Aidan Smith: '˜Book of Forgotten Authors' is story of what might have been

Unsung Scottish writers are being deservedly rescued from obscurity in a new publication says Aidan Smith

Julian Maclaren-Ross fitted the classic profile of the brandy-breathed Soho flaneur. He was described as the mediocre caretaker of his own modest talent. Picture: Getty
Julian Maclaren-Ross fitted the classic profile of the brandy-breathed Soho flaneur. He was described as the mediocre caretaker of his own modest talent. Picture: Getty

I always thought an author starved in his garret. Scraped the green mould off the last slice of pan loaf and toasted it in front of the one-bar electric fire, this being operated by a meter fooled into taking a florin glued to fine fishing line for for reusing later. And the social historians among you will spot that it was the 1960s when I first had this thought.

It turns out, though, that in the original phrase dating from the 18th century he initially lived in the garret. What then seems to have happened is that some bohemian types got themselves draughty eyries and luxuriated in the romance of artistic hardship. The real writer, the real sufferer, had to distance himself from these decadent dilettantes: he wasn’t living, he was actually going hungry.

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And now? Maybe the author trudges past Waterstones, soles flapping, and casts a fierce eye at so much floor-space given over to greetings cards, a gloopy cafe and other nonsense and - assuming of course that he’s been published - curses: “There’s where my book sales have gone!” Then does he trudge back to the garret, turning up his collar against a howling wind, an uncaring readership and an agent who never answers his calls? “Just wait until I’m dead,” he might mutter. “See if you don’t remember me then.”

The first thing I did when I got hold of The Book of Forgotten Authors was to search for my favourite neglected wordsmith, Paisley-born Gordon Williams, but he’s not there. So what does this make the author of terrific rites-of-passage tales, football yarns, the greatest-ever novel about newspaper hackdom (The Upper Pleasure Garden) and the book that became Straw Dogs? Even more neglected, even more obscure, even more special? I’ll say.

Maybe the omission was down to Williams still being alive when Christopher Fowler was compiling this fine compendium, only for him to pass away a few weeks ago. The 99 featured writers all seem to well and truly have their best scribbling days behind them - they’re dead. Timing was a problem for many. They were working in the wrong era, they missed the wave, or they caught it only to tumble headfirst into the vortex. “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” is a phrase often used about Scottish footballing cock-ups. It was coined by Hugh McIlvanney who, incidentally, Williams might have replaced as chief sportswriter on The Scotsman. But the phrase is also useful when discussing Scotland’s great, lost, occasionally eccentric, sometimes wilfully perverse men of letters.

They’re all men in Fowler’s collection although Edinburgh-born Roger Longrigg adopted the nom de plume Rosalind Erskine for The Passion Flower Hotel, a 1962 succes de scandale about privately-educated girls who open a brothel in their gymnasium for the nearby boys’ school. I discovered Longrigg in a second-hand bookshop - a novel set in an advertising agency. Optimistically, I wondered if the book could have turned into Mad Men, but when I tracked down his widow Jane, she confirmed that Hollywood was indeed interested and laid on a plane for him, only for this horseracing fanatic to announce: “I’m terribly sorry but I’m off to Newmarket.”

She also told me a funny/semi-tragic story about The Passion Flower Hotel. Rosalind Erskine, 15-year-old nymphet, couldn’t possibly be real - so who wrote the book? Literary circles were agog. “But then Roger went to a cocktail party and drank too many martinis,” Jane explained. “He told a fellow guest he was the author, and this man told the William Hickey gossip column in the Daily Express. “It was so stupid. Roger swore the fellow to secrecy but the headline the next day was ‘Balding adman is Rosalind Erskine’. I’m afraid that caused sales to drop off quite dramatically.”

Well, he’s made it into in The Book of Forgotten Authors, along with fellow Scots R.M. Ballantyne, John McGlashan and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Their entries drip with poignancy and what-might-have-been. Although successful, Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, about schoolboys marooned in the South Pacific, would inspire Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings. Never having set foot on a tropical island he got details wrong, insisting that coconuts were soft.

Maclaren-Ross, meanwhile, fitted what Fowler calls “the classic profile of the brandy-breathed Soho flaneur”. His silver-topped malacca cane made a familiar clack during the 1950s and 1960s but he was described by his biographer as “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent”. Williams might have been brandy-breathed when I met him in Soho in 2012 but by then had quit drinking. Like Longrigg, he had many aliases and almost-but-not-quite moments. The inaugural Booker Prize in 1969 was in the bag, so he thought, and his wife treated herself to a £5000 kitchen, only for the award to go elsewhere.

It gave me no pleasure to see extracts from my profile turn up in his obituaries - I’d much rather be reading the book he’d just started, with a ghostwriter as the hero. Scots made good novelists, he reckoned. “Obsessiveness, megalomania, suicidal guilt, paranoia, cowardice when sober, loudmouth hostility in drink, a fetish for minutiae and a belief that conversation is a series of interruptions” were all part of our skill-set.

Williams should make the second volume of this roll-call of the unsung and unremembered, although Waterstones ditching the coffee-machines and stocking more books would be a better outcome.