Vital Signs

Julian Maclaren-Ross

Probably the first thing that ought to be said about the quintessentially flamboyant, hard-drinking, and doomed British author Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64) is that he could really write.  Anyone familiar with the genre will know that there’s a long if not always proud tradition of debauched-looking men in black capes loitering around London pubs, a cigarette holder clenched between carious teeth, haranguing their audience about their latest work in progress, and not infrequently settling any critical dispute on the subject with their fists.  Maclaren-Ross did all this and more, holding court most nights in some Soho dive on a steady diet of wine, gin, and Benzedrine before precariously making his way back, often on foot, to his current, and inevitably short-term, suburban lodgings.  For a quarter of a century, his world was one of smoky rooms, unpaid bills, and spectacularly failed love affairs.  In every way, he was the embodiment of 1950’s literary Bohemianism.  Compared with him, his contemporary and sometime friend Dylan Thomas was just another mildly beery, garrulous Welshman drooped over a bar.

But Maclaren-Ross, unlike so many others of Soho’s artistic demimonde, actually delivered the goods.  He wrote at a furious pace, often in a race to stay one step ahead of the bailiff, and in a breezily vernacular style of narrative exactly suited to...

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