I love tracking down a good story. So I was excited to receive in the post this weekend a package of roughly 60 pages of old, yellowing paper: notes for a book that was never finished on John McLaren – the extraordinary Scotsman that built Golden Gate Park (and many other parks), who was at the epicenter of San Francisco life in its most turbulent and fascinating times and who I have decided to write a book about.
The papers are an assortment of handwritten notes and typed-up pages and have already given me a series of new leads on stories told by McLaren himself that I have yet to find in the hundreds of newspaper articles written about him during his life.
One appears to be the original telegram sent by the Board of San Francisco’s Parks Committee to McLaren informing him that he had just become Assistant Superintendent to Golden Gate Park – the exact moment his life and career took off. I can only assume McLaren kept it for 50-odd years and then handed it over to his would-be biography.
The documents come courtesy – and on loan – from Maridhu McLeod, about who I found a very brief mention in a book published in 1988 by Tom Girvan Aikman – whose grandmother was McLaren’s sister. Mrs McLeod’s father knew McLaren and had planned to write a book about him but the Second World War intervened and McLaren died (aged 96) before they could pick it back up.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I managed to find Mrs McLeod – in her eighties and living only about 30 minutes drive from me. I sent her a letter, she emailed me back, we spoke and she sent me the tranche of her father’s papers to look through. It turns out that her father knew McLaren pretty well thanks to being married to McLaren’s god-daughter. He was also a writer – and it’s been really interesting to see how another writer was approaching the same topic as me. I found a list of questions to be answered – and nearly all of them are also on my list; except of course he – Owen Holmes – intended to actually ask John McLaren.
I’m working my way through them but I can’t help but be struck by the fact that these papers still exist. They were kept by him, and then by his daughter, who was a toddler when they were written. It’s just a collection of paper that could have been discarded at any point over who knows how many clear-outs and job changes and house moves. But they were retained; I like to think because both Owen Holmes and his daughter knew that there was a great untold story here about a remarkable man whose life needs to be known.
It’s as if a hand has reached out from the past, holding a baton, and thrust it into my hand.