‘Of Love and Hunger’ by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Penguin Classics edition, published 2002

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 204pp; 2002.

It’s always great to kick off a new reading year with a brilliant book, and Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger couldn’t be a more perfect start to 2019.

First published in 1947, it’s set in a seedy seaside town on the English coast (most probably Bognor Regis), shortly before the beginning of the Second World War.

It tells the tale of Richard Fanshawe, a 27-year-old door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, who’s struggling to keep his head above water and lives in fear of getting the sack. 

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock.

Unable to make the required number of weekly sales, he’s behind in his boarding house rent, and his bill at the local store, where he buys his cigarettes on “the tick”, is inching towards the £4 mark, which is a small fortune. 

He keeps kidding himself that his wealthy Uncle George might save the day by sending him a cheque in the post, but his landlady has already cottoned on to this and watches him collect his mail every day, hoping she can snare the “gift” before it’s spent elsewhere.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.
‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.
‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’
‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ 

New Penguin Modern Classics edition, published 2018


Meanwhile his personal life is slightly brighter, full of visits to pubs and cafes, drinking beers and coffee, playing pool — and occasionally winning a few quid for his efforts. Then, when his colleague joins the Navy and asks him to look after his wife, Sukie, what he imagines to be a chore turns out to be a pleasant surprise: Sukie is a lot of fun and great company. He later falls in love. But what will he do when the husband returns?

Voice of the age

Of Love and Hunger is narrated in Fanshawe’s engaging but cynical voice. He’s a troubled character living a hand-to-mouth existence, but you get the impression it hasn’t always been this way. In a previous life he lived in Madras, India, where he worked as a newspaper reporter, and now he fancies himself as a bit of a writer — if only he could find the will to put pen to paper.

His personal torment is revealed in bad memories, which are italicised in the text, reminding him not to get ahead of himself. He seems to be ever conscious of not cocking things up again, for he has been unlucky in love before and realises he’s made one or two bad decisions:

Yes. I’d lost Angela all right. Perhaps if I’d married her when I was home on leave that time, when she’d wanted me to, everything would have been different. I certainly wouldn’t have lost my job.

With the threat of war looming, there’s a dark, brooding atmosphere to the story, a kind of hopelessness about the future, and it’s hard not to foresee the writing on the wall for poor Fanshawe and his cohorts.

There’s not much of a plot, but the characterisation and the often humorous anecdotes he relays more than makes up for this. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in Fanshawe’s company and if this is any indication of the quality of Maclaren-Ross’s usual output, I’ll be seeing what else I can discover by this most impressive writer.

For another take on this novel, please see Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal.

This year I am going to try to read 40 books from my TBR (books purchased before 31 December 2018). This is the first of #TBR40.

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21 thoughts on “‘Of Love and Hunger’ by Julian Maclaren-Ross

  1. I’m really delighted to see that you enjoyed this so much, Kim – and thanks for the link to my piece, much appreciated. Those quotes you’ve chosen bring the story flooding right back, hopeless sales calls and all! I’ve been meaning to read something else by him for years, ideally Bitten by the Tarantula which includes short, journalism and literary criticism.

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    • I think we share a similar love of boarding house novels, Jacqui… I do love reading about this era in history but not sure I would want to live in it. Yes, I’d quite like to read Bitten by the Tarantula… I note that not all of his work remains in print, which is a shame.

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    • Thanks, Claire, I figured that I needed a “project” to direct my reading a little as last year I simply read on a whim and it was a bit of a mediocre year in terms of books. But the books I did like were old ones from my TBR… I’d obviously bought those books for a reason so I need to trust my instincts more, read the books I’ve purchased in the past and forget about the shiny and new.

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  2. It’s a great novel, isn’t it? Somehow I found it vaguely reminiscent of Orwell, but it’s so wonderful written and really catches the atmosphere of the era and a generation with nowhere really to go. Love that more modern cover – my version is the older one.

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    • Yes, it’s very reminiscent of Orwell… I read somewhere that it’s in a similar vein to Keep the Apidistra Flying which I’ve not read but is in my TBR. He’s also been compared to Patrick Hamilton, another author I’ve not read but whose novels I own and hope to get to this year.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I absolutely would pass over the 2002 cover. The newer one looks much more appealing.

    Good luck with your TBR40 plans! I wondered if you were coming up with a project for the year after you posted on Instagram about sorting through all your Irish lit.

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    • Well, for some reason I did buy that cover … normally I’m pretty choosy about what a book looks like so it must have been the blurb that convinced me.

      I only made up that project when I was about to press the publish button on this review but I’m hoping it will help me to read all the hundreds of books I have on my shelves instead of seeking new ones.

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  4. I wonder what happened to landladies and boarding houses. I lived in rooming houses in the late 60s – not a landlady in sight. It would have been a sad way to live as an ageing single of either gender. Still, it sounds like Fanshawe had some fun with his mate’s wife.

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    • I lived in a rooming house for two weeks when I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane (in 1994) and it was an interesting experience. It was run by a landlord, not a landlady, and he totally creeped me out: I used to move the furniture against the door when I went to bed just to be on the safe side!

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      • I checked out some very dingy boarding houses in the 1960s when I first left home but abandoned them in favour of a short stay at the Y in Richmond and then a share house.
        Looking back on it, I guess that opening up your house to boarders was a risk on both sides, and that it was one way for impoverished women to have an income in the days before welfare benefits.

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  5. Pingback: Blogbummel Dezember/Januar 2019 – buchpost

  6. The new cover is very good, but I rather like the old cover (which is the one I have). The book I loved so much I was originally going to use its title as the title of my blog, but it was taken.

    Anyway, you capture it well. I was delighted to be reminded of it by your review. It’s something of a favourite for me.

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    • I can understand why it might be a favourite… it’s such a great read and so evocative of a certain time and place. It reminded me a little of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

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  7. This sounds great – there’s something about a seedy seaside setting that is weirdly enticing! I’ll definitely look out for this.

    I’m trying not to let the TBR spiral now my book-buying ban is over, and your idea of a TBR 40 is a really good one, I might aim for something similar. I hope the remaining 39 are as good as this one for you Kim!

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    • Seedy seaside towns always make great settings for stories! And I’m very partial to novels set just before the war… there’s something about the darkness of that era that appeals to me.

      Good luck with your TBR challenge. I’m hoping mine might encourage me to work my way through my digital TBR as much as my physical one, but so far I’ve already bought a handful of books so goodness knows how I’m ever going to whittle down any TBR!

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