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Let Frivolity Reign: London's Roaring 1920s

Jan 24, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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In 1920s London, as the Jazz Age blossomed, an eclectic set of young socialites issued in an era of irresponsibility and gilded fun. Known as the Bright Young People, this group of aristocrats, middle class adventurers and bohemian artists lived large and furnished the press with a stream of snippets and invented "youth culture."

"It was a very, very interesting group," biographer D.J. Taylor tells Weekend Edition's Jacki Lyden. "They were all people ... [who] were just too young to fight in the First World War, [but] whose brothers perhaps or whose fathers had fought in it."

Taylor, who chronicles London's "lost generation" in his new book Bright Young People, says that for all the frivolity and sparkle, it was "a very pessimistic age that was always looking over its shoulder at the 'black dog' trailing it."

Despite their uneasiness — or perhaps because of it — London's Bright Young People embraced a life of partying. The tradition started late one evening, when a small group of friends decided to have a not-so-ordinary scavenger hunt.

"As they were all terribly well connected and knew everybody in upper British society, [the hunt] items would be things like the prime minister's pipe, or a pair of corsets owned by a celebrated actress," explains Taylor.

More revelry followed — midnight car chases, a "Bath and Bottle" party, a ball where all the food served was red or white. Gradually the debauchery spread out beyond central London.

Throughout it all, the exploits of the Bright Young People played out in print, as newspapers scrambled to cover the exploits of various "it" girls.

"When you look at the 1920s in Britain, you can see the very beginnings of what we would call modern celebrity culture," says Taylor.

But newspaper coverage of gilded triflers was a mixed bag. While readers loved titillating stories of extravagance, they also often took it all in with a disapproving eye.

"There's a lot of residual English Puritanism involved when [the Bright Young People] did something disreputable," says Taylor.

Call it an enduring fascination: Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's fictional account of the 1920s London scene, is still a hot commodity at some local libraries.

"It's extraordinary, isn't it? To think that a book that Waugh wrote very quickly in late 1929 should be so extraordinarily popular nearly 80 years later," Taylor says.

"It's the idea of slightly depraved and debauched young people having a wonderful time while the economic recession is looming," says Taylor. "There they all are playing away as the Titanic begins to sink beneath them. It does turn into a type of morality tale."

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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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Reviewer Troy Patterson calls Taylor's skillful reconstruction of London's jazz age in Bright Young People a "lasting party favor." Read the full review or an excerpt.

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