Bright Young Londoners

I have been amusing myself through these soupy wet mornings by re-reading Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies on the bus.  This means I spend the first hour of the morning chuckling to myself over the antics of these rapacious, hedonistic, hard, flinty Bright Young Things of Waugh’s world, but it also makes it increasingly likely that I will reel off the No 82 and say something like: “Oh, hullo Agatha.  No don’t go to sleep.  Let’s wander over to Berkeley Square and drink until we’re sick over the Earl of Throbbing at the Savage Party.”  And off they go, slurp, slurp, sniff, sniff….Drinking, playing, drugging and organising views of  Objet d’arts whilst wearing  false moustaches and novelty hats… It cheers a girl up on a rainy February morning.

Not that the Bright Young Things of the 1920s which Waugh lampooned weren’t totally doolally of course.  Amongst all this exuberance and High Bohemia, the Bright Young Things were so well-bred and so present in the pages of Debretts that they didn’t have anything so ordinary as a job of work.  They wasted time, got wasted, had parties and had a divine time with a sense of repressed urgency, as if they knew their days of gaiety were numbered.  So, what could they do to fill their days?  One of the amusements they concocted was frequent “treasure hunts” around the West End and the City where someone who had been at the same men’s club the previous evening drunk on champagne with most of the Government,would have stolen something like the Prime Minister’s pipe, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s top hat.  Off the Bright Young Things would go, following clues, reeling around on the top decks of London’s buses and tubes (a mode of transport that would have been utterly unfamiliar to them) kicking up a right stink and finally locating the said object of treasure hunt.  More often than not, this would be in someone’s Knightsbridge cellar, or in the members bar of the House of Lords.  London was their playground.  After the job was done (“Oh, well DONE, Adam!  Did Archie give you a divine little clue – did he?”) they would repair to a hotel and drink until their eyes fell out.  The cocaine, like their sense of childishness, was pure and intact.  Waugh, a middle-class interloper, watched on the sidelines and satirised the Bright Young Things, sometimes mercilessly, sometimes kindly, in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies.

Reading this today, it is clear that the panic, political upheaval, drug raids, fractured lives, dipsomaniac superrich stupidity and snobby crassness of the 1920s and 1930s appears unrivalled by any other age.  Lots of people now like to think society is falling apart.  Pah, I say.  And double pah.  The sick-making, swirling, fatalistic – and utterly pointless – abuse and indulgences of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s and 1930s  makes an evening at Katie Price’s mansion look like the Teddy Bears Picnic.  When the modern world tires them, The Bright Young Things repair to an old-fashioned Edwardian Mayfair hotel run by the wonderful Lottie Crump to take “great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certitude”.  But when they get there they find a chaotic imitation of a riotous country house from about 1908 : gay Italian waiters in rouge, sexual goings-on upstairs, deposed Kings of small European principalities weeping in the corner, crumpled camisoles, extravagant, braying drunks, gamblers knocking back three bottles of wine before supper; in other words, a peculiarly dissolute version of the safe, pre-Great War past.  The old world it seems, is no more reassuring or moral than the vapid 1920s.

No one ever seems to know who the Prime Minister is in this book, because he keeps changing.  Ordinary modes of social communication have broken down, replaced by witless, shrieking, rich people hectoring at each other over gin fizzes.  The Earl of Balcairn – reduced to working as a gossip columnist – sticks his head in a gas oven and dies and nobody notices.    People get engaged, decide not to be engaged, and then get engaged again – all between 3 and 4 in the morning at a themed party in Berkeley Square.  Mortifyingly, one of the party girls gets coked up and eventually goes to sleep dressed in Hawaiian grass skirts in the study of the Prime Minister, without actually realising she is in No 10.  Bored of talking about the Great War – tired of thinking about the Great War – they pledge to throw themselves into the party spirit with much aplomb.   Mocking anything disgustingly middle-class or genteel the riotious world of the Bright Young Things in London is eventually dismissed by the novel’s main male protagonist, aspiring novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes.  He laments at the end of the novel the merry-go-round of  “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood . . . – all the succession and repetition of massed humanity . . . Those vile bodies.”    But the champagne sours, someone crashes someone’s sports car, and the waste continues.

Meanwhile, away from the Bright Young Things’ Mayfair playground, 3 million Britons were out of work.  The Jarrow March of 1936 was one of about five hunger marches to the capital that took place in the 1930s.  In the country’s most underprivileged areas, death rates and infant mortality rates were rising for the first time since the First World War.  This poverty wasn’t restricted to the provinces; the 1931 Census showed 54 families in the City of London ( just the one square mile) lived seven people to a room.   As the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s, as W H Auden called it, shuffled gracelessly on, it bore new suburbs for the aspirational clerk, universal electricity and standardisation of benefits, but the madness of  British fascism was bleeding through from the sidelines and world war was a “when”, not an “if”.

Perhaps then, the magic of Waugh’s book is that you don’t think about the reality of any of the above.  The vileness is so funny, and their elusive quest for desire so comic-tragic that it is pity, not hatred, that the reader feels for these not so Bright Young Things.  Their world is fairyland, unable to correspond to any reader’s actual normality (unless your grandfather was a particularly rakish seventh Duke of Devonshire) and the cleverness of it’s construction and humour seduces.  Waugh is a brilliant master technician; he makes novel-writing seem easy.  The constant stream of rushed conversation – about half the novel is spoken words –  belies the familiar patter of the inter-war minor aristo.     There is often nothing between the clipped conversational lines, which increases the sense of a closed world the reader cannot access or understand.  We never get in.    When the Hon.  Agatha Runcible ends up in a nursing home following an alcoholic-induced nervous breakdown, she still can’t stop turning in her own world, and this is seen by us on the outside as nothing more threatening than a touchingly weak child: “…There are some cocktail things in the wardrobe.  Do make a big one.  The nurses love them so.  It’s such a nice nursing-home, this, Adam, only all the nurses are starved, and there’s a breathtaking young man next door who keeps putting his head in and asking how I am .  He fell out of an aeroplane, which is rather grand, don’t you think?”    The book is excellently paced, a riot.  But Waugh utterly blows the fallacy of monied glamour to those of us craning our necks to see in from the outside.  Everything that was beautiful, or “darling”, or “divine” is ultimately callous and vile and turns to dust.  Being rich has never looked so beautifully stylish – or so sad.

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Town Mouse and Country Mouse

I woke up in Hampshire last week and didn’t know where I was – or who I was – or when I was.  There was a bus outside the window and unusual sights beyond (trees! open spaces! thatched roofs! Splendid wee pubs filled with dart boards and friendly, ruddy faced landladies!) Was I in an H E Bates novel? No, but I was in a village a short drive from Petersfield visiting a particularly splendid branch of my family, complete with a lovely, vivacious eight month old who made three robust attempts to remove my earrings by dragging them out through the earlobe.  I felt a bit like Paul McGann’s character in Withnail and I – not that I had “gone on holiday by mistake….” but that I carried the city with me, dressed differently, had unkempt hair, and would be suspicious when viewed through the bi-focals of the local farmer’s wife in my quest for wood and milk.

Clusters of my family have landed towards Hampshire and Dorset and soon I will be calling the A3 my second home.  “Farewell!” they say.  Drop, drop, drop, off the London suburban perch.  “Hello!” they bellow from Hampshire down the phone.  I can hear the mud.  I can see the new, rural layer of skin on their faces that has been pleasantly revealing itself now the London urban grime has sloughed away.  “You must visit!” The line drops.  Suburban London is a little emptier.  It’s rare that I get out to the country; or rather it’s rare that the country will have me, but when I do the bucolic cosiness of the south and south west tends to strike me somewhere within and I feel distinctly enriched.  Having arrived in Hampshire at tea time on Tuesday, we had not been able to see it, which made waking up on Wednesday morning particularly surreal.  Getting back to Lahndahn on the 0948 to Waterloo was disturbing of course, but then it always is; Kenco coffee; raddled old copies of Metro, counting down the Surrey towns and the south London slurry sites and finally lurching into Waterloo, the Bakerloo Line, the office…. 18 hours was enough of the countryside to remember what it looked like, to receive a giddy shrug from it, and to allow it’s prettiness to seep in, only to have to turn around and head back to Lahndahn just at the moment you might actually be enjoying yourself.

What I meant about returning to Lahndahn was that I was returning to my reality. As I have mentioned on these pages before, I am a bit of a hybrid of Town Mouse and Country Mouse, which means that topographically I am schizo. My mouse whiskers have been bristled as much by urban stench and street awareness as they have by Chiltern breezes.  I like and relate to urbanity, but my formative years were spent sitting in a vegetable garden looking at the five berries our barren strawberry patch had birthed that year and wondering whether we just ought to turn it over to turnips.   Trips to London were intoxicating, ludicrously exciting and uncommon, which explains my grateful bemusement at actually living in the city, a bemusement which remains solid and undimmed after sixteen years. So, I am unsure whether, when I actually go the country, I am so deeply ensconced in urban fantasies of rural beauty that I can’t see its reality at all, or whether I am simply regressing to the person I was in 1986?  Is the stillness of village life lurking in me somewhere, ready to bowl me over during menopause when I can retire to a Wiltshire shed with a potter’s wheel?  The countryside changes you – but then is it being away from the city that makes us feel different, or is it being away from the real, everyday commitments and work of city life?  We are all different on holiday.   It may not be the hedgerows of the home counties, but the smack of liberation which is so pleasant.   How far can it really be felt if it isn’t your reality? In Town Mouse and Country Mouse – a story whose foundations go back to classical times – each mouse spends the story convincing the other of the merits of its life. The urban mouse is a bit superior regarding the country mouse’s simplicity and the country mouse thinks – basically – that the town mouse is mad. It is satirical and untimately town life comes off worse. Well, we know that the town is dirty, filthy, drug-infested, rude, expensive, drunken, anxiety-making and fearful but that’s why we like it. ( We love a bit of drunken anxiety late at night) but it’s an age old mice debate that no one can win.

Human beings are, it turns out, no more capable of viewing life from another’s perspective than the two mice.  What people love is leisure.  What they hate is labour. It is the intoxication of escaping from your reality that seduces, irrespective of whether you are a town mouse delighting in the spaces and clean smells of the country, or whether you are a teenager from Suffolk who heads up to London on the train, desperate for a slice of yer genuine city decadence, and to return the next morning bleary-eyed, hungover, coke-raddled and broke.  Despite the obvious differences between town life and country life they are very similar in the nature in which they are experienced:  The world, whichever you are, looks lovelier from the outside, and is sweeter for the visitor.

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Watching the detectives

About ten years ago I had an epiphany : if I could only be a cross between Ava Gardner and Jessica Fletcher I would be the perfect woman.  Ideal.  I wouldn’t need anything else – not a soupcon of Streisand, nor a dash of Monroe.  If we could somehow combine the powers of Gardner and Fletcher we could create a woman who would rule the world.  She would have the sexual power and aesethetic beauty of Gardner coupled with the no-nonsense, brilliant, detecting brain of Jessica Fletcher, the first person to work out who in the lunch party killed the golf caddy, or who in the amateur dramatic group coshed the choreographer on the head and made a run for it.  I realise there are problems with this idea, as one of the women is fictional and the other one is dead but, hell, you got to aim high, haven’t you?

Unfortunately I have been slightly out of order for several days due to what I have called medieval plague lunatic virus which requires another week to clear up.  Part of the joy of being off work is seeing Murder She Wrote for the first time since 1989.  Whilst viewing, I realised that this week I have finally turned into a combination of Ava Gardner and Jessica Fletcher, but with the wrong parts.  I have Ava Gardner’s brain (as still as a millpond, rather dim, occasional electrical twitch of life when thinking of Frank Sinatra) coupled with Jessica Fletcher’s sexual allure (not apparent, swathed in beige cardigans, thickening at the waist, look like an elderly man from a certain angle).    I’ve existed in that strange malaise, where you don’t really want to read a book, don’t really want to watch telly, don’t really want to brush your hair – and you just sit and stare and stare and stare and find that you have been staring at the wall for half an hour.  Again.     The week has stretched out long and dry and I have nothing to fill it.  I did have the delightful prospect of a hairdressers visit on Friday (I LOVE the hairdressers) but I shan’t be well enough to go so I am a little sad about that.  So, I have pledged to use the time to finally catch up on Zen, the critically-hailed Italian set detective drama from Michael Dibden’s books.

I was immediately enthusiastic about this.  Rufus Sewell (Schwingg!),  Rome piazzas (Schwingg!), sexy snogging moments behind the Orangina dispensers in espresso-serving plain little cafes (Schwing!!), high-ceilinged gracious apartments where everyone has a huge wine glass filled with a stylish slosh of Barollo (Schwingg!). It was so fine that I really could have done without the murder / intrigue / mercurial senior policemen / plot etc, and just looked at the decoration and outfits for 2 hours.  Apparently Zen is a Venetian, a fact that Romans instinctively distrust.  I am talking, by the way, of modern day Romans – the short, organized, loud people who run businesses and zoom around dangerously in cars, not the older Romans – the short, organized, loud people who ran empires and zoomed around dangerously in chariots between Colchester and St Albans.  Rufus Sewell – does he wear eyeliner above his eyelashes?  Either that or he has been lucky to have been born naturally doe-eyed and mesmerising.  And don’t tell me the outfits worn by his lovely lady friend won’t influence us this Spring.  Which one of us doesn’t want to go out and rock the sexy Italian pencil-skirt wearing secretary look?  It’s far more attractive than Kate Middleton’s twiggy-legs in opaque expensive tights and suede boots, whom the papers insist on foisting upon us like some fashion messiah by repeating nonsense like “Everyone’s copying her look!”.  If that was the case we would all look tense, English, emaciated and very much in need of a chicken supper.

I of course am unable to fulfil the sexual allure inherent in the Roman sexy secretary look because I still am suffering from medieval plague virus.  But when I emerge I shall buy one of those skirts that are difficult to walk in.  Meanwhile, dear readers, my life has taken that strange shape life takes when you aren’t well.  My whole world has shrunk to three rooms.  I have the computer, Murder She Wrote, Daisy Goodwin’s enjoyable new novel My Last Duchess, codeword puzzles, Facebook and Google News.  It was the last of these things that had to be the first to go.  It was full of ordinary madnesses and I had to switch the news off.  I got a shock when I looked outside the window late yesterday afternoon – there were people, lots of them, sitting on the top deck of a London bus, would you believe, on their way home from work, would you believe.  I looked at them from my plinth in Ye Henry VI Coldsore Infirmarie  and gawped at them in their modern, Blackberry-clutching world  and thought “people!”, “bus!”  “have they been to work?  I remember that.” “Londoners!”  “Oh, look, she’s got a magazine.”   I was astonished that the outside world still existed – not from ideas of egotism that the world really ought not to go on turning without me (although I am grateful that the ropes are up in most of Soho’s pubs and bars until I am  better, which is soooo sweet) but that I hadn’t participated in anything for the last week and had sort of …er…forgotten. I had a job?  I did things?  It has only been 5 days!  Ought I to telephone someone and let them know?  Who do I work for?

I’m nearly out of the woods and will rejoin the modern world on Monday.  Meanwhile, who amongst us is convinced that my medieval plague coldsore virus has been sent to me by Edward Rutherfurd, who I totally bitched about two weeks ago on this here site?  Has he sent me back to 1328 as a punishment?  If so, it’ll be hell in a plague cart, I can tell you.  Maybe next he’ll send me a dose of Georgian syphillis.  I bet they won’t have anything for that at Neal’s Yard.  Or Victorian cholera.   Rutherfurd, you ass.  I shan’t be reading HIM again.  I’m in a right huff.  Writers eh?  They always have to bear a grudge. Bet that Jessica Fletcher wouldn’t do that – she’d be lovely and make me a cup of something weird, like American tea, and say : “Now, dear, I’m just off to see the sheriff to discuss the killing of poor Father Oliver in the crypt.  Such a sad business.  Who would want to give a dear old man like that a pot of poisoned crysanthemums the day before the tri-annual yacht meet?”

‘Jeez, Jessica.  I have no idea.  Is that your typewriter?  The one you use in the opening credits with the music and stuff?  Is the piano inside it?’

‘Not now dear. Now, I don’t suppose it could be…..’  Jessica looks rueful, and her tidy hair moves slightly.  ‘Wasn’t that nice Mr Rutherfurd in town yesterday? You know – the writer?’

‘Yes he was, Jessica! How clever of you to remember!’

‘I saw him when I left the opticians and I remember I didn’t need to put my glasses on to see him in that yellow jumpsuit. Didn’t he have a gift for Father Oliver?’

‘Oh yes, it’s him, Jessica.  He’s a right twozzock. It’s probably him.  You can arrest him if you like.  I just have one question.’

‘Whether or not he actually bought the crysanthemums intended for Father Oliver?  Whether or not Rutherfurd meant to frame Dwayne the pool boy at the yacht club?’

‘No.  You don’t have any Zovirax, do you?’

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The Royal Screen

There is a real delight in a cinema in the afternoon on a weekday.  Unless it’s the Swiss Cottage Odeon, of course, where they had the air conditionning whacked up to full level and most of us sat there watching The Kings Sp-sp-sp-sp-eech wearing balaclavas and scarves.  When I say most of us, I mean 3 of us.  There was only 4 of us in there.  The screen sat approximately 400.  It was also not a real pleasure to turn up and find the box office open only “on weekends and Wednesdays” and subsequently I was expected to use an automated machine.  The machine was told I wanted to buy a ticket for The Kings Sp-sp-sp-sp-eech, which I bought a ticket for from it, only to find it vomited out a ticket for a 6pm screening of The Social Network

In Screen One there was me, a middle aged man with a big rucksack, and two elderly women who insisted in speaking in German throughout all the trailers.  One more woman arrived at the end of the trailers, who looked old enough to have actually been in the film playing Edward VII’s under housemaid.  We heard her before we saw her, bashing her walking stick through the door and moving slowly up the stairs to the auditorium.  “Hello?  HELLO? Ooh”  she said, expecting somebody to answer her.  She got to the front of the auditorium where she stood, infront of a massive screen filled with snippets of the over-anticipated Sky Atlantic channel and said “Ooh – it’s on in here is it?  Oh right.  Not very full is it?”

“No,” we all said.

She took advantage of the fact she would probably be thought of as too old to be really “with it” and launched herself into a Premium priced seat which she clearly hadn’t paid for.

The Kings Sp-sp-sp-sp-eech  is deliriously marvellous, and you all know that unless you’ve been living in a rabbit hole for the last four weeks, so I don’t need to bang on about it here.  If you haven’t seen it, you should see it, but beware, it will turn the most recalcitrant republican into a bewildered monarchist.   “Go on!”  you feel yourself egging on his Majesty King whatsit, as he prepares to address the nation on the eve of war.  “Go on, Georgey, Bertie, whoever you are!”  you want to shout, as pseudo-Rule Britannia music threatens to break the Dolby stereo.  I cried three times. I don’t even like the royal family.  I think there are –  in the main – vastly unattractive.  But hello, when did Colin Firth get so sexy all of a sudden, with his sexy little speech impediment?  And why do I find a stutter slightly adorable?  And doesn’t he look lovely when he’s got his official outfits of state on (Hello, Your Majesty!) with all those lovely bits of braid and awards and bells and tight trousers?   It’s a clever move before a royal wedding.;  get the citizens onside by emotionally manipulating women of a certain age into thinking Colin Firth is actually part of the royal family.  Don’t believe me?  Go on, see it.  You’ll be weeping in the aisles with the rest of them.

If Colin Firth started wearing tight trousers on television and ended up wearing tight trousers on film, almost every advert we saw was for actors reversing this process.  Film has come to television.  Sky Atlantic is basking delightfully in the acquisition of Martin Scorsese for Empire Boardwalk and wiping their hands with glee at grabbing Kate Winslet for Mildred Pierce.  I know this because the Sky Atlantic advert on the screen mentioned these two programmes four times.  Television provides some of the highest calibre entertainment American has produced.  Who’d have thunk it?  All the actors of my youth, The Brat Pack, now known as the Hip Replacement Pack, have survived only on television; if Kiefer Sutherland isn’t being arrested whilst driving drunk with a cow in his car on the way back from a poker game (or similar), he’s working one of the television hits of the century with 24.  Charlie Sheen, if they can find him from where he lives in his mansion under a pile of naked Hollywood hustlers, pimps and strumpets amid a mountain of Columbia’s finest, is getting by with Two and a Half Men.  If his probation officer lets him.  Rob Lowe finally crawled out of the mucky, Dukakis “whoops I’m in bed with mother and daughter in Idaho!” scandal by proving himself on West Wing.  James Spader is suited and booted on Boston Legal.   Not one of them dreamed of stepping off the John Hughes / Joel Schumacher gravy train in the mid-late 80s and finding themselves on television 20 years later.  You can imagine their disgust:

Malibu, California.  The late 1980s.  Sometime after lunch in Jon Cryer’s colonial-style ranch.

Emilio Estevez :  Yeah, get this, man – apparently when we’re really old – like 40 and stuff – we will only get jobs on TV!

Charlie Sheen: {hoovers up some white powder, which he “found in the cupboard”, which later turns out to be Waitrose’s bicarbonate of soda} No way, bro.  I was in, like, Wall Street.  It was a movie and stuff and we had cameras – BIG ones – and I got to swear and had, like, a really really nice suit.  I got to use Michael Douglas’s jacuzzi.  So, no.  I am NOT TV guy.

Andrew McCarthy: {adjusts mullet, swears – but only a PG-rated word}  Goddamn motherfudger!  I’m far too short for TV.  My career is over.  I heard about this.  Kiefer Sutherland is gonna be in a show and save the world or something.  Lou – sorry – you’re gonna do poker on the poker channel.

No one knows quite what to say.

Lou Diamond Phillips : Are you crazy? Kiefer saving the world?  He keeps a goat in his living room.  No one is gonna believe a Canadian can save the world.  What’s the poker channel?

Emilio Estevez : You will not always be on the poker channel, Mr Diamond. Sometimes directors will hire you when they are casting for terrorists.  You will make a comfortable living from this.  So, Kiefer gets to save the world and you get to play the guy trying to blow it up.  Oh, and my Dad is the President. Or something.

Charlie Sheen : I’m the President, man.  I’m gonna save the world, man.  I got the chicks, I got the HAIR. I am deeply DELUDED and incomprehensively vain.  I’m gonna save the world and you losers are gonna be my secretaries.  I just gotta find those shoes.  Anyone seen my shoes?  They are small and green and made of something and they came from the lady who had the thing……any more bicarb?

Judd Nelson:  So, the world is changing.  What is going to happen to me? {A sinister chuckle is heard from the room overhead.  They dismiss this as Val Kilmer doing a vocal warm-up and carry on the conversation}.  Are movie actors like us going to become obsolete?

Emilio Estevez: Well not entirely, but television is gonna be where it’s at, on Sky Atlantic.  If you want to get by on films in the future you’ll just have to work for the Coen brothers or playing a saturnine gay cowboy or do a musical. 

Lou Diamond Philips:  Is Sky Atlantic an airline?  Who are the Colin brothers?

Andrew McCarthy : Oh well, I guess time will tell. Personally I don’t believe a word of it.  It’s like trying to make me believe that Guy Pearce from Neighbours is a proper actor.  Or that the lovely Madonna and Sean Penn will ever divorce.  Jeez, they’re such a great couple.  I’m going to the health club to play squash with Matthew Broderick…

Yes, dear Brat Packers, the times have changed.  A rolled-up jacket sleeve and a toothy grin wouldn’t hack it on HBO.  Although Bruce Springsteen may have been right when he sung that there were “57 channels and nothing on…” on US television, the small amount of output that contitutes the 58th channel of HBO has done more than anyone ever predicted.  Perhaps the most astonishing thing wasn’t that every advert at the cinema on Friday was for television but that people still turn out in their thousands to go to the cinema, a habit that many in the 1970s believed would die out.  There is nothing like watching a film on the big screen.  One in fifteen people in the UK and Ireland have now seen The Kings Speech, a fact I find very encouraging for the UK film industry.  Before the main feature, an advert came on to encourage us to visit the cinema more often.  By Simon Pegg, who is famous on television.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.