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.’
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.