Today’s guest blog is by D J Taylor. A critic and reviewer his journalistic work can be found in the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, the Guardian, The Tablet, the Spectator, the New Statesman and, anonymously, in Private Eye. His recently published novel Secondhand Daylight is the sequel to his novel At the Chime of a City Clock and once again features James Ross. He talks to us about his reasons for writing about the thirties.
I have always been fascinated by that grim twenty-one year stretch between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, and especially by its downward curve – the 1930s. There are several reasons for this. One is straightforwardly personal. My father, born in 1921, was a teenager in the age of Ramsay Macdonald and Stanley Baldwin, and his accounts of what he got up to in a world where Friday night’s post choir-practice entertainment cost six old pence (piece of fish 2d, bag of chips 1d, bottle of lemonade 1d, five Park Drive cigarettes 2d) were a staple of my childhood. If this makes the living sound easy, then it should be pointed out that dad’s annual salary from the Norwich Union Insurance Co., since reinvented as Aviva, was a princely £45: 17s 6d a week, of which, once his mother had deducted his board and lodgings, he was allowed to keep half a crown.
The second is the inter-war era’s peculiar significance as a self-contained chunk of English history. It was a period whose political and economic arrangements uncannily prefigure our own: a time of coalition governments, fiscal meltdown, constant reminders that the things one wanted, or in fact already possessed, would at some point have to be paid for. It was also an age of profound collective anxiety amounting to neurosis: one whose initial sense of exaltation (‘Apres la guerre’ promised a popular song of the day, ‘there’ll be a good time everywhere’) was always tempered by a memory of the horrors of 1914-18, and was eventually extinguished altogether by an awareness that they might soon be repeated on an even grander scale. Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Vile Bodies, a faithful record of the extravagances of the late 1920s Mayfair set, was published as early on in the proceedings as 1930, but it ends apocalyptically on ‘the biggest battlefield in the history of the world.’ However marvellous the party, death and dereliction lay just around the corner.
The third reason is the fact that the 1930s – the first surge of post-war enthusiasm all gone, the economy cracking up, millions of unemployed and the industrial north turned into a wasteland – also produced some of my very favourite novels: George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936); two thirds of Patrick Hamilton’s London trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (The Siege of Pleasure, 1932, and The Plains of Cement, 1934); the incredibly hard-boiled and noir-ish thrillers of James Curtis – see in particular The Gilt Kid (1937); and J.B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement (1930), in which the mysterious Mr Golspie descent on the moribund City firm of Twigg & Dersingham, fleeces it for all it is worth, and by the time the 500th page is in sight has the whole concern carted off to the bankruptcy court, leaving a trail of human misery in his wake.
All these books have at least something to do with the James Ross mysteries – the first set (mostly) in Bayswater in 1931 and the second in Soho in 1933 – but their real inspiration is a writer whose creative primetime belongs to the decade that followed. Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-1964) – you can see from his name how literal that inspiration was – is probably best remembered as the original of the novelist ‘X. Trapnel’ (author of Camel Ride to the Tomb, and the lost masterpiece, Profiles in String, its manuscript thrown in the Regent’s Park Canal by a vengeful mistress) in Anthony Powell’s 12-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. In his not very extensive heyday he was a talent to be reckoned with, admired by Evelyn Waugh, and the author of at least one novel – 1947’s Of Love and Hunger – worthy to be rated as a modern classic. It is a flagrantly autobiographical work, based on the author’s experience of peddling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Bognor Regis, and with the action transferred to London and the hero’s occupation changed to selling carpet-cleaning lotion, the model for ‘James Ross’s first outing, At the Chime of a City Clock.
With a few minor exceptions from the fag-end of his career, Maclaren-Ross never wrote anything that could be classified as a mystery novel. On the other hand, he specialises in the kind of character – largely based on himself – for whom a mystery novel offers a fertile background: the clever, decently educated but improvident and anxiety-bound chancer, permanently hard-up, hopeless about money and not overly scrupulous as to how he comes by it. Maclaren-Ross himself was the Soho bar-fly to end all Soho bar-fly’s (Paul Willetts’ remorseless 2003 biography, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, offers full particulars) who, having spent the day boozing and holding forth in a variety of West One pubs and clubs, would head back to his bedsitter or cheap hotel room for an all-night amphetamine-driven writing session. Taking someone like this and setting him adrift in a landscape colonised by jewel thieves (At the Chime of a City Clock) or Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts (Secondhand Daylight) seemed to me a good way both of exploring the period and developing a kind of fictional hero with whom I’ve always been intrigued: the ground-down but ever hopeful opportunist, one step ahead of the bailiff but sustained by the conviction that tomorrow will bring a proper job, a new suit, unlimited cigarettes and access to the girl of his dreams.
Girls – especially girls who are calculated not to do him any good – are James Ross’s weakness, and this, too, seems to me to be in keeping with the period through which he roams. The original Ross’s novels are awash with furtive love-affairs conducted in boarding house bedrooms in the aspidistra’s melancholy shade with the landlady straining at the keyhole, plein air frolics because there is ‘nowhere else to go.’ ‘Back then I was an optimist’ notes the narrator of ‘I’m Not Asking You to Buy’, one of Maclaren-Ross’s rueful vacuum cleaner stories, who has just been given the run-around by a wily old lady customer. For all his serial rebuffs by the ladies, his constant blackmailing’s at the hands of corrupt policemen and his habit of falling hook, line and sinker into situations that are way beyond his ability to control, James Ross is an optimist too.
More information about DJ Taylor can be found on his website