Tag Archive: Jocelyn Brooke


Fiction

Although I was reluctant to do so, I have found it impossible to explore the world of Mayfair, Soho and Chelsea in the twenties and thirties without continually referring to Literature. so I’m reproducing here the list of recommended “Bright Young”People fiction as it appears in D.J.Taylor’s book.

Harold Acton Cornelian (1928)

Michael Arlen The Green Hat (1924)

Cyril Connolly The Rock Pool (1936)

Ronald Firbank Complete Novels (1961)

Henry Green   Party Going  (1939)

Bryan Guinness  Singing Out of Tune (1933)

James Laver Ladies Mistakes (1933)

Nancy Mitford Highland Fling (1931)

Nancy Mitford Christmas Pudding (1932)

Nancy Mitford Pigeon Pie (1940)

Beverley Nichols Crazy Pavement (1927)

Anthony Powell Afternoon Men (1931)

Anthony Powell From a View To A Death (1933)

Terence Rattigan After the Dance (1939)

Evelyn Waugh Decline and Fall (1928)

Evelyn Waugh Vile Bodies (1930)

Evelyn Waugh Mr.Loveday’s Little Outing (1936)

I’ve not read the Acton or the Guinness but this seems a pretty useful list.Personally I find Powell unsympathetic and Beverley Nichols dull. but the subject matter is fascinating. The Green Hat is rubbish, but very entertaining (I’d add These Charming People to the list).Firbank’s influence is unquestionable but the five novelettes together might prove a bit much in one go. If Firbank is in as an influence then Huxley’s Antic Hay  ought, perhaps, also be included. Similarly if Rattigan is there (and After The Dance is excellent) then Noel Coward should get a look in.

If we include post-WW2 writing then I would (and will again) argue for Jocelyn Brooke (The Military Orchid and Private View).Rosamond Lehmann too – both pre and post war.

Who else? Arlen aside, there are no “popular” or “genre” novels here. A case can be made for Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise and Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds (thanks, JS). In fact, all of Allingham’s early “cosies” have a Bright Young feel to them.

For the seedier side of club life, Gerald Kersh’s Night and The City is hard to beat, though it does not cover the raffish upper-crust in any detail.Cheyney, Horler and E.Phillips Oppenheim rely on cliche and stereotypes, but are interesting in that they allow us to see the viewpoint of “the common man” on the goings-on in high society.(I will, as I seem to keep saying, post more on this aspect shortly).

There must be others. The Apes of God? Jam Today? Half O’Clock in Mayfair? What about Nerina Shute? I invite you to make suggestions.

Voices

In the 1969 Sunday Times colour supplement article on the murder of Lord Erroll in Kenya, which would eventually beget the book and film “White Mischief”, Cyril Connolly began his contribution thus,

“One morning, in the last summer of peace, I was lying in the sun at Eden Roc. I used to swim out to the rocks of the Villa Eilen, across the water and then recuperate on my mattress, hired for the season with its coffin sized slab of limestone. Round the corner, invisible, were other slabs and mattresses, each with their locataire, regulars from the villas or the Cap D’Antibes or the hotel.

A woman’s voice floated over the escarpment, one of those never to be forgotten voices, husky, yet metallic, almost strident, a voice of the period, a touch of Tallulah,or, if anyone remembers her,Brenda Dean Paul.”My God, I hate men,” she was saying, “I’d trust my dog more than any man. I’d tell my dog things I’d never tell a man.”

The voice was that of June Carberry, hard-drinking member of the “Happy Valley” set and one of the central characters in the celebrated murder case.

Connolly’s evocative and perfectly fashioned paragraphs have got me thinking about a number of things – among them, the similarities between the “Happy Valley” crowd and Elvira’s world, the importance of the South of France to the mythology of the period and the observational acuity of the rather sidelined author himself. More on all these matters shortly, but for now let’s concentrate on the voices.

Accents, linguistic codes, neologisms and tone of voice were all used by the Bright Young People to distinguish themselves from the “mainstream”. This is a feature of all sub-cultures, high and low. In the BYP’s case these mannerisms became prime markers, more important in some ways than actual behaviour.They are familiar to us today primarily through the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, the writings of Nancy Mitford and the plays (and persona) of Noel Coward.

The high-pitched loudness of the men, the camp theatricality, the baby-talk, the italicised stress on certain words, the fondness for invention and over-emphasis can be found in every representation of the group, from serious novels to the captions below Punch cartoons.Even Cecil Beaton, hardly possessed of the most understated of tones, complained about the exaggerated squeals and shrieks of the men and women who arrived at his home one afternoon – at their centre was, inevitably, Brian Howard.

According to Viva King, Elvira (“Always in Love, My Dear!”) favoured a variant which included a slight faux-Cockney intonation. This, though surely as execrable as it suggests, was not uncommon and was to proliferate in the 1950s among the group of public school miscreants known as the “Chelsea Scallywags”. Derek Raymond’s first novel “The Crust On Its Uppers“(1960)  is written entirely in an unlikely mixture of Etonian argot and Cockney rhyming slang that takes the trend to its limit.

The “husky” affectation is one of the more memorable and long-lasting manifestations. Fenella Fielding carved a whole career in the 1950s and 1960s out of it, enlivening innumerable British comedy films with her innuendo-laden pastiche.Sophistication and sexiness were the aspects that Fielding emphasised, a direct legacy from Tallulah and her epigones.

The metallic harshness has other origins.Upper class authority plays a part, think barking at native servants or the hapless policemen abused by Elvira and others.Mostly, it, and the throatiness, were products of endless cigarettes, gallons of gin and, in some cases, drug use (hence Brenda Dean Paul).

Brenda Dean Paul 1950s

One example that seems to me to capture both the linguistic mannerisms and the requisite vocal timbre appears in Jocelyn Brooke’s Private View. The setting is The Blue Lantern in the early thirties and the character speaking (to the male narrator) is Veriny Chrichton-Jones, a composite of many women inhabiting what Brooke calls “pseudo-smart Bohemia”, including,possibly,Elvira. –

“My Dear,” she exclaimed, in her fashionably husky voice, “it’s utter heaven to see you. That monster Bertie Westmacott was meeting me, and I’ve been waiting here at least a thousand years, and I’m madly depressed. Do buy me a drink – here’s some money,I know you’re broke – and please introduce me to your boy-friend at once. I think he’s a perfect lamb, and I’d like to eat him, do you think he’d mind?” –

Brief as it is, this strikes me as just about as perfect a summation of character through dialogue as you could wish for. The insertion of “fashionably husky voice” seals the deal.

Jocelyn Brooke

I have mentioned Brooke before and will do so again as his absence from the canon of BYP chroniclers puzzles me. I think a post on Eden Roc is also in order.

Chelsea Sandwiches

Apart from Peter Hitchens and the people who post in the Daily Mail’s comment sections, very few people still believe that sexual promiscuity only started in the 1960s. However the extent to which “middle class morality” was flouted by both Bohemia and “The Smart Set” in the inter-war years, if it no longer shocks, remains a thing of wonder, and occasional surprise.

 

Ham Spray 1932

When I first read about Elvira Barney, she was presented as a possessive but heterosexual woman who was unfortunate enough to fall for a bisexual and philandering ne’er-do-well. While the description of Michael Scott Stephen  may be  accurate enough, we can say with some confidence, that Elvira shared with Michael exactly the same characteristics, plus the dangerous addition of jealousy and instability.

However, the  retrospective label of “bisexual” , when applied to the Blue Lantern crowd, needs some explaining. Looked at from today, I think most of the figures in this landscape would be seen as homosexual  – and Elvira’s cocktail party as essentially a gathering of male homosexuals and lesbians, with one or two heterosexual  (but adventurous) young actresses thrown in. That these various adherents of “alternative” lifestyles should find themselves thrown together is very much part of  a specifically English moral geography.

Unlike Paris or Berlin, there were no exclusively “Gay” public spaces in London. Predominantly  gay clubs, such as the Florida, The Rumbaba, the Apollo and the Caravan club, advertised themselves as catering for the “theatrical crowd”. Basically they had to have a mixed clientele to keep their licences. Elvira’s favoured late night haunts, The Blue Lantern and The Blue Angel, though packed with a “gay” crowd would not have  tolerated anything so outre as same-sex dancing. This meant that the gay men and women of the time  formed a mutually beneficial alliance that perhaps happens rather less in the modern world. Add to this a certain class exclusivity, genuine bisexuality and the purely (or impurely) sexually curious and you get a remarkable adult example of  Freudian ” polymorphous perversity”  – displayed on the dance floors of Soho, parties in Knightsbridge and, in particular, throughout Bohemian Chelsea .

Inevitably, some rather interesting sexual encounters ensued.

The incorrigible Billy Milton ( see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/tag/billy-milton/ ) uses a term that I was previously unfamiliar with, “The Chelsea Sandwich”, to describe one aspect of this sexual co-mingling. Milton  is the cabaret artist who arrived, so he says, one day too late to attend Elvira’s party. Of an earlier Bohemian encounter, he reports,

“One hot summer afternoon I was passing the courtyard that leads to the London Palladium. Taking the air was a perfect specimen of manhood. wearing a short white and gold tunic and breastplate, his magnificent brawny, brown body made him look to me like a Greek god. I was transfixed and willingly answered his call to have a chat, sitting with him on a prop basket. I told him a few things about myself and learned he was the principal dancer of the Marion Morgan Dancers from America. This meeting led to many experiments in the sexual sphere that could parallel Noel Coward’s Private Lives.”

Marion Morgan Dancers 1927

“He and his wife opened the door to a tumult of lovemaking and encouraged me to explore the many facets of sex: the one great gift that nature has bestowed on all of us. They believed that the lack of courage to explore love-variations caused the failure of many marriages. Their antidote was the threesome, or “Chelsea Sandwich”, and I subsequently learnt that I was just one of many to come between them.”

Typical Billy Milton – always an ear for a good punchline  – but there is a purpose to his mischievous tale. He both describes real events (the male dancer was Vincenzo Loucelli – famed for his performance, believe it or not, in Le Coq D’Or), and offers both manifesto and justification for his youthful excesses.

Milton, in the late twenties, was a neighbour of Oliver Messel in Chelsea as well as being a friend of Elvira. The  key point of his anecdote is that this was not a unique episode.

Billy Milton

Billy Milton

The best fictional version of the Chelsea Sandwich comes courtesy of Jocelyn Brooke’s  Private View.  This semi-autobiographical piece tells the story of the hapless, repressed homosexual Gerald Broadhurst, whose downfall commences at The Blue Lantern where he meets the amoral and hedonistic Veriny Crighton-Jones. Veriny is  a Bright Young Person and a voracious pursuer of young men. She is undoubtedly a composite of (Brooke’s jaundiced vision) of the women who populated that club in the early thirties. Elvira would have been one such example. Broadhurst and Veriny have a doomed marriage, marked by absolute drunkenness on both sides. What finishes the relationship off, however, is Gerald’s discovery of Veriny in bed with two military men. The narrator’s very camp informant , Bertie Westmacott – think Gathorne-Hardy or Brian Howard  – relates the episode with some relish,

“Well I do rather see Gerald’s point, don’t you. Cuckolded fore and aft, so to speak, and by the Black Watch , my dear…And after all, three in a bed is a bit of a crowd, and it was Gerald’s bed anyway. But oh”  and here Bertie drew a long sigh and raised his eyes to the ceiling – ” but oh, my dear, isn’t our little Veriny a lucky girl.”

A letter to Lady Mullens from the enraged Gertrude Gamble, just before her suicide – shortly after Elvira’s trial, accused Elvira of an even more scandalous sexual threesome. Elvira’s mother was given the, presumably unwelcome, information that her supposedly distraught daughter had sought post-verdict solace in a night of passion with Audrey Carten and her brother Kenneth. Carten, an actress and playwright, was a well known Chelsea lesbian and an erstwhile girlfriend of Gwen Farrar. One wonders if this was the first time Elvira had been involved in such behaviour.

Indeed one wonders whether the rows about sexual partners, between Elvira and Michael, were all solely to do with Michael’s indiscretions. After all, one of Elvira’s letters to him does ask for him to be less jealous and more understanding. Finally, is it too fanciful to wonder whether the despised other woman (Dora Wright) had at one time also partaken, with Michael and Elvira, of  the delights of the Chelsea Sandwich?

For, as later generations were to discover, “permissiveness”  is not necessarily a guard against that most destructive of demons – The, age-old and ageless,  Green Eyed Monster.

Who were these people?

What interests me about Elvira Barney and “Michael” Scott Stephen is their relationship to  “The Bright Young People”. The people who visited Elvira’s mews flat were at the more outrageous end of what the press termed “The Smart Set”. Promiscuous, mostly gay, hard-drinking, habitues of night clubs in Soho, drug takers and generally with more money than sense they were also artists and actors and to some extent rebels.

Jocelyn Brooke acquired membership of the Blue Lantern in Ham Yard,Soho, at about the same time that Elvira and her circle frequented the place. Close friend Hugh Wade was the resident pianist there (as well as at the Blue Angel, visited on the night of the “incident”).

Brooke’s self-distancing and acerbic description of the clientele undoubtedly refers to Elvira’s crowd, “who belonged for the most part to the raffish fringes of that pseudo-smart Bohemia which was perhaps the most characteristic (and almost certainly the nastiest) social unit of the period.” (Brooke “Private View”  (1954) p87) .

The surrounding tale “Gerald Brockhurst” gives an equally jaundiced but ultimately quite poignant picture of the period.Brooke’s villainness (Veriny Crighton-Jones) shares many of the characteristics of Elvira’s personality although her looks are completely different.

Jocelyn Brooke – 1940s?