Recent Reads: Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols


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/

Recent Reads: Bright Young People by D.J. Taylor


The genesis of my reading of this book is a little convoluted, as it had its roots in a number of things. I suppose it could have started when I read an intriguing review of “Crazy Pavement” by Beverley Nichols on the 1900-1950 blog. But then, I’ve been gathering Nancy Mitford volumes for a little while, adding to the height of the tbr pile. Also, I picked up a copy of Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” and many of the characters in this were ‘Bright Young People’. Finally, I succumbed to a copy of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, partly because the Capuchin Classic looked so lovely and partly because it sounded fun.

So, with a developing interest in the Bright Young People of the ’20s, I did a little online research which led me to an article extracted from this book, “Bright Young People” by D.J. Taylor. It sounded fascinating and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in a charity bookstore in Leicester recently (a lot cheaper than Amazon, for once, and in lovely condition). I hadn’t read any non-fiction for a while, so it seemed a good book to start on my return from the Leicester visit.

“BYP” is a study of the lives and loves and partying that took place among a group of mostly very upper class people during the post-World War 1 1920s. Some of the participants I had heard of – Cecil Beaton, Nancy Mitford, Stephen Tennant, Evelyn Waugh; but some were not so well-known to me – Brian Howard, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brenda Dean Paul, Gavin Henderson, Inez Holden. In the aftermath of the War, with a generation of men having been wiped out, the young of Britain were somewhat directionless. With the lack of structure and focus, and with all the old certainties swept away, the young began to party hard, gaining a media presence which was perhaps the first modern representation of the celebrity culture we see today. Taylor follows the group’s exploits through to the changes of the 1930s and war, even taking the story up to the present day and the eventual fate of most of the members.

This was a remarkably good read for a number of reasons. Firstly, I very much liked the structure of the book: instead of simply telling a linear tale, each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the BYP – their parties, generational issues, gay issues, literature produced etc. This gives Taylor the opportunity to reflect in depth on their behaviour and achievements in a way that a more straightforward narrative would not have. Another strong point was the wealth of research material which had obviously been sourced. Taylor was blessed by several resources, one in particular standing out which was the diaries of the parents of Elizabeth Ponsonby. Both of her parents were inveterate recorders of their daily lives and thoughts, and the material from these painted a poignant picture of their relationship with Elizabeth, their attempts to help her find her way in life, their struggles with her debts and their despair at her lifestyle.

Another fascination for me was the connections the book uncovered with authors I’m already exploring. I recently read Cyril Connolly’s “The Rock Pool” and it turns out that the author had BYP connections and also that the  book was full of BYP in-jokes! Likewise, Anthony Powell’s autobiography is much quoted as a source in “BYP” as he was a friend and contemporary of Waugh and despite a more middle class background still mixed in the same circles. And Robert Byron, who I’ve been reading recently and knew as a travel writer and highly regarded Byzantinist, was surprisingly also a BYP. (I say surprisingly, but given the number of silly ass friends he has with him in “Europe in The Looking Glass”, it should have been obvious!)

A strong point of this book is its objectivity. I recoiled a lot from Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” for many reasons, including the author’s obvious wish to justify her ancestor’s terrible behaviour and paint her as a victim (as well as its lack of real research and sources). Taylor is remarkably even-handed – although many of the BYP are not the sort who you’d like to spend a night with, he is neither judgemental or hagiographic. Instead, while relating the stories of these people’s lives, he is balanced and fair. It would be easy to condemn the BYP for shallowness and hedonism, but Taylor understands the reasons for their actions. He also very astutely realises that they have all the characteristics of any youth movement before and since – a rejection of previous standards, a refusal to conform to their parents’ wishes, a need to shock. And as with every such wave of rebellion, the participants (mostly) eventually grown up and conform in one way or another. In the case of the BYP, the advent of Nazism was enough to focus the minds of the majority of them on reality and indeed several members served their country in one way or another during WWII.

I felt one of the most apt paragraph came in the chapter dealing with BYP works of literature. Taylor states:

“Beneath… though, lies something much more disquieting. Unsurprisingly, the fundamental concerns of Bright Young People novels turn out to be those of the Bright Young People themselves: generational conflict; doubts about the value of human relationships; the resigned expectation of unpleasant things to come. The future, as conceived by a Powell, a Mitford, or a Waugh is never a rosy blur but something hard, sharp and ominous.”

This seems to me to highlight the frantic sense of desperation that underlay the period and its incessant drinking and partying. The end results were not pretty and many of the characters – Brenda Dean Paul, Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brian Howard in particular – suffered very sad ends. But the impact of the First World War cannot be understated – there had never been a War like it, and a whole generation emerged determined to break free of the kind of society that had allowed such destruction to take place. The tragedy is that in many cases they ended up destroying themselves.

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