Julian Maclaren-Ross is another writer who’s been on the radar for a while – and for the life of me, I can’t remember from where! It could be from my reading of Anthony Powell last year, as the character X. Trapnel is apparently based on him. Or it could be because he’s often mentioned in connection with Patrick Hamilton who’s lurking on Mount TBR. Or maybe it was because my favourite character in “The Fortunes of War”, Yakimov, is also apparently based on him. It could be because his name is often linked with Patrick Hamilton. Whatever – I picked it up and flung myself into it recently and I’m very glad I did!

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“Of Love and Hunger” is set in the late 1930s and tells the story of Richard Fanshawe, trying to scrape a living selling vacuum cleaners in a small seaside town in the vicinity of Brighton. It’s not an easy life – nobody wants to part with money, there are rival firms and the world is in an unstable state of mind, tottering ever closer to war. And this is not a career Fanshawe would have chosen – he’s and educated man, having spent time posted abroad and intending once to be a writer. The group of salesmen is joined by a newcomer, Roper, and his arrival signals a change in Fanshawe’s life. For Roper fails almost straight away and is sacked, going off to sign on for a term of 3 months on ship. Before he leaves, he asks Fanshawe to look after his wife, Sukie – which is so obviously a mistake and is going to set off alarm bells in every reader’s head! Needless to say, Fanshawe and Sukie eventually start an affair – against the backdrop of the rainy seafront, greasy spoon cafes, seedy digs and Woolworth’s’. It’s obvious that, as my offspring would say, “end well this will not”!

For Fanshawe is a troubled man. As the book progresses, we gradually learn more of his past: his life in the east, his past love-life and home life, and how he’s ended up in the situation he’s in. Sukie is also a complex woman, seemingly unsure of what she wants, mercurial, changeable. As D.J. Taylor puts it so well in his excellent introduction, Sukie could pass as Pamela Widmerpool’s “temperamental younger sister” and she’s a hard woman to fathom. In many ways more sophisticated than Fanshawe, she’s also more politically experienced and engaged, and provides much of the novel’s commentary on the situation they find themselves in. As the affair, and the novel, grind ever closer to the end, the signs of war become stronger and seems ironically that the only ‘escape’ for many of the characters from poverty and attempting to scrape a living will be to join the fighting.

“But in a way it was true what Gibbs said. There were a lot of young men in the world like me. You see ’em in the vacuum-cleaner schools, selling secondhand cars, Great Portland Street, silk stockings from door to door. Young man, public school education, can drive car, go anywhere, do anything. Living on hope. Something’ll turn up. Luck’s bound to change. And nothing’d turn up except the war. Perhaps Sukie was right and the system was wrong. Perhaps we did need a revolution. Needed something, anyway.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect of JMR, but this was *such* an excellent read! Maclaren-Ross has a very individual style – sometimes his sentences are short, almost staccato, and this has quite an impressionistic effect, painting a word picture very effectively. He captures quite brilliantly the atmosphere of the seedy seaside town, the boarding houses, the rain and the gloom, the everyday desperation of the characters. The gradual revealing of Fanshawe’s background, in his memory flashbacks throughout the book, cleverly builds up the man’s past till we find out what really made him like he is. Taylor, in his introduction, makes the comparisons that occurred to me – George Orwell and Graham Greene – and certainly there is the same ‘feel’ to OLAH as there is to the writing of those two greats. However, JMR can stand on his own as a strong and distinctive story-teller.

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Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book reviewed OLAH in excellent form here, and there was much discussion about a possible genre of “Men Writing in the 1940s. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that I want to read more JMR!

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