This 1942 novel by J. Maclaren-Ross draws extensively on the author’s experience as a vacuum-cleaner salesman before the war. It is the story of Fanshawe, a man living a precarious debt-ridden life, just about surviving by doing a job he despises.‘It wasn’t much of a job,’ Fanshawe tells us, ‘two quid a week, less insurance, and commission, if you could get it.’ The sales team go from door to door canvassing, persuading householders they’d like a demonstration, and trying to make a sale.
‘We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning […] 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 load of cock.’ especially since ‘it’s 1939 and ‘all this talk of war put prospects off.’
The vacuum-cleaner business is a racket. The firm and the salesmen cheat the customers; the firm cheats the salesmen; the salesmen cheat the firm. Maclaren-Ross describes it in a style that is jaundiced and unillusuioned. Sentences are slangy and direct, and usually short. Here’s a fairly typical paragraph:
Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy fair hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman, Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his hoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see the biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with.
In his introduction to the Penguin edition, D.J. Taylor writes of Maclaren-Ross’s ‘telegraphic but curiously weighted prose style’.Writing elsewhere, Maclaren-Ross praises another short-story writer, Arthur Calder-Marshall,
‘who had done successfully in some of his work what I was trying to do – namely to create a completely English equivalent to the American vernacular used by such writers as Hemingway, Cain and O’Hara, concentrating in my case mainly on the middle and lower-middle classes, an area cornered so far by V.S. Pritchett and Patrick Hamilton.’
The book is written in the first person, and, as with all Maclaren-Ross’s writing the strongest impression you get is of the narrator’s voice, tough, jaundiced, refusing to be impressed. This strong sense of voice must partly come from the way he wrote, speaking the words before putting them on paper. In the words of a colleague on Punch in the fifties:
‘He composed orally, like Homer, and took down his own story as if as it were from his own dictation.’
Fanshawe’s girlfriend lends him a copy of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and he likes it. (‘It was written in a way I hadn’t come across before.’) Fanshawe himself has on-and-off aspirations to be a writer, and reading the Cain book leads him to write a short story based on his experiences in Madras, and show it to the girlfriend. She approves. He later writes several chapters of a novel, but when this gets left behind after he leaves his lodgings in a hurry, he is not too bothered.
The girlfriend also introduces him to Auden and Macneice’s Letters from Iceland; Fanshawe is not unduly impressed by this, but one of the poems in it furnishes this novel’s title.
Adventurers, though, must take things as they find them,
And look for pickings where the pickings are.
The drives of love and hunger are behind them,
They can’t afford to be particular.
Fanshawe is just one of a whole class of men who can get no better job than door-to-door salesman at the end of the thirties. Not the proletariat, but the precariat. Men who have messed up their chances in life and now live hand-to-mouth, running up debts, dodging creditors, gambling, mostly without funds, but when some cash comes spending it to get just a taste of life. Fanshawe has a running battle with his landlady about rent arrears. There is a sense that his life, and the lives of many others, is just a mater of marking time until something happens. That something is likely to be the coming war, which dominates the headlines, and is generally accepted to be more or less inevitable.
There are comic set-pieces in the book, such as a gathering of the firm’s salesmen where they are expected to sing songs to build team spirit, though they all know that management is not to be trusted and will fire them when they don’t meet targets. There are comic characters, such as the man who calls himself Larry Heliotrope. He has sunk lower than Fanshawe. He makes a meagre living handing out leaflets; he wears a long overcoat that is buttoned up tightly because he has pawned the clothes that should be underneath. He seems to live on a diet of raw onions, but he manages to survive, and for a while to prosper.
The most memorable character, though, is Sukie. She is the wife of Roper, the salesman who was obviously not going to succeed.
Sukie was his wife. She’d a job in the cash-desk at Morecombe’s, dress shop down by the arcade. Sultry-looking piece. Spanish type. Black hair, dark eyes, lots of lipstick on. Hell of a temper, you could see. We’d never actually met, but I didn’t like the look of her at all.
Roper doesn’t succeed as a salesman, and decides to go back to sea as a steward on a liner. He asks Fanshawe to look after his wife while he is away.
Fanshawe tries to avoid this, but takes on the responsibility. She is a difficult woman, given to crazy mood-swings, and a violence that is not always suppressed. One evening, when he has been talking about another woman, she slashes the back of his hand with a knife. Just after this, he realises he is in love with her. She is the girlfriend who encourages his writing, but it’s a wayward relationship, and he never knows what her mood is going to be from one day to the next. You get a sense that their affair is supposed to mirror the uncertainties of the times.
The story finishes with Fanshawe losing his second salesman job (and decisively punching the man from head office). This comes as war is declared.
There is a short epilogue set in 1942. Fanshawe is now a captain in the Army, Roper a sub-lieutenant in the Navy, and the deeply dishonest supervisor in one of the vacuum-cleaner firms is an adjutant in the RAF. The war has ironically brought about a happy ending for all. And Fanshawe, who was just out for himself in the thirties, is now politicised:
‘I’m damn well determined, when all this is over, that we’re not going back to vacuum-cleaners and the dole. There’ll be something better for us than that, or else.’
So at the end it links with the wartime genre of goodbye to the ugly thirties, but I wasn’t as convinced by that uplifting message as I was by the dour picture of human nature given by the rest of the book, of selfish people acting meanly, and doing whatever is necessary to survive. It’s a good novel.