On Trying to Write
by Victoria Madden
I’m currently reading Julian Maclaren-Ross: Selected Short Stories introduced by Paul Willetts. It’s a first edition from 2004 that was given me by a friend in the days when I spent most weekends in London; and although I dipped into it briefly, its appeal was more book-as-pleasurable-artefact: good quality paper, a clear font and layout, and a rough pencil-sketch illustration of a pub interior on the cover that all seemed to say London Review of Books bookshop (which is probably where he got it from.)
A casualty of my move back here, its once pristine white pages are now randomly spotted with little dots of damp, and it was while flicking through them in resigned irritation, some days ago, that a few sentences caught my eye and I went back and read the Introduction. It opens:
Julian Maclaren-Ross was the quintessential Soho bohemian. Flamboyantly dressed, feckless, egotistical, pill-popping, alcoholic and more often than not hard up, he possessed an intriguing combination of saturnine good looks and unflappable movie star panache. During the 1940s and 1950s … he was one of that area’s most celebrated personalities.
This explains the book’s appeal to my friend who was strongly enamoured of the idea of a convivial drinking scene in which people swopped anecdotes of an extra-ordinary life. He was always on the look out for a good story that would alchemise the dross of day to day life – which, I suppose, is the essence of any good writer.
It reminds me, too, of the Preface to the Persephone A House in the Country in which Jocelyn Playfair is mentioned as being a familiar figure in the London of the Fifties (I’ve always thought that the first sentence of the Preface, in itself, sounded like the opening to a story that I’d really like to read) :
Throughout the 1950s a woman in her middle years could be seen riding her out-sized yellow bicycle through the streets of South Kensington … She was striking, with her cropped hair and trousers … A well-known, somewhat eccentric figure in the London of her day, her name is virtually unknown today.
There’s that sense of a London-as-village scene, in which you’re quite likely to meet people you know and eccentricity is not only accepted but welcomed.
The Willetts Introduction goes on:
A chronicler of the bohemian scene which he’d observed with such acuity … like all the most talented writers, he habitually portrayed a distinctive world with which he is now synonymous. He also possessed an equally distinctive literary voice.
(Aye, there’s the rub. The distinctive literary voice is hard enough, let alone finding a distinctive world to portray. Both Wodehouse and Maclaren-Ross simply used their own milieu, but there is a richness of possibilities in Broadway, Mayfair and Fitzrovia that most of us, stuck in small town suburbia, are going to find difficult to mine. It’s true there are other approaches: Heyer adopted a historical period, Pratchett invented a world.)
Maclaren-Ross was, apparently, ‘a leading writer of the 1940s’ though little known now outside certain circles. His short stories glance into a down-at-heel, slightly tawdry, world described in an abrupt, laconic style and his habit of ending each story with a ‘punchline’ that didn’t always work, or even fit with the rest of the story, became an irritating mannerism as I read on. I wasn’t really that interested in most of the stories, but I thought the army ones worked the best, particularly where the narrator was more detached at its incompetent bureaucracy, a puppet of fate in a world of bloody idiots; his working-class narrators seemed slightly too contrived. I liked The Tape, though, a story of two army privates, one of whom becomes an officer and Invasion as Planned, the story of an army exercise. The Swag, The Spy and the Soldier seemed at first like an outline for a novel, that he’d decided to publish as it stood because he was short of money, but I quickly became drawn into the story and interested in its outcome, and felt left hanging when it suddenly ended.
Reading these stories is reminding me that the short story format, where you drop fleetingly into a world or a moment in time, is an excellent writing exercise and I’m thinking of turning to it in an attempt to break through whatever my current deadlock is. I’m really struggling with the book reviews, having abandoned and begun again several forays in vain. I simply cannot find a way in to say what I want to say and what I do produce is stiff and dull.
Perhaps finding the Maclaren-Ross is a nudge in the direction of what I ought to be doing: having yet another go at the attempt to write fiction. Creative writing exercises should help with the struggle to find out what it is I’m trying to say, that’s been highlighted by these abortive book reviews. (And, no, this post doesn’t count!) It seems as though it’s time to start writing again.
More on this tomorrow.