24 Hour Party People

This is the story of a group of privileged young people who captivate London press with their antics (read: bad behavior and total willingness to behave like idiots in public) and occasional brushes with the law. No, it's not the story of Lauren and Heidi or Paris and Lindsey. The subjects are upper class twenty-somethings in the 1920s London.

It starts out slow - Taylor actually spends a chapter pondering why they were called the "Bright Young People." Once it kicks into gear, around chapter 4, it's quite enjoyable as tales of people with pretensions to talent, pretensions in general, out-sized egos and a deep interest in clothes go. Evelyn Waugh (a major chronicler of this ilk), Cyril Connolly, and Cecil Beaton key players but the bulk of the story revolves around once revered but now forgotten bubble-heads like Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brian Howard, Brenda Dean Paul and Steven Tennent. Yes, they may not have been complete idiots but who really wants to defend the intellects of people whose major consuming interests were: parties, stunt parties, drinking, treasure hunts, costume parties, and more drinking.

The best parts are the extracts from the diaries and letters of the parents of one of the BYP. The Ponsonbys were horrified by their daughter's activities, her lack of ambition, and her profligate spending and their observations are both acute and frequently hilarious. When Dorothea Ponsonby writes, apropos of one of her daughter's friends "I can't look at him. He is like an obscure footman" she is forging new ground in put downs. In fact, I'm tempted to make this my go-to insult for the next month. Taylor is upfront about the fact that the majority of People in question aren't terribly impressive upon closer inspection. (Except in their networking and literary log-rolling, which is truly notable.) Yet several of them have already been the subject of biographies, (entitled "Portrait of a Failure" and "Serious Pleasures", no less) Taylor is interested in what made these people newsworthy, what inspired them and what impact they have left on society. The fascination with them seems almost perverse. It's not borne of respect or admiration. It's more like straining one's neck to see the remains of the car crash.

There's plenty of metaphorical and literal car crashes on display from Brenda Dean Paul's pioneering turn as a starlet drug addict, Elizabeth Ponsonby - generally and, best of all, the story of Gavin Henderson's wedding to a nice girl mummy approved of and the wedding night that the bride spent alone and he spent with a sailor he picked up. Somehow the marriage doesn't take. They natter on about becoming actresses, writing books or plays, painting pictures, but few of them ever actually create anything more permanent than a particularly inspired party invitation. It's easy to read these stories and snicker at the disproportion between the BYP's pretensions and their accomplishments. The sadder point that Taylor makes is that this really was the very best life they could imagine.

Once past their glory days a surprising number of the BYP move into fascism or communism. There's a joke to be made here about being addicted to parties but I'm going to skip it. Better jokes are made about this by Taylor himself and Cyril Connolly in "Where Engels Fears to Tread", a satire about a BYP who embraces communism and exhorts his fellow BYPs to join him with the words "Morning's at seven, and you've got a new matron."

Back to Heidi and Lauren etc., you could easily substitute their names (or any tabloid darlings de jour) for several characters here, switch "plays" for movies and "singer" for "writer" and you wouldn't notice the difference for several pages. Seeing how far back our fascination with pointless celebrity extends is interesting and thankfully this story is in the hands of writer who is sympathetic but not indulgent.

This is an enjoyable read for any fan of biography or early 20th century European history.

No comments: