Erin Block

On Colin MacGowan-Black


On July 7th, 1961, Colin MacGowan-Black dashed off the following note: “I’m 49 today and have exactly fuck-all: not even cigarettes.” Given that he had been lauded as “a writer of rare gifts” by Graham Greene and won acclaim for his debut novel Business and Desire (1947) — a grim masterpiece about his experience selling vacuum cleaners on the eve of World War Two — he must have wondered how it had all gone so terribly wrong.

Tall, dark and handsome with a tendency towards dandyism – he was seldom seen without his trademark camel-hair coat, gold topped Malacca cane and sunglasses (worn night and day, rain or shine) ‑ MacGowan-Black was the very essence of the bohemian man of letters. His stomping ground was Fitzrovia, and the regime he set himself was unrelenting. A taste of this is offered in an essay by his friend, Dan Corrigan entitled “Good Night, Colin, Everywhere”. “…In the pub till closing time, a late lunch at the Scala restaurant in Charlotte Street. Opening time again at the Wheatsheaf till closing time…’

Back at whatever hotel he was living in, fuelled with scotch and amphetamines, he’d write in unbroken 48-hour stints. After that he’d sleep, then it was back to the West End for more booze. But then came the 1950s, a decade that left him “buggered and bewildered.” He simply fell out of fashion and always living well beyond his slender means, plunged further into debt, spending as much time ducking bailiffs as writing. Publishers got bored with his lordly manner, more so when the much talked about masterpiece never appeared. His drinking, always heavy – his friends claimed he must have hollow legs to put so much way – got worse, as did his reliance on pills. In one year alone he had more than twenty addresses, simply flitting when he couldn’t pay the bills. The time of no fags and money was upon him.

“Things are absolutely desperate: in fact, I’ve been living for the last few days selling books, pawning clothes,” went one miserable begging letter to Anthony Powell. “Dear Dan [Corrigan]: Look, I’m in a mess. Can’t pay the bill, danger of being kicked out, clothes etc seized.” And in August 23rd , 1954: Dear John (Lehmann): I have just lost girl, home and everything else at a moment’s notice.” According to his friend Anthony Cronin he’d become “one of the ruined men of Soho”. MacGowan-Black died in 1964, aged 52. He went out in heroic style, suffering a fatal heart attack after downing a bottle of brandy. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in North London.

His books are no longer in print but can be found from time to time in second-hand bookshops. Check them out.

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