In search of McLaren-Ross and modern dross…

21 Oct

I hadn’t seen my writing buddy, Dave for a couple of years and so we arranged to meet up in central London. Dave had read an article in The Guardian about a guided tour of pubs with literary associations, in and around Fitzrovia.  The idea appealed to me.  Some years before, I’d seen Paul Willets talk about his biography of Julian McClaren-Ross, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia.  I’d never previously heard of McLaren-Ross, but Willets made a convincing case for him as a dandy and as a man of enormous artistic talent who’d wasted his time instead holding court in the Wheatsheaf pub through the ’40s and ’50s.  He sounded a Dylan Thomas-type figure, minus the clutch of brilliant poems and stories.  I was intrigued…  And so, on a dark and wet Saturday evening, we set off in search of the ghosts of literary London.

On leaving Tottenham Court Road underground station, the Wheatsheaf was the first pub that we came to from the list.  It was pretty much deserted.  The few customers scattered around the place didn’t look like great writers-in-waiting, but what does such a character look like, in any case?  The X-Factor was showing on the television.  For all that, I could still imagine McLaren-Ross holding forth from one of the maroon-velour covered bar-stools and the beer was very good.  We didn’t stick around for long, though…

The Wheatsheaf – distinctly lacking in louche boho types

The Rising Sun didn’t appear to have any literary connections at all but it did sell beer and very good fish and chips.  And in any case, what a fantastic building…

The Rising Sun – no literary connections but excellent fish and chips

Next port of call was the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street.  It was a busy Samuel Smith’s pub, which are always well run establishments, in my experience.  It had a ‘writers’ bar’ in the basement with a few photos of literary coves, but again no sign of the genuine article among our fellow drinkers.  While Dave was seeing a man about a dog, a couple of gentlemen of a certain age walked in, both with scarves arranged a vaguely Bohemian sort of manner, one of whom was clutching an A4 writing pad, open with something written on it.  They may well have been accountants or conveyancing solicitors, of course.  It was as close as we’d come to a sighting, though.  And there was something about his coiffed hair and gold-rimmed reading glasses that suggested he might just be working on an era-defining trilogy or the first great English satirical novella of the century.  Well, you can but hope…

The Fitzroy Tavern – was the man with the A4 writing pad a budding literary genius?

Next we sought out the Newman Arms on Rathbone Street.  Here was the alehouse upon which George Orwell was supposed to have based the pub that Winston Smith visits in the Prole district in his great dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell’s second  greatest work, after the near-perfect novella, Animal Farm – see 21 Great Novellas).  It was closed – whether permanently or not, it wasn’t possible to say, but this was a Saturday night).  Ho hum…  We peered through the windows.  It looked atmospheric.  We walked through the coaching arch and into an alleyway that led to a back street that Dave pointed out was distinctly Orwellian.

The Newman Arms – Proles: Strictly No Admittance?

On to the Duke of York, then, also to be found on Rathbone Street.  According to the guide, this was one of the places that inspired Anthony Burgess in writing A Clockwork Orange (see 21 Great Novellas again) as a result of the extreme violence that he’d witnessed there.  The clientele was highly civilised, without an East End villain or juvenile delinquent type in sight.  Nor, disappointingly, was there any sign in the street outside of late horror actor, Basil Rathbone (wraith-bones – that name has to be a Hollywood invention, surely?).  And then the potential great writer came in out of the rain, still brandishing the A4 pad and having ditched his companion, who was clearly the lesser of the two talents, then.  I eavesdropped in vain for a clue as to the masterwork upon which he was working.  It seems he was probably a cost accountant, after all… 

The Duke of York – but where’s Alex?

All of the places that we visited were fine examples of city pubs with dark interiors composed of flock wallpaper and oak panelling, even if they gave little sense, a few old photos aside, of ever having been literary.  And I got to catch up with an old friend and to hear about the first draft of the four-part novel he’d completed during a year in Munich with his wife-to-be.  It sounds like the sort of dystopian work Orwell might have written had he found himself alive in our age.  I’m looking forward to reading the finished article…

All images extracted from Google Maps ©


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