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Let Frivolity Reign: London's Roaring 1920s

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Let Frivolity Reign: London's Roaring 1920s

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Let Frivolity Reign: London's Roaring 1920s

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

If we're about to enter the age of responsibility, it might be fun, we thought, to trip through the lanes where the age of irresponsibility began. Celebrity coverage and individual excess reigned supreme.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: It was the '20s in London, the age of the titled people behaving badly. They lived large and furnished the press with a stream of snippets and invented youth culture. They were called the Bright Young People. That's the name of author D.J. Taylor's new book, and he joins us now. Welcome, David Taylor.

Mr. DAVID J. TAYLOR (Author, "Bright Young People"): Hello, very nice to talk to you.

LYDEN: Tell us more about the Bright Young People. You called them "gilded triflers." And they come to the fore after World War I is over.

Mr. TAYLOR: They do. And they are a very curious and eclectic set of people. Some of them were very aristocratic, very wealthy young men and women with no particular need to earn a living. Some of them were much more what we would call middle-class adventurers, people like Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton...

LYDEN: The writer and photographer.

Mr. TAYLOR: That's right. That climbed onto the backs of the Bright Young People to accelerate their careers. And beneath this, you have a level of what I would call almost very bohemian people - artists and minor writers who were patronized by their sort of wealthier sponsors. And it's a very, very interesting group. And they were all people - certainly the men were people who were just too young to fight in the First World War and whose brothers, perhaps, or whose fathers had fought in it. Through all the frivolity and all the sparkle, it was a very pessimistic age that was always looking over its shoulder at the black dog trailing it, so to speak.

LYDEN: Tell us about this scene that they inhabited - the scavenger hunts they had, the car chases at midnight, the balls.

Mr. TAYLOR: Like most youth movements, it all started with just a small group of friends who were setting out to enjoy themselves, simply decided they wanted to pass the later part of the evening by having a treasure hunt. They would be given a list of items to collect. And as they were all terribly well-connected and knew everybody in upper British society, these items would be things like the Prime Minister's pipe or a pair of corsets belonging to a celebrated actress. And they would be sent off to gather them. And by the mid-1920s, when the newspapers had taken it up in a big way, then gradually the movement spread out beyond central London.

LYDEN: Newspapers embraced them. It's a symbiotic relationship.

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, absolutely. I'm very suspicious of what might be called historical fast-forwarding, you know, of only looking at the past if it seems of any relevance to our own contemporary arrangements. But I've always thought that when you look at the 1920s - the 1920s in Britain - you can see the very beginnings of what we would call modern celebrity culture in that there were the - it was the beginning of the "it" girl. There were several British "it" girls. There was a marvelous woman called - well, not marvelous. She died a very tragic death. Brenda Dean Paul - she was known as the society drug addict. She was an "it" girl.

And they were famous merely for being famous. Their lives were followed on an almost daily basis by the society newspapers. And so when, for example, Brenda Dean Paul was on one of her drunk escapades, there would be newspaper headlines on every corner simply saying, "Brenda Jailed Again," or, you know, "Brenda In Trouble." And everybody would immediately have known who Brenda was and sort of followed her career. And as you say, it was a symbiotic relationship. And I think, as I said, that we can see the sort of glimmerings of the celebrity culture that now seems to rule the western half of the planet.

LYDEN: So how did the public react to these flamboyantly excessive displays?

Mr. TAYLOR: It was, I think, very sort of subtly nuanced in a way, because on the one hand, newspapers and their proprietors were very interested in youth. Newspapers were changing. They were becoming brighter and more brasher and much less staid than they had before the First World War. And on the one hand, people wanted to be titillated. They wanted to read about extravagance. They wanted to read about frivolity, about extraordinary parties that went on until 3 o'clock in the morning where all the food was either red or white. So you had - you know, you ate lobsters and strawberries on the one hand and chicken and sort of lemon puddings on the other. They wanted to have a kind of vicarious satisfaction out of this. And yet as soon as it went too far, when it was thought that people had overstepped the mark, then they wanted to disapprove of it. So there's a lot of sort of residual English Puritanism involved as well when they did something disreputable.

LYDEN: There are enduring works of art that come out of this period. On the cover of your book, just to name one, you've got a picture of Cecil Beaton's sister dressed as a shooting star. And she's so beautiful.

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, she's extraordinarily beautiful. Yes, I mean, the thing is that the Bright Young People began to be memorialized in quite serious works of art and fiction from a very, very early stage. I mean, the classic text is Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies" which pretty much dramatizes the sort of social life he was living in the late 1920s and in addition puts a lot of the Bright Young People in it.

LYDEN: I want to tell you, I actually posses a copy of "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh, but I couldn't get my hands on it last night, so I went and called the local library. And they said that "Vile Bodies," that there were 17 people ahead of me for that novel. I couldn't believe it.

Mr. TAYLOR: It's extraordinary, isn't it, to think that a book that Waugh wrote very, very quickly in late 1929 should be so extraordinarily popular nearly 80 years later? But I think this thing has an extraordinarily enduring fascination. It's the idea of sort of slightly depraved and debauched young people having a wonderful time while the economic recession is looming. There they all are sort of playing away as the Titanic is beginning to sink beneath them. And there's a kind of - it does turn, I think, into a kind of morality tale.

LYDEN: Author, D. J. Taylor. His new book is called, "Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age." D.J. Taylor, thank you very much.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you.

LYDEN: And if you want to see this era depicted on the big screen, you can check out the 2003 film "Bright Young Things" which happens to be written and directed by Stephen Fry. And it's also where you can hear more of this toe-tapping jazz.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

LYDEN: Book reviewer Troy Patterson calls "Bright Young People" a lasting party favorite. Read the full review on our Web site, npr.org.

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