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Julian Maclaren-Ross: Of Love and Hunger

This is generally accepted as MacLaren-Ross’ best novel and is, fortunately, still in print in Britain. It is based on his own situation, when he was living in London as a young man, selling vacuum cleaners. Richard Fanshawe, the MacLaren-Ross character, has, unlike his creator, spent five years in Madras as a journalist. We know that he was fired from that job but we do not learn why till late in the novel. He has tried his hand at writing fiction but has had little success and has given up. At the start of the novel, he is living in digs (where he is well behind on the rent), and working, unsuccessfully, as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He is paid two pounds a week, less insurance and commission, though earning commission is very difficult. The salesmen are meant to go around canvassing in the morning and set up appointments for demonstrations (known as dems) for the afternoon. Even though it meant that the people got their house cleaned for free, even getting dems was very difficult. Much of the early part of the novel is the salesmen discussing their sorry lot as well as the impending war hovering in the background. MacLaren-Ross does give us several very funny examples of dems and attempts at sales, none of which succeeds. Fanshawe is waiting for his rich Uncle George to send him a cheque, just as MacLaren-Ross was waiting for his rich grandfather to do the same. Neither was very forthcoming.

When a new man – Derek Roper – joins the team, it is clear that he is not going to make it. Roper introduces Fanshawe to his wife, Sukie, though Fanshawe does not take to her at first. However, Roper is fired and then gets a job as a steward on a cruise ship, which will mean he is away for three months. He asks Fanshawe to look after his wife. Inevitably, mixed in with the vacuum cleaner selling, a flirtation with a potential customers and his own firing, Fanshawe starts an affair with Sukie. The affair builds up gradually, not least because Sukie is both tempestuous and jealous. She twice physically attacks Fanshawe but, as he has fallen in love with her, he forgives her. Of course, the question arises as to whether she will leave Roper and marry Fanshawe (which is what he wants). Meanwhile, he has been fired and joins another vacuum cleaner company – called Sucko – where he has more success. However, he gets in with the team leader and they are both involved in various deceitful practices, which will come back to haunt Fanshawe. He has also started writing about his experiences in Madras.

Of course, Roper comes back, the Sucko job gets messy, his various creditors want their money and even with some help from Uncle George and some lucky wins on the slot machine, things are looking bad for Fanshawe. Fortunately, the war is just around the corner. It is a very funny book. In his introduction to the Penguin text, D J Taylor compares this novel to Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air and they are certainly valid comparisons. However, I felt that it was more akin to Lucky Jim in style and in the character of the hero, even though the subject is completely different. Fanshawe and Lucky Jim are those type of people who struggle, have a sense of humour but also live lives of quiet desperation, who are not averse to bending both the law and the moral code to suit their own needs and, at least in literature, they somehow seem to come out all right. This is not a great work but it is witty and clearly gives a fascinating portrait of England just before World War II.

Publishing history

First published 1947 by Allan Wingate