative geniuses would have languished in the endless acres of Soho pubs telling their stories to one another.

Juxtaposed to Connolly are such characters as Calder-Marshall, who always seemed to be “squinting against strong sunlight” and who tried to look the part of a workingman “without the features themselves being all that rough-hewn.” He was, however, a person who knew the lay of the land well enough and who could put Maclaren-Ross in touch with prospective employers. Indeed, through Calder-Marshall, Maclaren-Ross obtained a position at Strand Films, a producer of documentary films. At Strand he met Dylan Thomas. With a bulbous nose that shone like a highly polished doorknob, Thomas was reluctantly writing documentary scripts. Put off at first by Maclaren-Ross’ white corduroy jacket and fancy cane, Thomas urged him to try to look more sordid: “Sordidness, boy, that’s the thing.” The two, however, got along well and spent as much time in pubs as at...

(The entire section is 1157 words.)