Book Review

Bitten by the Tarantula by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Bitten by the Tarantula by Julian Maclaren-Ross

All hail the poet of old Soho. It seems Julian Maclaren-Ross has finally arrived - and it surprises me that it’s taken quite this long. This arrival is long overdue. Gone are the heady, bohemian days of London’s vibrant Soho in which he was permanent fixture, all that remains is his voice, a lone voice that reports to us, in minute detail, that era. This is his enduring strength, and it is quite a task this ability to pass on to us the varying argots he captured, the idioms, the patois, the relentless pitter-patter of conversations in backrooms of smoky pubs and clubs. It’s not that surprising, then, his voice rings true amongst today’s media savvy, slip-stream cynicism. Today’s clipped idiolect would sit quite pretty alongside the multitudinous characters that frequented his fictions. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s voice rings true.

Julian Maclaren-Ross was the original Soho Dandy of course, with his ubiquitous attire he was hard to miss in The Wheatsheaf (his favourite Soho boozer), just imagine him, bathed in a blue/grey plume of smoke: aviator shades, camel-hair coat, cigarette holder and cane; add to this concoction a studied, deadpan, scathing persona, rattling off dry anecdote after dry anecdote to all within earshot. Mix into this a demented thirst for London’s more seedy nightlife - especially the pubs, clubs and late night drinking dens of post-war Soho - and we are confronted with quite a character indeed.

Bitten by the Tarantula (Black Spring Press) is, put simply, a wonderful collection. It succeeds in every conceivable way an omnibus of this calibre should: offering the reader an array of every aspect of his life’s oeuvre, including his Novella Bitten by the Tarantula: A Story of the South of France, an extensive selection of his sought after short fiction, his important essays on literature and the cinema (which are published in their entirety), a smattering of his “unfinished” fictions and his numerous literary parodies (written in a rather tempestuous tenure at Punch - the highlight of these being his excellent parody of one of Patrick Hamilton‘s later characters: “Gorse”, a writer he greatly admired). All of this makes for interesting reading.

Stand outs in this collection have to be the short stories. Here we have a clear example of his writing style; a style which was way ahead of its generation. We are presented with a feeling of his time; the bohemians, the ruffians, the louts and lags; the drunks, the Blackshirts, the criminals, the multitude of faces that populated Soho in its wild heyday. It’s not that surprising really that most of these tales centre around the pubs, clubs and late night drinking dens he himself frequented to an alarming extent. It is writing that makes you want to have experienced it yourself.

But back to that prose-style, most of his short fiction starts with an off-hand, rather chatty and familiar first line:

“This bloke, old Brownie, was determined to get off the draft.” (The High Jump, pg 169).

Or the laidback:

“This cheque for ten quid was all I had. That and two pence. Never mind why; we writers are always hard up, as you know.” (The Rubber Cheque, pg 145).

You can’t really forget:

“We were in the ‘Sussex’ one evening when two fascists came in, one of them tall and thin and tough looking; the other smaller, with only one arm and an empty sleeve pinned up to his shoulder.” (Action 1938, pg 104).

I could go on; his stories are littered with vernacular like this. He once wrote (in a review entitled: A Totem of the 1920s):

“Popular fiction is a kind of folk myth, obliquely symptomatic of current trends” (pg 344).

I feel Julian Maclaren-Ross was writing against this declaration, his was a work of stark realism its only symptom being itself infused with his own direct, rather honest, cynicism. It is this very cynicism which lifts his work away from the humdrum not, as it were, creating “a king of folk myth” but anchoring his work within the bellyache of an epoch, the very spirit of his age - a spirit, one may add that firmly embeds itself within our own psyche. All great writers do this - they manage not only to demonstrate the varying idiosyncrasies of their own age, but somehow transform each into universal truisms; a human characterisation rather than an individual one. In other words: it has taken a long time for us to catch Julian Maclaren-Ross up. And so be it.

His own criticism, for example, is particularly of interest, as Paul Willets informs the reader in his provocative introduction:

“His essays on film and literature were similarly innovative, yet their originality is less conspicuous. Despite penning only a limited amount of film criticism, all of it reproduced here, he broke new ground in that genre. As a literary essayist, the enthusiasm, knowledge and seriousness with which he treated both high art and the easily dismissed products of popular culture anticipated the approach taken by so many subsequent critics” (pg ix).

I would tend to agree with this bold paragraph. Clearly, Julian Maclaren-Ross’s writing distinguishes itself from his peers - his colloquial, unpretentious writing is a breath of fresh air even by today’s standards.

So it seems, as I previously announced. Julian Maclaren-Ross has arrived and he should be read widely. Crystal-clear, chatty prose like this is easily accessible - but, as always in very good writing, there is gravity, a constant weightiness, a certain mood, an unhinged uniqueness: a writer documenting and observing rather than shambling along after one literary trend after another. It is this literary insouciance that serves as his craft, Julian Maclaren-Ross was/and is ahead.

Black Spring Press have done those readers who haven’t yet read this great, until recently over-looked, British writer a favour in publishing this omnibus - I suggest they return the favour immediately and purchase this book from their nearest bookshop.

-- Reviewed by Lee Rourke on 05/11/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0948238321
ISBN-13: 9780948238321
Publisher: Black Spring Press Ltd
Publication Date: 06/10/2005
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 528

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