Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157
“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 Strand Films.
If Thomas had his eccentricities, so too did Tambimuttu, poet and founder-editor of Poetry London. “Tambi,” a Ceylonese Christian, was, according to himself, a prince in his own country. Whether he meant Ceylon is not clear, for he once commented that a poet is a citizen of the world and that his principality is everywhere, “the Principality of the Mind.” Soho, too, might have been called his principality—a Fitzrovia, as he called it. A literary entrepreneur, he was always full of plans, not only for himself but also for those who kept him company in the pubs. Most of these plans, however, never materialized, and Tambi eventually gave up his reign as Prince of Poetry Pundits in Soho and migrated to New York’s Greenwich Village, where he found “fresh patrons, poetesses, and a new poetry review at his disposal.”
Another player is Peter Brooke. With his high cheekbones and yellow eyes, Brooke was one who seldom did anything by halves. A prodigious drinker, smoker, and womanizer, he tried his hand at songwriting, storywriting, and acting. Singing the Stein Song and drinking until all hours of the night, Brooke would spend the night at Maclaren-Ross’ apartment and awake the next day shouting, “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine. It’s past four in the afternoon and I could eat a horse. I could eat a fried cat.” And so would begin another evening in the pubs, where, according to Maclaren-Ross, “gallons of beer, large measures of spirit, were poured upon mountains of whatever food was available.” In the middle of it all was Brooke, bouncing around like a man trying to put out a fire.
Such a frenetic pace as that kept by Brooke was the norm, not the exception. Maclaren-Ross shifts, for example, to a number of painters whom he knew: John Minton, long and loose-jointed, who created exotic canvases and who once threw Maclaren-Ross bodily out of his apartment for allegedly interfering in his sex life; Gerald Wilde, known as the Mad Artist, whom Tambi supported and often kept locked up in a room so that he would work instead of drink; Robert Colquhoun and Robert Macbryde, fervent Scottish nationalists who moved through Soho followed by bevies of admiring young women.
With a cool detachment and a keen power of observation, Maclaren-Ross thus takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the pubs of Soho and introduces him to a gallery of bohemian characters of the 1940’s who were real enough in life but who in print seem more to be products of a highly stimulated imagination.
Almost refreshing in its departure in tone from the rest of the book is the portrait of Alun Lewis, who seems indeed out of place among the characters who have gone before. A humble and modest Welsh army officer with a “deep tenderness toward life,” he disdained the boozing and carousing that marked Soho and its inhabitants and would surely have been out of place there. The contrast that Maclaren-Ross draws between himself and Lewis is one of the more touching parts of Memoirs of the Forties. Where Lewis was humble and honest, Maclaren-Ross sees himself as arrogant and didactic; where Lewis felt sympathy and love, Maclaren-Ross sees himself feeling anger and contempt. Perhaps the latter is right when he says that in civilian life they would probably not have been friends. Yet that does not matter. Lewis was killed in action.
As for the six stories appended to the book, the first, “A Bit of a Smash in Madras,” is probably the best. The setting is India (where, interestingly enough, Maclaren-Ross never traveled), but it really is Soho transferred to another continent. Of the other stories, “Five-Finger Exercise” stands out as a short piece that touches on human emotion in an unemotional way. These stories serve as a coda to the rest of the book. The characters are fictional, but one is hard pressed to distinguish them from the real ones whom Maclaren-Ross presents in the book. Indeed, they could exchange places, and the reader might be none the wiser.