Friday, January 6, 2012

Blinking in the daylight

For a forthcoming project, I'm currently immersing myself in pre and post-war London. Specifically the period around 1950, when a time of great austerity, of rationing and sacrifice gave way to renewed hope and optimism; and people started to look anew at a bomb scarred landscape, overgrown with weeds, boarded up and neglected, and dreamed of rebuilding it.

2012 promises to be a gloomy year. Reading these accounts of Londoners emerging from the drab, spartan, monochrome world of the late 1940s into the 1950s, a time of surging prosperity and optimism gives us some hope. After the war Britain was bankrupt. So much so that it was reduced to selling off its best coal and offering its citizens fuel of such low quality to heat their homes that the air in the capital became poisonous and rank, leading to the great fogs of 1948 and 1952 in particular, where people died in their thousands. Yet by 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who, as Minister for Housing and Public Health, presided over the 1952 fog and only took action to placate public anger) was telling people that they'd never had it so good. Can there be a similar recovery? Perhaps. The only difference is back then Britain was recovering from a just and victorious war; whereas now we're recovering, or trying to recover, from the effects of naked greed and a discredited economic system which remains in place.

Patrick Hamilton
There are two great writers, for me, who chronicle pre and post war London. The first is Patrick Hamilton. I just reread Hangover Square and had forgotten how brilliant it was. It evokes a world of pubs, misty rain-soaked streets, shattered dreams and a city teetering on the edge of war so memorably that you can almost smell the booze and heartache. Hamilton was as dissolute as his central characters, an unhappy man who earned a great deal from his writing and blew almost all of it on drink. It shows. Both in the disintegration of his talent towards the end of his life, but also in the wonderful way he evokes London's pub life at the height of his powers. No one has chronicled London's pub life as well as he did.
Julian MacLaren-Ross

Apart from Julian MacLaren-Ross. He was poured from a similar bottle to Hamilton, in literary terms rather than personality, other than a fatal weakness for drink. MacLaren-Ross was a bohemian, a saloon bar dandy who haunted the bars of Fitzrovia. If that sounds romantic, forget it. MacLaren-Ross's life story detonates any myths that the freelance writing life is at all glamourous. It never was and never will be. In penury, in the early 1960s, with a wife, child and numerous debts to support despite his acclaimed novels and memoirs, MacLaren Ross churned out endless scripts and short stories to keep him and his family off the streets. It is Knut Hamsun's Hunger made flesh. The result was a swathe of great books and stories, and a host of drink-sodden bad ones. His biography, written by Paul Willetts, is car-crash reading, particularly so for we writers. Had Hamilton or MacLaren-Ross been forced to deal with modern publishing, dwindling advances, the rise of ebooks, neither of them would have seen 40.

But from the wreckage of those years, and those lives, some timeless fiction emerged. I wonder, given the austere gloom that is settling over most of the western world, what future generations will have to look forward to? Maybe the chroniclers are out there, mumbling into their glasses, darkly.


Dan - Friday


  1. You did me the great service of introducing me to J.R. Moehringer's "The Tender Bar." Now I'll check out Hamilton and MacLaren-Ross. I thank you for putting me on to this liver-friendly form of pub crawl.

  2. Thanks for these 'new' to me authors - I'm hoping the new book will go
    'underground' in some way...just saying :) Cara