I must confess I’d never heard of Beverley Nichols till I stumbled across an intriguing review of this book on the rather wonderful Reading 1900-1950 blog. Of course, having recently read Bright Young People, I now know a lot more about the author and it seems he had quite a varied and interesting career. But I felt that “Crazy Pavements” was worth a read, particularly as it seemed to be early criticism of the BYP and also to have prefigured much of Evelyn Waugh’s work.

Our protagonist is a young man called Brian Elme. Brian is a gossip columnist who blags his way through his daily routine by making up stories about the glitterati (in those days the aristocracy) which they are too stupid or too far away travelling round the world to care about. He shares rooms with Walter (an ex-Naval officer) and they live a happy, if impoverished, life together. But Brian is entranced by the distant image of the beautiful Lady Julia Cressey and things start to go horribly wrong when their paths actually cross. The rather naive Brian is taken up by Julia and her group as an antidote to their ennui. He is drawn into a dark, corrupt world of vapid people who drink, drug and party all night long and are empty, emotionless shells. Will he survive or will he be tainted and then destroyed by them?

For a book written with such a light touch, this novel deals with some pretty heavy stuff! The corrupt, aristocratic world which Brian enters is portrayed very graphically for the time – there are constant cocktails, drug taking, sexual predators (in particular Anne Hardcastle, a grotesquely voracious older woman), plastic surgery: you name it, it’s there. Well, apart from one thing – homosexuality is obviously a huge subtext here but is not mentioned by name, only implication. This is understandable because it was illegal in the 1920s, but the relationship between Walter and Brian really can’t be properly understood in any other terms, and similarly with Lord William Motley and Maurice Cheyne.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nichols is scathing about his characters – the descriptions of the way that Ann Hardcastle’s face has been sculpted into shape are disturbing, and his dissection of Maurice’s personality is similarly harsh. Lord William comes closest to recognising the truth about the way the group really are with his private collection of masks. These reveal, in a kind of Dorian Gray way, the personalities beneath the facade that the party-goers wear and he seems to be a surprisingly astute judge of character. His mask of Brian reveals a handsome but weak young man, and indeed Brian comes close to losing himself completely to decadence during the book.

Julia Cressey is something of a sad figure, totally unable to experience or express any emotion. She briefly falls in love with Brian and has a night of anguish wrestling with an emotion she is unused to dealing with, but she cannot sustain this and quickly returns to her old ways. There are some quite shocking scenes at the end where Julia’s behaviour descends into the horrible depravity of trying to persuade Brian to give himself to Anne Hardcastle as Anne is blackmailing her. Brian is suitably disgusted and this episode spells an end to his love of Julia.

Nichols drew strongly on the real lives and events of the Bright Young People, and a pivotal moment of the book is the party based on the real Second Childhood Party, where the guests attend dressed as infants. As behaviour degenerates, both Brian and Julia realise how preposterous the whole situation is and how foolish their way of life.

But the book is surprisingly readable for all of the unpleasantness it portrays. Nichols’ style is engaging – as a narrator he is very witty and keeps breaking off to address the reader. There is a lot of humour, though it’s humour with bite, and it’s hard not to get involved with the characters. The ending is perhaps a little trite, but I feel that maybe Nichols wasn’t quite sure how to resolve things for Brian. I guess love will conquer all is the message, although the kind of love harks back to the subtext! In fact, in later life Nichols stated, “Of course Brian and Walter were lovers, and Lady Julia was based on one of those predatory young queens who collects conquests like scalp-hunters collect scalps,” but in the 1920s he could not have been so outspoken.

One finds oneself wondering what Nichols’ contemporaries thought of the book – as he was one of the BYP himself, he was rather biting the hand that fed him. But from the point of view of literature, this is a nice little work and deserves more than its current forgotten status.

(As a side note, I’ve never come across Florin Books before but they seem to be lovely little volumes, and the list of other titles in the back makes me want to go off searching the Internet!)
* Lovely 1920s flappers from http://bumblebutton.blogspot.co.uk/

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