Friday, 29 July 2011


I’m going to be very up-to-date. If you read magazines such as History Today or BBC History you will know that much current historical writing finds its focus in comparison. (We now have conflict in the Middle East; let us reconsider The Crusades).
Elizabeth Ponsonby, therefore, was the Amy Winehouse of her day. Beloved of the gossip columnists, unapologetically irresolute, she staggered through the 1920s in pursuit of a good time. Amy, however, has just died at age 27, while the attention of the media was still on her; Elizabeth died a decade out of time, at age 39 when the glamour of the 20s had given way to the austerity of World War II.
I’m reading D.J. Taylor’s book, Bright Young People, in conjunction with Brideshead Revisited. Waugh was on the fringes of the BYP. He chronicled and he satirised, particularly in Vile Bodies, perhaps because he did not quite belong. From my reading it seems strange that those who were there and survived seemed anxious in later years to play it down, while those who turned up at the odd party (e.g. John Betjeman) seemed desperate to maximise the association.
Elizabeth Ponsonby died almost 71 years ago to the day (31st July 1940). Her revel through the 20s is nostalgically remembered as a lost time. We love it, in no small part, thanks to John Mortimer’s TV adaptation of Sebastian Flyte’s fictional escapades. But she, as Taylor's book makes clear, lived the real thing.
Love or hate Amy Winehouse, a touching news item today was of her father giving away her clothes to her fans. After a diary-full of retribution, Elizabeth’s father, a senior Labour minister, wrote her obituary. He made himself remember her beautiful face rather than the debts she had run up or the embarrassment she had caused him.
Today we see the exuberance of youth as a universal human right; at the start of the last century it was an unwritten but desperately fought for clause of the Treaty of Versailles. There is, of course, something wonderfully uplifting about feeling that you are part of a new generation; Kerouac and Salinger captured it in words once, as did Elvis in music and, later, Morrissey claimed the right for a generation to feel sad. But, today we are in danger of losing it all in a splodge of vomit. Falling over in Newquay does not equal art. Perhaps a White Party, attended by Elizabeth Ponsonby, was just an excuse for a night of debauchery but at least it was artistic. Serving, wearing and decorating everything white took more effort than twisting off the top of bottle of vodka, lying drunk in the gutter and then blaming everyone else.
I feel so old as I write this. I love a glass of wine. Invite me to a good party and I will gladly accept. But I do want to remember it in the morning.
It’s sad about Amy and it was sad about Elizabeth. I’m still here and, actually, I’m enjoying still being here and reading about them.

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