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“…and you have got some friends of the wrong sort dear boy…”

By (February 1, 2009) No Comment

Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age

By D. J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Recently I had a distressing week. On the Monday I was visiting my dutiful grandson in his London flat when some friends of his, a young couple, stopped by. They offered me no greeting, but that wasn’t the distressing part (our age differences were such that they perhaps failed to recognize me as a fellow life-form); what distressed me was, as unpardonable a sin as it currently is to admit it, their appearance. The young woman wore virtually nothing in the way of clothing – a cut-off shirt-top that did not quite cover her breasts, and cut-off shorts that neither concealed nor protected anything – and had a deep blue tattoo of a dog-collar entirely encircling her neck. The young man had a thick metal hoop through his nose, a thick metal pole in either ear, and hair dull with grease and filth. Looking at them while they spoke with my grandson, I found myself thinking, “They are making decisions they will certainly come to regret.”

I instantly chided myself for thinking such stereotypically spinsterish thoughts, and my equanimity had been restored by the Wednesday, when it received its second blow. I was at the market shopping when I became aware of two extremely loud voices in the next aisle. I resolved to ignore the noise, but it grew louder as the speakers – two young women on cell-phones – rounded the corner and began pushing their carts down my aisle. They were negligently picking out items (heedless of the many things they knocked over), talking loudly the whole while on their phones, and when I was forced to perform a quick little lunge to avoid being run down by them, neither one noticed. They just kept walking and talking, and I found myself thinking, “They’re behaving in ways that will one day appall them.”

What poise I was able to recover lasted only a day. On Thursday I was standing in line at the post office while a wall-mounted television played news of the devastation caused by a massive earthquake in China. As I watched images of weeping villagers and relief workers pulling bodies from the rubble, two young people directly in front of me in line watched the footage for a moment then turned to each other and muttered, “Whatever.” And I found myself thinking, “All young people are monstrous, inhuman, vile, self-centered abominations, and the future is assuredly doomed, and spinsterism be damned.”

This is common, I believe. The elderly always tend to look at the bleary-eyed, slack-jawed, slope-shouldered mass of the young and find the Apocalypse staring back at them. But I nevertheless think the severity of the gap fluctuates from generation to generation. I would trust my children’s generation with the running of national and international affairs, for instance, whereas I wouldn’t trust my grandson’s generation with the watering of my houseplants.

My children’s generation had major upheavals to face, and they faced these while still in the shadow of economic hardship. My grandchildren’s generation swims in unearned affluence and confronts daily a staggering array of indulgences unknown since the Regency period. And perhaps this is not an untainted blessing; perhaps too much freedom and comfort breed a particularly invasive strain of anxiety, an eat-drink-and-be-merry hedonism that is both joyless and deeply cynical.

If my grandson’s generation is feeling such anomie, I can sympathize (not, I grant you, on distressing weeks, but certainly the rest of the time). I’ve seen its exact counterpart before, after all: when I was a little girl, my older sister was part of a generation feeling much the same restless hedonism. And I have had that generation brought to life again before my eyes these past few days while I was reading D. J. Taylor’s atmospheric and thoroughly vivid new book, Bright Young People.

His subject is England – London, really – of the 1920s, the generation whose fathers and uncles died at the Somme and Paschendaele and whose sons and nephews would die at Dunkirk and Normandy, a generation of young people born in strife and privation and universally certain more strife and privation was on the way, a generation determined to live for the moment in a world they saw as doomed. And not even the whole of that generation; Taylor’s mainly concerned with the small fraction of young people (and some who weren’t quite as young as they thought they were) who reacted to that atmosphere of bottlenecking gloom by behaving with fey, conspicuous abandon and high frivolity. These young people held fancy dress balls, drove fast cars, dressed like bohemian waifs, affected languorous drawls, and continually contrived ways to stay one step ahead of their creditors. Half in scorn and half in wonderment, the London press dubbed them “Bright Young People.” This month Taylor’s book about them sees publication in America.

America of the 1920s saw a parallel phenomenon in the Jazz Age flappers and fops immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories (and epitomized in the actual life of the author and his wife Zelda): young people reacting to the just-vanished horrors of the Great War (and to the rumblings of another to come, or of a “crash” in the world’s financial markets, or both by spending too much, drinking too much, and driving too fast. The easy temptation for any author approaching these Jazz Age jades of either country would be to adopt a tone of envy, but Taylor avoids this. Easy also would be a stance of reflexive censure – it’s what I would have done, I’m afraid – and Taylor avoids this too. His book is sharp, insightful, and only the tiniest bit moralising.

He mostly has the far more humble aim of simply telling the story of these Bright Young People, and he does a superb job. He has poured through old copies of The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail, he has scoured the collections of Oxford and Cambridge, and he has sorted out a prodigious amount of unpublished material, the letters and diaries of those involved. He has also read all the requisite novels, whether by George Orwell or Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh (many, many things in Bright Young People will remind readers of incidents in Brideshead Revisited, and Vile Bodies hovers over the whole book like a cloud). And although Taylor himself lives what we may presume to be a quiet life in Norwich, he succeeds entirely in transporting his readers to the frenzied 1920s world of Bath and Bottle parties, scavenger hunts, scandalous nightclubs, and ruinous amounts of alcohol.

It is a sociological phenomenon he wishes to examine on every level, including the very top:

The future King Edward VIII was one of the chief media preoccupations of the 1920s. His clothes minutely itemized, his social engagements forensically set out, his dance partners avidly discussed, the “Little Man,” as the newspapers christened him, dominated front pages like no previous royal personage. Photographed during his 1924 American tour in Oxford bags, dancing, at the wheel of a motorboat or playing polo, his lifestyle – for press purposes – was that of the Bright Young Person in excelsis: extravagant, pleasure-seeking, fast-moving.

The rank-and-file of the Bright Young People, however, was from the respectable ranks of the upper middle class, people like Arthur and Dorothea Ponsonby who enjoyed the respect of their neighbors but exercised no control over their children, Elizabeth and Matthew, two Bright Young People par excellence. Their incomprehension and misery regarding the antics of their children may stand in stead for the same things felt by many parents in the 1920s, mine included.

Elsa Lanchester and Evelyn Waugh in The Scarlet Woman, 1924-25

In 1929 Elizabeth and some of her demimonde friends came down to her parents’ country house at Shulbrede for a raucous weekend, which her father describes in his diary with bleak precision:

On Sunday a further contingent was expected at luncheon but owing to ice on the roads they did not turn up until 3 … they consisted of a girl who seemed to have been picked up very late at night off Piccadilly. A shiny cinema actor, a bogus Sicilian Duke and two other anaemic undistinguished looking young men. At 5 brandy was called for by the girls as the sherry which had been going on during the afternoon had given out. Owing to the weather some decided to stay the night in Haslemere. So M went to make arrangements, bringing back 4 more bottles. At this point my patience broke down.…

The excerpt points to one of the defining characteristics of the Bright Young People (some people would say the main one, and I would be one of those people): the massive, near-continuous consumption of alcohol. Defenders of this particular youth movement (and Taylor is often in this position) point to the restrictive laws that governed liquor use in England at the time and claim the over-indulgence of the Bright Young People was a thumb in the eye of authority, not the simple habituated dependence it appears. Skeptics will of course be allowed their own views of the matter.

Taylor is equally defensive on the subject of the other chief defining characteristic of the Bright Young People, sex. Provocative sexual attitudes, he maintains, ought not to be equated with actual sexual license. The former was always meant to shock the establishment; the latter was often just young people being curious. “Disapproving elders might imagine,” Taylor writes, “that the younger generation swam from one partner to another through a sea of unbridled sexual license, but the reality was often sharply different”:

On the female side, while there were notorious femmes fatales lickerishly at large in the Mayfair jungles, Nancy Mitford’s account of herself and her boyfriend Hamish Erskine decorating their half-naked bodies in preparation for a fancy dress party are almost painfully innocuous: jolly good fun rather than the prelude to debauchery.

I confess I have no idea what that word “lickerishly” means, but I do know that in 1930 my sister was pregnant with the child of a man she barely knew, both of whom were charter members of the Bright Young People. Taylor seems curiously diffident about admitting that there were prices to pay for the behaviours he describes; he brings this slightly excusing air even to the notorious homosexuality that often went hand-in-hand with the movement:

Beneath these separate but interconnected groups came a category of rather nervous young men, groping their way – in some cases literally – to an understanding of their sexuality: Cecil Beaton’s journals from the early twenties are a characteristic mixture of fascination and repulsion, an intense desire for the society of homosexual sophisticates couple with faint alarm at the thought of the likely physical consequences.

Part of this is sympathy, which is a fine quality in a writer and perhaps essential in examining something as apparently frivolous and evanescent as the Bright Young People. Taylor is all too aware of the gauzy, impermanent nature of his subjects, as when he ruminates on a group photograph taken in 1927:

It is an extraordinary portrait – stylized, sophisticated, ultramodern, and yet, in its dandy posturing, hugely frivolous and self-centered, an image that, in the end, conveys nothing except its own artificiality.

It was of exactly such a group that Lytton Strachey is famously said to have remarked, “Strange creatures, with just a few feathers where brains should be.” The bemused tone could in others give way to scorn, as in George Orwell’s equally famous line, “Even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy.”

And one of the most delightful moments in Bright Young People occurs when Taylor confesses that Orwell isn’t the only one who, surveying the movement, was tempted to scorn:

Anne Armstrong Jones;
photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1930

The thought that seriousness is automatically the preserve of people with cheery proletarian values and prosaic lifestyles – that a barfly with a private income and a web of well-connected friends has already damned himself beyond redemption – is one of the great consolations of English literary life. I am not immune to it myself. “The humblest coal miner who ever tried to write a sonnet is of more intrinsic literary – and social – interest than Steenie Tennant,” Private Eye’s anonymous critic pronounced in a appraisal of Philip Hoare’s Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant (1990), “but alas, the toff hagiography strain of English letters endures.”

In fact, I was that anonymous critic. Seventeen years later, I’m not sure I agree with my younger self.

Not sure indeed, as he spends a good deal of his book attempting to ascribe for the Bright Young People something approaching historical importance, some sense of significance extending beyond the role of simple cautionary tale:

The influence of the Bright Young People can be felt throughout twentieth-century artistic life. To take only the most flagrant examples, the London society world of the mid-to late 1920s was a crucible in which were forged the careers of several of England’s greatest novelists, one of its best-loved contemporary poets and half a dozen leading figures in ballet, photography, and surrealist painting.

Through their scavenger parties, their elaborate hoaxes, their thieving of policeman’s helmets (yes, I’m afraid Bertie Wooster was a Bright Young Person; one can’t help but wonder how much more enjoyable Taylor’s book would be if the Wodehouse oeuvre were given as liberal a going-over as Vile Bodies), their parties lasting till dawn, their scandalous public displays, the Bright Young People quickly gained an established place in the society of the 1920s:

By the middle of 1928 the Bright Young People were a recognizable social phenomenon: at once a distinctive part of society and something that was capable of existing beyond the outermost limit of society’s margins. Social columnists watched eagerly each spring and autumn for Bright Young People parties to “break out.” There were Bright Young People advertisements, Bright Young People jokes, Bright Young People novels – the first, Beverly Nichols’s Crazy Pavements, had already appeared the year before – and established Bright Young People’s venues.

From Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things, 2003

We all know how the story ends. The gaiety of the 20s gave way to the austerity of the 30s and the horrors of the 40s, and the Bright Young People were forced to confront the fact that the world wasn’t going to play with them anymore, that more might ultimately be expected of them than drawling speech and “coming home with the milk.” One of Taylor’s best chapters deals with that homosexual provocateur and mainstay of the Bright Young People, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy, and Taylor’s conclusions are, despite his sympathy, firm:

And yet, the erudition, the generosity and the loyalty combined to produce only a desert of nonachievement, a fatal disinclination to engage with the wider environment at any serious level. In the end, you suspect, Eddie was simply scared of the business of living: the commitments it demanded, the terrible obligation it imposed to do something other than please oneself.

Of course, some of the Bright Young People recovered, as it were, and went on to find other, arguably more adult ways to live. The movements de facto chronicler, Evelyn Waugh, went on to a long literary career, for instance, and Anthony Powell wrote books well into his 230th year. Taylor argues, however, that the era of the Bright Young People cast a long shadow over its former inhabitants – and sometimes a debilitating shadow:

All Hamish [Erskine] possessed, in fact, was his charm and the memory of a world in which charm had perhaps counted for too much. This legacy could work even against Bright Young People who succeeded in their later lives. To spend very much time in the company of Nancy Mitford is to encounter a sensibility preserved in the amber of 1928, which has observed the world passing, the horrors of war and their personal consequences – a sister and a brother dead, another sister interned – but whose response is still largely a matter of shrieks and teases.

Indeed, when evoking the lost possibilities inherent in such a wastrel movement, Taylor can be downright poetic:

In strict literary terms [Bright Young Person Brian] Howard is an example of a rather typical twentieth century phenomenon, the aesthete whose career is fatally compromised by a reluctance to discard the past: the gaudy and debilitating lumber of parties in swimming baths, peacock conversation, a kind of spiritual gavotte through an endless succession of mirrored rooms. All this, though, is to ignore the human cost of a life lived out of suitcases, where each morning’s post brings either a bill or a letter from one’s mother, and from beneath the canopy of the writing desk undeflowered sheets of paper stare up in permanent reproach.

And here he’s mostly right: the Bright Young People may have been responding to inexorable social pressures, and they may even have provided a war-weary populace with a diversion it badly needed, but nihilism is never its own reward, and wasted time can never be reclaimed. As prosaic as these sentiments are, they came to be felt by almost all the former Bright Young People, including my sister, who in the late ‘30s said to me, “Don’t do any of the things I did, Honey; be a good girl – it pays better.”

Honoria St. Cyr was an executive secretary in London for forty-five years and now enjoys her retirement years in Islington, tending to her garden and her books. She was never a Bright Young Thing.