The Salesman Only Rings Once

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I was 19 when I developed an enduring fascination with the long-dead Bohemian writer Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912–64). Perhaps best-known as the model for the ill-fated X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Maclaren-Ross was a celebrated figure in the dimly-lit watering-holes of Soho and its northern annexe, Fitzrovia. There he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Aleister Crowley. Typically dressed in a flamboyant costume combining fin-de-siècle foppishness with gangster chic, he’d hold forth to his fellow-drinkers, often delivering interminable monologues that were really short-stories-in-the-making. Despite his notorious self-absorption, he possessed enviable powers of observation, which enabled him to immortalize the sleazy allure of that now far-off world in his writing. And it was his writing that first aroused my interest.

Mooching around a second-hand bookshop one afternoon, I came across a 1940s anthology containing a short story by him. Probably because of its odd title, ‘Welsh Rabbit of Soap’, I read the opening paragraphs. These had a vivacity and a conversational immediacy that I’d never encountered in English fiction from that period, so I bought the anthology and finished reading the story.

Over the next few years, I hunted for his books as well as for the miscellanies and magazines that featured his work. Though his entertaining, much-quoted Memoirs of the Forties soon reappeared in paperback, the rest of his surprisingly extensive output was hard to obtain. Due to their scarcity, his books commanded prices way beyond what I could afford. When I mentioned this to a flatmate who had access to a well-stocked reference library, my friend offered to smuggle out the ones I wanted. The first was the novel Of Love and Hunger, handed over to me at a furtive rendezvous. Before returning it a fortnight later, I photocopied the entire book. Confronted by a stack of smudgily duplicated pages, I felt like a Soviet dissident poring over a samizdat volume.

The book’s contents exceeded even my high expectations. In sharp, demotic prose and ter

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About the contributor

Paul Willetts is the author of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: The Bizarre Life of Julian Maclaren-Ross. Inspired by Of Love and Hunger, he spent six months working as a door-to-door salesman, a job for which he had even less talent than Maclaren-Ross. He is now a freelance writer, his work appearing in a variety of publications, including The Times and the Independent.

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