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Young, Idle And Terribly Jaded In The Jazz Age

Jan 22, 2009

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Combining diaries, biographies, news reports and novels to paint the social life of 1920s London, D.J. Taylor has created that rarest of books — one you can safely recommend both to scholars of Evelyn Waugh and the entourage of Paris Hilton. The engaging Bright Young People, written by a critic and novelist best known for his biography of George Orwell, reads like a case study in youth culture, trendsetting, log-rolling and cultivated bohemianism. It examines the symbiotic relationship between a loose-knit group of partygoers and a media that, in gossip columns and mocking denunciations, made them the first celebrities who were famous, in our contemporary sense, for being famous.

By the most generous estimate, there were never more than 2,000 souls among the ranks popularly known at the time as the Bright Young People. By most accounts, those souls were self-absorbed, self-mythologizing and terribly jaded. Their defining exploits included boisterous scavenger hunts, extravagant hoaxes and the "stylized debauchery" of more fancy-dress balls than you can shake an engraved 16-inch-high invitation at — including the Bath and Bottle Party, the Circus Party, the Hermaphrodite Party, the Great Urban Dionysia and the Mozart Party, where the menu came from a cookbook owned by Louis XVI. They excited the public imagination — and incited a moderate moral panic — with their fast living and reflexive flippancy.

The greatest talents associated with the movement were Waugh and the photographer Cecil Beaton. Taylor deftly traces how the former drew on his friends' exploits for the hysterical satire of Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, and how the latter — an Edmund Hilary among social climbers — used his to further his career. Lesser accomplishments detailed here include Singing Out of Tune, a novel by brewery heir Bryan Guinness that documented the Bright Young Person's daily routine: "waking up late, meeting people for lunch, bringing the lunch party home for tea, moving on to cocktails and dinner... and ending up with a communal trek around the fashionable restaurants of the West End."

But in this realm any accomplishment was an exception, and the non-career of the occasional poet Brian Howard proved emblematic of this wasted youth revolt. "The books Brian Howard never wrote would fill a decent-sized shelf," Taylor writes, elsewhere noting that the man lived out his frustrating life "in that exotic never-never land where the Ritz bar meets the out-of-season Continental resort." The fun ended soon enough; by 1931, England was in financial crisis and a 10-hour-long Red and White Ball rang down the era. But Taylor's skillful reconstruction of the whole hazy time feels like a lasting party favor.

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Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age
By D.J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 361 pages
List price: $27

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