Bright Young People, By DJ Taylor

Too, too joy-making

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

Chatto & Windus £20 (322pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

    They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
    A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

    Dropout generation failed by colleges

    £800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
    Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
    Shazam! Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

    Shazam: Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch