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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