The Bright Young People: What's a nice provincial boy like D J Taylor doing resurrecting them?

The author's latest novel focuses on the posh inter-war social set lampooned by Evelyn Waugh
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The Independent Culture

On my way to meet D J Taylor, I pass an old-fashioned double-decker bus. On its front, in place of a destination, it carries the words "Private Party". But inside, the bus's passengers are sober suited, their facial expressions almost funereal. They appear wholly untouched by any hint of celebratory spirit. A total contrast then to the "Bright Young People" whose incessant partying and other high society antics form the subject of Taylor's latest book: a survey of the rise and fall of a generation of young British middle- and upper-class men and women who reached maturity in the decade following the end of the Great War, and whose resounding crash back to reality coincided with the Depression and the Age of the Dictators in the run-up to another world conflict.

Initially, these Bright Young People seemed glamorous in a Britain shaken by the anguish and loss of the war years. They were swiftly adopted as personalities and talking points by newspapers such as the Daily Mail, and as objects of parody by magazines such as Punch. Before long they had become the subjects of jokes, figuring in advertisements and as characters in novels. "High Bohemia", so-called by the press, united members of the aristocratic and moneyed classes – Bryan Guinness, Nancy and Diana Mitford, for example, and that willowy aesthete Stephen Tennant – with the socially aspirational, public school and Oxford-educated figures such as Beverley Nichols, Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh, who employed their talents as a springboard to social advancement. The Bright Young People were snobbish, sometimes witty and clever, hedonistic and utterly frivolous, with a strong vein of melancholy underlying all the pleasure-seeking. They talked in an affected slang designed, so it was said, to be heard over the noise of a gramophone ("Darling, what about a tingy-wingy little dinky-boo?", as Terence Rattigan later lampooned their speech).

Above all, they knew how to party. "...Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, Circus parties", runs the famous passage in Vile Bodies, the novel in which Evelyn Waugh used his insider knowledge to chronicle the Bright Young Person's world; "parties where one had to dress as someone else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood, parties... in windmills and swimming-baths... parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry...".

D J Taylor strikes one as a bit of a party pooper. He admits that this may be true. "When I was at Oxford at the end of the Seventies, I was the sort of person who said, 'I think I'll just go off and do another two hours in the library.' If I did go to parties, it was always as more of an observer than a full-hearted participant." So isn't it a bit surprising, then, to find him indulging in what he once dismissed as "the toff hagiography strain of English letters"? Wouldn't he be more likely to share the viewpoint of George Orwell, whose biography Taylor wrote (and for which he won the 2004 Whitbread Biography Prize), that even the desire to write about "so-called artists" who squeal at each other in "high, silly voices", and who "spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging, betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy"? In his first chapter, Taylor confesses disarmingly to having formerly held this kind of opinion himself. As the anonymous critic in Private Eye, one of Taylor's regular reviewing stints, he once opined that "the humblest coal miner who ever tried to write a sonnet" was of more intrinsic literary and social interest than Stephen Tennant.

Standing up for Tennant – "an eccentric gay who didn't really do anything" according to Lady Caroline Blackwood – may be akin to defending the indefensible, but more broadly Taylor now sees the Bright Young People phenomenon as entirely worthy of a book-length study. "Their legacy is still everywhere. Novelists like Waugh, Powell, Henry Green, the beginnings of a celebrity culture, household names like Beaton, Betjeman, Frederick Ashton all have their roots in this youth cult." And, he says, even the failures like Tennant and Brian Howard (one of the originals of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, to whom Taylor devotes a section entitled "The Books Brian Never Wrote") have "a desperate human interest".

Taylor certainly makes a good case for them. Ultimately he succeeds in conveying precisely the aspect of the Bright Young People that is most difficult to give expression to on paper: not books or parties, but "an atmosphere... an outlook, a gesture, an essence". Taylor identifies members of the "Bright Brigade" with the dogged accuracy of the prosopographer, while tracing their appearances in contemporary fiction – the first BYP novel was Beverley Nichols's Crazy Pavements from 1927 – with critical aplomb. Much of the book is deliriously funny. Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, an "impossibly languid figure", propositioned by Anthony Eden at Oxford, is described urinating into Rosamond Lehmann's handbag during a screening of an avant-garde film. Was she very cross, someone asked him? "Not very, my dear. Perhaps she thought it was all part of a surrealist ambience." One Bright Young stunt was a mock art exhibition, a hoax which appears to have fooled hardly anyone, but which went down as one of the most famous practical jokes of the era. Among the exhibits was a representation of Christ Meeting the Disciples Coming from Emmaus in black knitting wool stretched between two black hatpins.

Taylor manages never to be judgemental, eliciting sympathy for a male generation that suffered from an acute inferiority complex. Indeed, their very existence counted against them. Too young to have fought in the war, they were always going to be compared unfavourably with the generation lost in the Flanders mud. At the heart of the book, and making a strong contribution to its cohesion, is the story of a Bright Young Woman who trod a path that led nowhere, and ended up becoming part of the wreckage of the Twenties. Daughter of a Labour minister, granddaughter of Queen Victoria's private secretary, Elizabeth Ponsonby was a regular on the party scene, much to the distress and disapproval of her parents who described her as possessing "all the crudest faults of the modern girl", and lamented her "incorrigible" preference for disreputable people. Taylor gained access to an extraordinary archive of diaries and letters written by the Ponsonby family. "It vividly portrays a generational conflict," he says, "as well as charting Elizabeth's sad decline." After a failed marriage, Elizabeth, "the most mercurial presence of a lost and legendary age", collapsed and died at the beginning of the Second World War from alcoholism.

D J Taylor, one of the most prolific hacks in the "valley of the shadow of books", as his hero George Gissing called it, and a distinguished novelist and biographer besides, is not perhaps the obvious candidate to chronicle the lives of such a dissolute generation. There can scarcely be a more industrious figure working as a professional writer in Britain today. His pile of press cuttings from the past 15 years stands two feet high, and he is in constant demand as a literary pundit. (Taylor's tip for this year's Booker Prize? Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip.)

Born in Norwich in 1960, David Taylor (he adopted his nom de plume as a reaction to the fact that "there seemed to be dozens of David Taylors when I started out") made his presence felt as something of an Angry Young Man when he published his first book at the end of the 1980s, an attack on British fiction of the time, decrying the mediocrity of the work of members of the old guard such as Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch. Subsequently he became a novelist himself – the most recent of his six novels was a pastiche Victorian mystery, Kept – and the biographer of Thackeray and Orwell. He writes non-fiction to feed and clothe his family, but novel writing is his passion. He is "nine-tenths" of the way through a new work of fiction, which draws on the Anglo-American party scene of the Twenties and revolves around a society hostess of lowly origins.

Six years ago, Taylor, his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, and their three children left London to return to his roots in Norwich. His home city has provided the backdrop for several of Taylor's novels, and it may do so again if he ever succeeds in the hopes he has of one day writing about his father. Taylor père sounds like a memorable, rough-diamond type of character. (There may be just a suggestion of him in the father of Taylor's second novel Real Life.) Of working-class origins, he left school at 16 to start work at the Norwich Union Insurance Company where he remained until retirement. Extraordinarily – for he had no broadcasting experience – he then became the oldest working presenter in local radio, eventually presenting his own show, John Taylor's Radio Times, on which he played popular music of the inter-war era.

Taylor speaks with affectionate remembrance of his father, who died last year. There's no evidence here of the kind of generational conflict that afflicted and divided many of the families of the Bright Young People. In his chilling epitaph for this "lost generation" of the Jazz Age, D J Taylor suggests that all youth movements are by definition ill-fated. The "early sparkle" degenerates into a "revolt into style... which leaves the founders washed up on a shore from which the tides of fashion have long since receded." *

The extract: Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940, By D J Taylor (Chatto £20)

"...a Bright Young Person's progress around London could accommodate a bewildering variety of different compartments. Determined to enjoy himself once on his first night back in town, Alfred Duggan, Lord Curzon's stepson, began the evening by dining formally with his mother, Lady Curzon, at Carlton Terrace... proceeded to a West End play, followed this up with supper at the Café Royal, moved on to 'a lurid attic in Ham Yard'... and concluded the night's entertainment at the Forty-three with 'Mrs Meyrick, Miss Meyrick and the entire staff at his feet'."