The Bright Young Things

The Bright Young Things (sometimes also called the Bright Young People) were a generation of upper-class youths in England during the period between the two World Wars. They were fast, daring, funny and absolutely outrageous. They posed and dressed up and had wild parties and seemed to live for nothing but pleasure, calling down upon their heads all kinds of condemnation from their elders. They would go on to become some of the most celebrated figures in 20th century letters, and more than a few of them became exemplary patriots serving their country in World War 2. A few of them would go on to become the very kinds of moralistic grandees that they had sought to rebel against when they were young.

The most notable among them were:

Cecil BeatonBeaton never properly belonged in the group because of his thoroughly middle-class background. However his steadfast snobbery, his hard work, unceasing social climbing and gift for photography soon made him invaluable and he became forever-associated with the scene. In many ways he bought himself into it through working as a photographer and making the glamorous people appear even more glamorous.

Stephen Tennant – Sometimes referred to as “the brightest of the Bright Young Things,” the beautiful, effeminate Tennant was the child of one of the great Edwardian socialites, and great things were expected of him. He never fulfilled his promise, and indeed he became quite famous for being one of the greatest failures of his generation. He famously claimed that he went to bed in 1940 and never got up again.

Nancy Mitford – Clever, beautiful, and vastly unsatisfied with her aristocratic background of genteel poverty and intellectual stupor, Mitford was one of the first to chronicle the wild parties and crazy gags of this group. These early novels of hers were not successes, however, and she had to wait till the 1950s to find fame. Throughout this period she was engaged in unsuitable romances.

Evelyn Waugh – Another imposter, Waugh was a middle-class boy who used to walk miles to post his letters so that they might bear a more fashionable postmark on the envelope. Clever and funny, he rose to prominence at Oxford with his strange poses and his homosexual relationships with people well above his station. Waugh would be the first to find success with chronicling this set, in his acclaimed first novel Vile Bodies. It made him an instant celebrity.

Harold Acton – Is perhaps the most unknown (now) of this set, though at the time he was one of the richest and most outrageous. He knew everyone and had a great gift for friendship. He was old-mannish, however, prematurely bald and conscious of the fact that he was not physically attractive. Now almost totally forgotten, Acton was immensely talented and a beautiful writer. He wrote the first biography of Nancy Mitford.

Diana MitfordNancy’s sister was the great beauty of the group, and she married very well, to the heir of the Guinness brewing fortune. That marriage didn’t work out, and later on she ran off with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. And then things didn’t go so well for her.

Beverley Nichols – Another of the forgotten ones, Nichols was, in his time, a very famous writer whose by-line was ubiquitous in the quality newspapers and fashion magazines. Nichols was another assiduous collector of famous friends, and would flatter them by featuring them in newspaper profiles. Daringly and outspokenly gay, Nichols was a great friend of interior decorator Syrie Maugham, wife of Somerset Maugham. He would one day write a scandalous book in defence of Syrie called A Case of Human Bondage.

Walter is giving a talk on Cecil Beaton at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in the CBD on Wednesday February 1, 2017, starting at 12.30 pm. This is a free event, and all are welcome. 

Cecil Beaton's Diaries

Cecil Beaton was many things, but not least among his accomplishments was that of diarist. His published diaries, decorated in their original editions with vivid jackets designed by him, were great sellers in their day, though they were heavily edited to make him appear less bitchy and also to leave out much of the gay stuff.

I am not going to criticise him for that – it was a tough time to be a gay man, and when he was growing up the gay world in England still existed in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde scandal.

But despite heavy editing, Beaton’s diaries were wonderful reading, still filled with gossip and observation. He was scrupulous in keeping diaries, and he attended to them even more when he felt he was doing something special. He was a born diarist and, I think, one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

Those colourful first editions are worth a fortune now, though I can remember working in a second-hand bookshop in the nineties when no-one wanted them and we sold them for $4 a piece. Oh how I wish I had bought them then – I could easily have made up a whole set (6 volumes in all), which now sells online for around $4,000 (with their dust jackets).

As I said, during special projects he kept more detailed notes, conscious of using them for publication, and in this way he created a book from the film production of My Fair Lady.

This wasn’t a happy time for him (you get the idea reading the book, but he couldn’t be as open about it as he might have wished), but the book stands as a fascinating look at the production of a film written by an insider who is not the normal actor or director who might normally pen such a memoir. Instead Beaton was in charge of the clothes and the settings, as he had been for the Broadway and West End productions of the musical. Cecil Beaton’s Fair Lady is one of the most unique film books ever written, and deserves to be more widely known.

In recent years Beaton’s biographer Hugo Vickers has set about editing and publishing unexpurgated editions of the diaries, and these make for marvellous reading. They are even cattier, and come replete with sex and gay gossip – all the stuff that had to be left out while Beaton was alive. The Unexpurgated Beaton, a monster of a book, is a perfect place to start, and will thrill anyone with an interest in mid-20th century fashion, film and popular culture.

Film stars galore (Danny Kaye cooking Chinese food! Mae West squeezed in her tiny apartment which is “such a riot of bad taste”! Watching Noel Coward on TV and thinking he looks “like an old Chinese Buddha”!), and also touching details of Beaton’s twilight years and his affairs and attempts at romantic happiness.

January Memoir Bookishness

Looks like this January I am going to have an interesting time looking at memoir - as an art and as a craft.

First on my list is Patti Miller's The Memoir Book. This is a craft-book on actually writing memoir, and I look forward to it. I am almost finished her book Ransacking Paris, about the time she spent living in that city, and it's just superb. I have never read her before, and am so glad I have discovered a new favourite writer.

Then I am going to read Huston Smith's Tales of Wonder. I have had this book on my "must read" pile for ages, but Smith has just passed away and I feel it's time to read this account of his life as a student of the world's religions. He was a brilliant man and did a lot of important work.

Next up is more craft and more Patti Miller with her book Writing Your Life. The reason I have so many Patti Miller books on my list is that late last year I want to hear her speak at Ashfield Library, and I was so impressed I bought all of her titles the bookseller had there. This one is about piecing together your life story, something that Miller has been teaching and writing about for many years.

When I'm finished I plan on re-reading The Unexpurgated Beaton, an uncensored selection of his diaries. Beaton always makes for superb reading, and I have to do this one now because I am doing my talk on Beaton again in February, and this will be the perfect way to remind me of some of the juicier anecdotes and details.

For much the same reason I will then go on to his My Fair Lady diaries, which are fascinating, and the copy I have is an absolute delight to hold.

My 2017 Projects

I am pretty bad at doing anything if I don't have some sort of deadline, promise and schedule.
Self-discipline is an utterly unknown quality for me.
And so I tell myself that I use my blog as a kind of "accountability buddy" - if I share my plans with lots of people and some strangers I might just stick to them. It rarely works. But still I soldier on. I would love it if you could shoot me a line throughout the year asking me how I am going. I need it.

Keep in mind these are NOT my goals. I am hesitant to share them publicly because they are a bit embarrassing and I am terrified of censure when i don't achieve them. Instead, these are those extra things which make a life interesting and which are nice to do throughout the year to ensure I am a well-rounded person.

I also hope to blog all of these projects in an effort to stay on course.

So, my projects for 2017:

1. Spend a month exploring new parts of Sydney: I am dedicating the month of March to some intra-city exploration. Inspired mostly by the wonderful work of Vanessa Berry (who is releasing a new book in 2017!), I want to spend a whole month visiting those places I have always meant to go.

2. Paint every day for 3 weeks: I have some blockages around painting. I have never been a talented artist, but I also had a bad art teacher in Year 8 who looked at my frankly adventurous work and said, "You have no talent. Do something else." I WANT to be able to paint, like Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria and all of the characters in E. F. Benson novels. My April project.

3.  Reading all the books of Norman Douglas: This year marks the centenary of South Wind, Douglas' scandalous novel. He has always intrigued me, so in May I plan to make a study of him. Reading all of his books, in order.

4. Reading books by five Australian authors I have never read before: I credit this idea to the wonderful Allison Tait and her post 5 Brilliant Things You Can Do for your Writing in 2017. It was one of her 5 Things. July project.

5. Chant the Om Mani Padme Hum every morning: Ever since I visited Bhutan in 2015 I have been fascinated by the use of the sacred Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I have used the mantra on and off every year for 27+ years, but for 2017 I will be chanting it every morning and seeing what effect this has on my life.

And another year-long project:

2017: Year of the Heart Sutra

Well, I have appointed it such.
I will spend the year studying various different translations of this, the shortest but most enigmatic holy text in the Buddhist canon.
I will also be chanting it myself at home, and visiting temples to hear it chanted.

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