All Yesterday’s Parties

Bright Young Things and the proletariat: Elizabeth Ponsonby fourth from left, Cecil Beaton with pneumatic drill, next to Cyril Connolly.

‘It was an age of ‘parties’. There were ‘white’ parties in which we shot down to the country in fleets of cars, dressed in white from head to foot, and danced on a white floor lid in the orchard, with the moonlight turning all the apples to silver, and then – in a pale pink dawn – playing races with champagne corks on the surface of the stream. There were Mozart parties in which, powdered and peruked,  we danced by candlelight and then – suddenly bored – rushed out into the street to join a gang excavating the gas mains at Hyde Park Corner. There were swimming parties where, at midnight, we descended on some municipal baths, hired for the occasion, and disported ourselves with an abandon that was all the fiercer because we knew that the press was watching – and watching with a very disapproving eye.’ Beverley Nichols, All I Could Never Be (1949)

The Bright Young People were a phenomenon of the 1920s: well-connected if not actually aristocratic, sometimes rich, usually spoilt and occasionally stupid, they came to characterise the frivolity of the decade and have the capacity to irritate even at this distance. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, elaborate dressing up, themed parties, the affected speech (‘too sick-making’, etc.) were guaranteed to invoke the displeasure of their elders in proportion to the number of newspaper columns they filled. In many ways, their behaviour was an understandable reaction to the black-edged aftermath of the 1st World War, the assertion by a generation too young to have experienced hostilities that there was more to life than endless grief. And their coverage in the popular press was mostly indulgent – to begin with at any rate. They were good copy. They are also credited with inventing an important social innovation: the bottle party. (This is said to have been introduced by Loelia Ponsonby in 1926, the novelist Michael Arlen duly turning up with twelve bottles of pink champagne.)

The group are remembered mainly because their ‘antics’ fed into the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, and also those by Anthony Powell and Henry Green – none of whom were members of the set but detached, ironic observers. Other associated with the group included the historian Robert Byron and the artist Rex Whistler; and some in their orbit achieved success and social advancement by association. Cecil Beaton and William Walton both benefited by having their names on certain invitation lists. But the core ‘Brights’ seem to have been full-time party-goers. These include Brian Howard, acid wit, alcoholic and under-achiever; Stephen Tennant, aesthete, would-be novelist and lover of Siegfred Sassoon; and, of course, the fabled Mitford sisters, chiefly Nancy, who occasionally wrote novels, and the breathtakingly beautiful Diana, who ended up married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley. All of these individuals turn up as characters in Waugh’s novels, the exotic Stephen Tennant cited as one of several models for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

The Impersonation Party, 1927: the Right Hon. Stephen Tennant as Queen Mary of Romania, seated left, Brian Howard in drag, standing next to Elizabeth Ponsonby and Cecil Beaton, Harold Acton kneeling below, Tallulah Bankhead in tennis gear front, etc.

One of the the most significant of the multitude of parties was David Tennant’s Mozart party, 29 April 1930, a do that was reckoned to have cost £3,000. David Tennant, brother of Stephen and son of the first Lord Glenconner, would now be described as a ‘scenester’, a man who had a feel for the times derived from impeccable connections and a fair bit of old money. Tennant was married to the young ‘queen of revue’, Hermione Gingold, and was founder and proprietor of the Gargoyle Club, a nightclub and cultural hothouse that lasted in Soho from the early twenties to the mid-fifties. Tennant  co-opted the defiance and costume of Don Giovanni by giving himself a lavish birthday party after returning from Canada in the wake of a business failure. Taking place just a few months after the Wall Street Crash, this entertainment was held within a chamber adorned with antique furniture and accessories, with music played by an orchestra decked out, like the five hundred attendees, in formal 18th century get-up (and conducted by the young John Barbirolli, no less). While the host appeared as Mozart’s dark anti-hero, another guest masqueraded as Beau Brummel with the original Brummel’s own cane as a prop. The climax of the evening was a surreal and ominous encounter as a group of party-goers emerged into Piccadilly and were photographed next to a group of workmen digging up the street. Amongst the revellers in the costume of the ancien regime posing next to bemused labourers were Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton and the most quintessentially bright of all the bright young people, Elizabeth Ponsonby.

Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby seems to have been the group’s lynchpin in their 1920s heyday. She was one of the sponsors of the famous ‘Bath and Bottle’ party in July 1928, at St.George’s Baths, Buckingham Palace Rd., where guests were instructed to wear a bathing suit and bring a bottle and a towel. Unlike some of the set, Elizabeth never wanted to do anything other than go drinking and partying; but she lacked the financial reserves to truly sustain a life of aristocratic frivolity. She was always good copy, turns up as ‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies, lived cheerfully beyond her means – also the means of both her baffled husband and her long-suffering father. Elizabeth achieved apotheosis in tragedy, an event that also marked the end of the Bright Young era. This was a ‘White Party’ (everything painted white, white dress, etc.) held at a country house in Faversham, Kent, on a Saturday night in July 1931. Elizabeth went on her own, her increasingly exasperated husband Denis refusing to attend. At the party, Elizabeth found herself the object of affection of two men, both of whom seem to have had long-standing designs on her. A dance- floor quarrel ensued and events quickly escalated. Some time around 5 a.m., Elizabeth and one of her admirers drove off in a car that belonged to her other admirer, who then gave furious chase in a commandeered lorry. Unsurprisingly, this chase through Kentish lanes ended in disaster, as Elizabeth’s car skidded and overturned. Elizabeth was able to crawl out of the window, but her companion was crushed beneath the vehicle and died at the scene, whilst her pursuer was arrested for drink driving. In his book on ‘the set’, D.J. Taylor pinpoints the coverage of the ensuing inquest as the end of the media phenomenon of the ‘ Brights’.

Elizabeth Ponsonby died of the effects of alcoholism in 1940, at the age of forty, in her rented flat in Jermyn Street, a few doors from the Cavendish Hotel, scene of so many twenties’ parties. A respectful obituary appeared in The Times: D.J. Taylor suggests that her grieving father wrote it himself. Evelyn Waugh died, successful but disillusioned and prematurely old, in 1964. David Tennant died in 1968, in Spain, where he had lived for many years; the same year, Hermione Gingold was in Hollywood and Cecil Beaton was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. (The National Portrait Gallery held a Beaton exhibition last year, centred on his early career, but this major show was cruelly curtailed by Covid-19.) Stephen Tennant became a recluse on his family’s estate and lived long enough to watch a version of himself being played on television by Anthony Andrews in the famous eighties ITV Brideshead (which must be a bit like being embalmed whilst still alive).

Further reading: Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor, Children of the Sun, Martin Green.

Hangover Hamilton

Taking Patrick Hamilton for a ride on the Met line.

Among the hundreds of taverns sliding back their bolts in the favoured domain was The Midnight Bell – a small, but bright and cleanly establishment, lying in the vicinity of the Euston Road and Warren Street. Though it had no wide reputation, all manner of people frequented The Midnight Bell. This was in its nature, of course, since it is notorious that all manner of people frequent all manner of public houses – which in this respect resemble railway stations and mad houses.’ (From chapter one of The Plains of Cement, the third of Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, 1935.)

Following last week’s essay on overheard conversations in pubs, I thought we’d take a quick look at the work of Patrick Hamilton, patron saint of the saloon bar bore. Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is a trilogy of novels wherein a Fitzrovia pub serves as a backdrop to a series of small, sad and sordid dramas: stunted lives and doomed hopes playing out on both sides of the mahogany counter. But whilst his characters are invariably pitiful, the atmosphere he conjures of a pub at opening time is lovingly described and gives a clue to his own fondness for the milieu:

The Saloon Bar was narrow and about thirty feet in length. On your right was the bar itself, in all its bottly glitter, and on your left was a row of tables set against a comfortable and continuous leather seat which went the whole length of the bar. […] the whole atmosphere was spotless, tidy, bright and a little chilly. This was no scene for the brawler, but rather for the restrained drinker, with his wife. (The Midnight Bell, 1930.)

The Midnight Bell, the fictional pub of the trilogy, draws heavily on The Wheatsheaf, but also on his own favourite haunt, the now-lost Goat and Compasses, which stood on Fitzrovia’s northern shore, the Euston Rd. (The building is still there but is now commercial premises.) Hamilton knew the territory very well; and the assistant barman, Bob, is to an extent a stand-in for Hamilton himself, as the author also had the misfortune to fall in love with a prostitute. This doomed affair is the main strand of the first novel in the sequence, The Midnight Bell; the trilogy continues with The Siege of Pleasure, which is the back-story of Jenny, the off-hand recipient of Bob’s affections. If the reader knows the autobiographical context the masochistic nature of Bob’s behaviour renders the novel almost unbearable; but then, the trilogy trades in unbearable relationships of all kinds.

He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight […] He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again. […] He had been fooling about the West End with a woman of the streets. (The Midnight Bell).

The regulars at the Midnight Bell come to the pub because they have no real life outside it. Patrick Hamilton is the master of a very specific form of dialogue, the kind you couldn’t help overhearing if you were drinking in a London or Brighton pub between 1920 and 1950. The monstrous punters in The Midnight Bell – Mr. Sounder, Mr. Wall – possess a clammy authenticity, and the reader feels that these characters have not been invented so much as endured by the author. The unfunny jokes, the numbingly awful puns and ghastly attempts at flirtatious barmaid banter are reported with a dead-eyed horror borne of intimate acquaintance. To wit: ‘His jokes, like all bad jokes, were mostly tomfooleries with the language. To call, for instance, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Eucalyptus’, was, to him, quite tremendous in its sly and impudent irony.’ Then there is Mr. Wall, ‘obscurely connected in some way with motors in Great Portland Street’. Hamilton devotes a lengthy paragraph to Mr Wall’s conversational style, concluding thus: ‘… in his own particular idiom, Martyrs were associated with Tomatoes, Waiters with Hot Potatoes, Cribbage with Cabbage, Salary with Celery (the entire vegetable world was ineffably droll), Suits with Suet, Fiascoes with Fiancees, and the popular wireless genius with Macaroni. He was, perhaps, practically off his head.’

First edition jacket.

The trilogy’s most likeable character is Ella, a cheerful barmaid who adores Bob but who knows that he is oblivious to her shy love for him. Hamilton’s description of Ella strikes this reader as more than a bit patronising, but the author’s sympathies are fully with her. She is a good person and does not deserve the attentions of the nightmarish Mr. Eccles, the most grotesque of all the Midnight Bell’s gargoyles. When we first meet him, at the start of the final book in the sequence, The Plains of Cement, he enters the pub wearing a new hat:

There are new hats and new hats. No man in the history of the world had ever worn a hat quite as gloriously and fervidly new as this. […] You could see at a glance that that for the time being the man lived in and through his hat. You could see that it cost him sharp torture even to put it on his head, where he could not see it, and it had to take its chance.

This wincingly awful non-relationship is the main subject of The Plains of Cement, and Mr. Eccles’ clammy overtures to the cringing Ella (‘You little Puss! … You make me want to Squeeze you!’) are presented with forensic precision. Much of the comic tension (not that you want to laugh) derives from the revolting thought that 28-year old Ella might give in to the 52-year old Mr. Eccles’s suit, on the basis that ‘he had a bit put by’ and might offer some form of protection against poverty. I first read the book years ago and Mr. Eccles just made me want to puke. Reading it now, I find myself brought up short: suddenly, I find myself to be several years older than Mr. Eccles, and I too have had the experience of being smitten in high middle-age by a much younger woman serving behind a bar. (More than once, in fact, and sometimes in Fitzrovia.) It’s not a good look. Surely I am not that man? No-one likes to think that they are drinking in The Loss Of Dignity.

Hamilton is an unusual example of a writer who managed to be as dissipated and disappointed as he was successful. His two smash-hit plays – Rope and Gaslight, both filmed by Hollywood – made him rich at a young age (the latter being well-enough known to lend its title to a form of controlling behaviour); but at the height of his early success he was hit by a car whilst crossing a road in Earl’s Court, suffering multiple injuries and having his nose badly gashed. The trauma and disfigurement contributed to his chronic drinking. His early books are invaluable documents of their time. His masterpiece was his valedictory study of the last years of the peace before the war, Hangover Square, a nightmarish account of psychosis in low-life Earl’s Court. (Hollywood also filmed that, but in such a mangled fashion that it caused considerable distress to its star, Laird Cregar, who had brought the book to the attention of studio bosses in the first place. One gets the feeling that Hamilton wasn’t bothered, the film rights being worth more than just a few cases of gin.) His later book The Slaves Of Solitude is also very fine, and offers another interesting take on forgotten lives on the home front in WW2. Opinions on the later novels vary and the consensus is that the drink began encroaching on the prose. Hamilton drank himself to death in 1962 at the age of 58.

Patrick Hamilton in his 40s, looking awfully jolly behind the wreck of his nose.

(Photos of Hamilton from Sean’s French’s biography, published by Faber.)

The Rugby Romance

Drury Lane, looking south towards St. Mary-le-Strand, circa 1870. This end of Drury Lane was obliterated by the Aldwych/Kingsway development of the early 20th century.

In London, that city gorged with wealth, and where palaces filled to the full with treasures extend over a space of several leagues, there are frightful dens,—dens without a name, inhabited by cadaverous souls in hideous bodies,—dens, the like of which do not exist on any point of the globe. Louis Blanc, writing on the ‘Rugby Romance’, Letters on England, September 21st, 1861

As we saw last week, child neglect is common currency in the lives of the Victorian poor, the tales of misery so extreme as to invite parody. But The Rugby Romance was the name given to a startling news item from 1861, a story that made the news because a child’s plight crossed class boundaries.

January, 1859. Richard Guinness Hill, a brewer from Dublin (but no relation to the famed Guinness dynasty), was visiting England in the company of his heavily pregnant wife, Amy Georgina. Mrs Hill was ‘a young lady of great personal attractions and large fortune, the granddaughter of the late Sir Francis Burdett, and niece of Miss Burdett Coutts, who had taken a great interest in her welfare.’ Amy Georgina was only eighteen when she married Hill and her youth and sheltered upbringing may account for some of the events that followed. The couple were en route to London from Liverpool when Amy went into labour; they were forced to break their journey in Rugby and the baby was delivered in a room in a local inn, the only lodgings that were available. As his wife was recuperating, Hill visited the local registrar’s office and registered the child, a boy, under a false name. He then insisted that the newborn should be put out to nurse and went ahead to London to seek ‘appropriate care’ for the child. Upon arrival in the capital, Hill traipsed from Euston to Piccadilly, where he noticed a woman begging in Great Windmill Street; the woman was parading a pair of shivering, barefoot children to elicit pity and Hill spotted an opportunity. He slipped her a coin and made his proposition:

‘Will you take charge of a child? It will not be necessary for you to treat him as if he really belonged to you, and you can dispose of him by putting him into a workhouse, or into an asylum.’

After a little prevarication, the woman conferred with a friend and both women agreed to accept the child and Hill’s offer of £16 ‘ a year’ for the infant’s care. He then wrote to Amy in Rugby and assured her that he had secured suitable provision for the child and asked for the infant to be sent to London by a specific train, in the care of a fourteen-year old serving girl from the inn. This girl, Catherine, was to be a crucial witness, as was the begging woman with whom Hill had contracted the deal. Catherine later testified that she cradled the ten-day old child from Rugby to London, arriving at Euston at midnight. There, she was met by the child’s father and two shabby women, both of whom were drunk. In Catherine’s presence, the father gave his child into the care of the pair of street drinkers. The baby was wrapped in a shawl that had sentimental value for Amy, and she had specifically asked for it to be returned; but the new nursemaid obstreperously insisted on keeping it, and so the shawl went with the child. On returning to Rugby, Catherine voiced her misgivings to the child’s mother but Hill emphatically dismissed the child’s protestations; and Amy, presumably browbeaten by her controlling husband, acquiesced.

Two years passed. Mrs. Hill’s anxieties for her son grew as her husband’s assurances of his welfare became more spotty. Finally, he changed his story and said that the child was dead. Or that he had been sent to Australia. Clearly, Hill was ‘gaslighting’ Amy to an appalling degree, and by now was physically abusing her as well. The couple separated and Amy’s family instigated a search for her missing toddler. The Burdetts’ solicitor hired a sharp London detective, officer Brett, who posted a £20 reward for information. After searching ‘all the holes and corners of St. Giles’, Brett finally arrived in Lincoln’s Court, a ‘filthy alley’ off Drury Lane. This is how the story was reported in The Annual Register’s chronicle of 1861:

After searching various rooms, Brett proceeded to a small apartment on the second floor. In one corner lay a man, nearly naked and apparently dying, and squatting all over the floor were several women in a most ragged and miserable condition. … On the floor in this horrible den Brett discovered the heir to £14,000 almost nude, and covered with vermin and filth. No shoes were on his feet, and only one dirty rag enveloped the entire body. One of his thighs had been broken and had been badly mis-set, his toes were terribly scarred with wounds, and the head and body generally showed unmistakable marks of neglect and ill-usage. The house, from top to bottom, appeared to be occupied by prostitutes and beggars.’ 

The child was positively identified by the recovery of the shawl, which the beggar had pawned, and of a box that had once contained the child’s linen. For eighteen months the woman had used the child as a beggar’s prop, holding it in her arms when panhandling in the street, and leaving it in a workhouse for a couple of spells when she’d been in prison. £14,000 in 1861 would be worth something like £1.4 M today, and that would have been the child’s annual income. Hill’s motivation seems to have been pure greed; if Amy had no children, he would receive her inheritance upon her death. (One really does recall the plot of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, from which the term ‘gaslighting’ derives.) The boy was reunited with Amy, who had gone to stay with family in Brussels; rather incredibly, Hill followed them there in an attempt to effect a reconciliation. Unable to arrest Hill on the continent, the police lured him into a trap: Amy returned to London, Hill followed in pursuit and was promptly arrested when he tried to make contact. When the case finally came to court, Hill was charged merely with false register of a child’s birth, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of seven years hard labour, and ‘ …therefore out of all proportion to the cruelty and unnatural conduct of the prisoner; but it seems to have been the only legal mode of securing his apprehension’. Hill’s solicitor made unsavoury implications about Amy’s character, implying that Amy’s child was not fathered by Hill. But public sympathy was firmly on the side of the poor child, even if there was widespread incredulity at the credulousness of the boy’s mother. This was a famous case in its day and reads like the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel. However, I’m afraid I can’t tell you the outcome of the trial. I read that Hill couldn’t find anyone to stand bail for him, in spite of him writing ‘copious letters‘ and having ‘an unlimited supply’ of writing paper. But I hit a brick wall; the ultimate fate of the family is obscure. What happened to the son and heir in later life? Maybe I’ll find out when the libraries re-open.

‘The story itself is strange and romantic enough, and yet it is at the same time sufficiently commonplace. It is very like the story books, and as nearly as possible fills out the recognised and traditional tale familiar to nurseries and school-rooms, of the little boy who, being a bad little boy, was given to the gipsies.’

‘The Crawler’: photograph by John Thomson from ‘Street Life in London’ 1877. The woman in this photo was the widow of a tailor, here minding another woman’s child for a few pennies. I don’t wish to infer that this unfortunate woman was in any way a criminal, but this is one of the most penetrating images ever made of London street life (or, for that matter, of human misery).