Two figures shine as the brightest of the Bright Young People in DJ Taylor's book, making their fictional counterparts in Waugh's Vile Bodies pale into insignificance. The first is Stephen Tennant, the gilded exquisite who, as patron of Cecil Beaton and lover of Siegfried Sassoon, presided over the salons of the 1920s resplendent in football jersey and earrings. The second is Brenda Dean Paul, scion of a down-at-heel aristocratic family, with an It-Girl profile to pre-date Paris Hilton, the slenderest of bodies, a come-hither look and, fatally, a weakness for hard drugs. Taylor could easily have told his story merely by relating their biographies. They were products as much of their time as the cocktail shaker or the tabloid newspaper.
Instead he fleshes out the two-dimensional world of the Fleet Street diarist (often in the persona of a BYP such as Patrick Balfour or Tom Driberg). He brings to life characters such as Brian Howard – would-be poet, portrait of a failure – alongside the more cynical observations of Waugh and the despairing voice of the older generation. That is represented here by Lord Ponsonby, whose daughter, Elizabeth, went as far off the rails as one can get.
This was a generation born in the lee of Armageddon, blaming their elders, yet lacking the guilt of their older peers – such as Noël Coward – who had been of an age to fight, yet flunked or survived the First World War. Driven by a headlong taste for excess, enabled by newly fluid social strata and publicised by new media – one party set the Thames on fire, with the help of 20 gallons of petrol – they scorned all values but their own.
Taylor lays bare their cavortings with an archeological eye, detailing the parties which became set-pieces of the culture: the White Parties, Mozart Parties, Baby parties. The Bath and Bottle party at St George's swimming baths in Victoria, where guests ended up in the water, among the blow-up rubber horses and spotlights, emerging, bedraggled, into the London dawn – scenes which evoke Fellini a generation before them. These were 1920s happenings, the missing link between Wilde and Warhol. Tennant's Watteauesque country house charades were filmed all the while by a tall young footman in dark glasses.
Taylor has done excellent work on placing this culture in context – though he could have looked to its origins in the war, when the importation of cocaine by American soldiers initiated its use as a recreational drug, 150 illegal nightclubs opened up in Soho and such society/ Bohemian interfaces as the Cave of the Golden Calf off Regent Street saw revellers worshipping a gilded cow and dancing to a black jazz band.
Taylor shows how the BYP produced literature and political idealism, from Waugh's novels to the Mitford sisters' dalliance with extremist politics. He also notes how the culture was decidedly gay: Brian Howard, tall, languid and dark, striding down the street with a pair of spaniels "lapping at his feet"; Robert Byron, travel writer and abuser of cinema ushers; and Tennant himself, whose disastrous relationship with Sassoon exposed both men to peril. The pair are shouted at in a London street: "You two revolting bits of filth."
It was downhill thereafter for the party-goers, during the hangover of the Thirties. Tennant became a recluse in his Wiltshire home, after suffering tuberculosis, mental illness, and a hardening of the heart. Brenda Dean Paul was reduced to five stone by her drug habit, spent time in Holloway prison, and ended her days topping up her heroin syringe with water from a flower vase.
Few authors have bad notices retracted. But in the opening pages of his highly diverting book, Taylor confesses that he was the anonymous Private Eye reviewer who declared of my biography of Stephen Tennant (1990) that "The humblest coal miner who ever tried to write a sonnet is of more intrinsic literary – and social – interest than Steenie Tennant". How delightful to learn that the talented Mr Taylor has now revised his opinion.
Philip Hoare's book, 'Or, The Whale', will be published by Fourth Estate next year
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