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McLaren, John (Jack) (1884–1954)

by Cheryl Taylor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John (Jack) McLaren (1884-1954), writer, was born on 13 October 1884 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, eldest of five children of Rev. John McLaren, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary, née Brown (or Bow), Scottish migrants. McLaren entered Scotch College on 8 October 1896, but ran away four years later and carried a swag for a year. He then worked for ten months as cabin boy and seaman on a windjammer which sailed from Adelaide to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and back to Newcastle, New South Wales. This voyage is recorded in his Blood on the Deck (London, 1933).

Working his passage to North Queensland, McLaren in 1902-11 engaged in various romantic occupations in tropical places. He worked as a miner, mule-driver and rabbit-poisoner. He searched for pearl-shell out from Thursday Island, for bêche-de-mer and tortoise shell on the Barrier Reef, and for sandalwood on Cape York. In Malaya, the Solomon Islands and Fiji he worked as an overseer, and sometimes a labour-recruiter, on coconut plantations. He visited Java and the Ellice Islands, and was shipwrecked in the Gulf of Papua. In New Guinea he ran trade stores, prospected, transported copper overland to Port Moresby, and hunted birds of paradise. My Odyssey (London, 1923) tells part of the story of these years.

On 6 October 1911, tired of wandering, McLaren landed at Simpson's Bay on the west coast of Cape York. Alone except for the tribe of Aborigines whom he paid to work for him, he built a house and established a coconut plantation. Writing under the pseudonym, 'McNorth', he sent a stream of paragraphs to the Bulletin in Sydney, and also completed his first novel, Red Mountain (1919). Some of his experience on Cape York is recounted in My Crowded Solitude (London, 1926).

After selling the plantation, McLaren journeyed to Sydney early in 1919, hoping to earn a living from writing. Receiving a small sum from the New South Wales Bookstall Co. for his first two novels, he also found work as a laboratory assistant. By March 1924 he was living at Northcote, Melbourne, where he enjoyed Bernard O'Dowd's friendship and financial support. On 19 August 1924 he married a fellow novelist, Ada Elizabeth Moore, née McKenzie; the marriage seems to have been childless.

In 1925 McLaren settled in London where his address changed with his fortunes. London remained his base for nearly thirty years, though according to his last autobiography, My Civilised Adventure (London, 1952), he made trips to Corsica and France, and even returned briefly to Thursday Island and New Guinea. He seems never to have been financially secure. He broadcast and wrote scripts for the British Broadcasting Corporation and during World War II was in charge of the section of the Ministry of Information responsible for publicity about the Empire. McLaren's first wife died in 1946 and on 21 February 1951 he married Dorothy Norris of Chelsea. Among his few literary acquaintances in London were Thomas Burke, J. M. Barrie, Guy Howarth and Philip Lindsay. McLaren died of myocardial infarction on 16 May 1954, while on holiday at Brighton.

Authenticity of background, derived from his experience in the tropics, is the only merit of most of McLaren's twenty-one volumes of fiction. In Sun Man (London, 1928) he nevertheless succeeded in commenting implicitly on the genre of the romantic adventure novel, by overturning the expected ending; and A Diver Went Down (London, 1929) is a genuine thriller in an exotic setting. His literary reputation must rest on his autobiographies, and principally on My Crowded Solitude. This work offers sensitive observations on the small fauna inhabiting McLaren's retreat, and anecdotes and insights about his rare visitors, and especially about his Aboriginal companions. McLaren observes the tribe from the platform of European civilization, and derives humour and occasionally satire from contrasting expectations and values. This theme is constant in his writings, all of which reflect the journeys between civilization and the wild which prevailed in his life and gave it its particular quality.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Burke, Preface to J. McLaren, My South Sea Adventure (Lond, 1936)
  • All About Books, 18 July 1929, p 253
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 13, no 2 (1954)
  • Sydney Mail, 5 May 1920
  • Times (London), 18 May 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 May 1966.

Citation details

Cheryl Taylor, 'McLaren, John (Jack) (1884–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclaren-john-jack-7407/text12883, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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