Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759
Reminiscent of such colorful personalities as Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, Julian Maclaren-Ross, with his teddy-bear fur coat, malacca cane, white corduroy jacket, dark glasses, and lapel carnation, fit well into the bohemian atmosphere of the London literary scene of the 1940’s. More important than the image he may have cut, however, is the fact that he was both a participant in and an observer of that scene, and, although he never fancied himself an official historian, his Memoirs of the Forties may be read as a kind of chronicle of Grub Street during that decade.
In the note at the beginning of Memoirs of the Forties Maclaren-Ross admits that he is not a professional literary man but rather a professional writer, and that anyone seeking scandal or inside accounts of literary politics would do well to seek them elsewhere. His stated goal is to portray as accurately as he can the various writers, publishers, editors, artists, and other personages with whom he came into contact during the 1940’s. More than that, however, he emphasizes that he has tried to elude the trap open to writers of memoirs of falsifying incidents in order to make them more interesting to the reader. To achieve his goal, he presents what first strikes the reader as a random collection of conversations, incidents, and stories. Indeed, Maclaren-Ross readily confesses that he has a weakness regarding dates. Thus, in an exact chronological sense, neither he nor the reader can be sure when a particular conversation or incident took place. Emphasizing his photographic memory for details of such conversations and incidents, however, he assures the reader that they surely did occur as he narrates them and that they are, moreover, accurate. The reader, then, must not be overly concerned by the absence of an orderly chronology of events, situations, or conversations, but rather must take them all as they come and let the overall impressions develop as they may.
The book is divided into four sections—“Prologue,” “The Forties,” “Second Lieutenant Lewis,” and “Some Stories.” The prologue consists of three chapters that focus on Maclaren-Ross’ struggles as a young writer seeking a publisher for his stories—a writer with, as he puts it, no useful connections to smooth the way. Sometimes selling vacuum cleaners, sometimes going on the dole, he makes his rounds among publishers on Grub Street until the British Broadcasting Corporation gives him the assignment of adapting Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (1936) for radio. Although he does receive fifteen pounds for his efforts, the impending war and general bureaucratic delays bring the project to naught.
The second section of the book, “The Forties,” consists of eight chapters, the first of which concerns Maclaren-Ross’ meeting with Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon, and the latter’s acceptance of the young writer’s story “A Bit of a Smash in Madras” for publication. The second deals with some of Maclaren-Ross’ army experiences and his meeting with Woodrow Wyatt, a young socialist barrister, who with his wife edited English Story and who agreed to publish some of his stories. The remaining chapters of this section are a series of portraits of notable people of the decade, including William Cooper Makins, Arthur Calder-Marshall, Dylan Thomas, J. Meary Tambimuttu, Peter Brooke, John Minton, Gerald Wilde, Robert Colquhoun, Robert Macbryde, Feliks Topolski, and Pablo Picasso.
The section titled “Second Lieutenant Lewis” is a chapter in itself—“A Memoir.” It describes the meeting in the army in 1942 between the author and Alun Lewis. The last section, “Some Stories,” consists of six stories: “Y List,” the story of a soldier who suffers pneumonia and pleurisy; “I Had to Go Sick,” the story of another soldier who becomes enmeshed in army red tape as he tries to get treatment for a bad leg; “A Bit of a Smash in Madras,” the story of an Englishman in India, who hits a native while driving intoxicated and pulls what strings he can to extricate himself from the charges; “Five-Finger Exercise,” the story of a thirty-six-year-old man seducing a sixteen-year-old girl; “Happy As the Day Is Long,” the story of a happy-go-lucky Irishman who tries to bolster the spirits of a down-and-almost-out artist; and “The Swag, the Spy, and the Soldier,” the story of a group of people living a bohemian existence and an unemployed former amusement-park worker who involves them in a case of theft.
Originally, Maclaren-Ross intended two more sections for his book—one titled “Ham” and the second “The Epilogue.” Because of his untimely death in 1964, these were never completed.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39
Davenport, John. “Ghosts and Gargoyles,” in The Spectator. October 1, 1965, p. 414.
Pritchett, V.S. “Those Were the Days,” in New Statesman. LXX (September 24, 1965), pp. 446-448.
The Times Literary Supplement. Review. October 21, 1965, p. 937.
Toynbee, Phillip. Review in The Observer. September 12, 1965, p. 26.