I fell in love with history at primary school when I was about eight or nine. The syllabus, looking at key events of the 20th century, was accompanied by an educational programme called How We Used To Live. I sometimes wonder whether I imagined this series, but Google reassures me it ran sporadically on British television from 1968 to 2002, and occasionally I find a colleague or acquaintance with whom I can share rapturous reminiscence.
Following the lives of two northern-based families, How We Used To Live swept through decades of social history designed to dramatise how major global events can shape a person’s every day: it was history at its most basic and entertaining. Our group was focused on the period between 1900 and the Great Depression of 1929. I have a peculiarly clear memory of the first episode: the fancy folk in the “Big House” had just installed electric lighting, while their social in-equivalents were left to scuttle lumps of coal about and take cool ablutions in a tiny kitchen pail.
Alongside this weekly televisual treat, there was a workbook from which we could chose to study various subjects that might be pertinent to that year: Who was Thomas Edison? What is a hat pin? How did Charlie Chaplin influence cinema? Or something of the sort.
I was obsessed with it. Even the meagre budgets afforded to educational children’s programming still conjured a world of infinite glamour and intrigue. It ignited in me a lifelong passion for the past. I feel sad for people who think of history as dull lists of dates and dusty castles – when it’s about how real people spent their time.
If you could swerve conscription or Spanish influenza, to live in that era was desperately exciting. I’m still a bit cross that I didn’t come of age in 1921. I loved exploring the drama of social inequity: the extravagances of the super-rich, the privations of the poor and the curious fluidity in their exchanges. I was captivated by the female experience – the loosening of the whale-boning, the suffering and stoicism of the suffragettes. And I was shaken by the spectre of loss: long before Sam Mendes and his “one-take” trench study 1917, we learnt about the emotional wreckage caused by the first world war.
Nothing held a candle to the Roaring Twenties, however. I fell head over heels for the flapper. Loved the literature. Adored the style. Was there ever anything more glorious than that era of extravagance and excess? Even as an eight-year-old schoolchild, I understood my sad suburban existence would never measure up.
It’s a very British habit to fetishise the eccentric rich. But it’s near impossible not to. Cecil Beaton’s The Book of Beauty, a folio of portraits featuring the set that came to be known as the Bright Young Things, still holds us in its thrall. Perhaps it’s because we know that generation was ultimately doomed, to war, penury and broken-heartedness, or because we still mine the cultural legacy it left behind. Nevertheless, their transgressive behaviour and sense of devilry has always been seductive, and the golden aura that orbited them has never dimmed.
Now, the architect of this aura, Cecil Beaton, enters the spotlight once again. This month sees the opening of Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things at the National Portrait Gallery in London, an exhibition dedicated to his most dazzling subjects. Curated by Robin Muir, who has also written a brilliant overview, the show offers a compulsive insight into 1920s and ’30s high society and an intimate portrait of the people who defined it.
And yet, for all the talk of history, one is struck most forcibly by the things we have in common still. Nearly 100 years after they were taken, Beaton’s pictures are a terrific mirror in which to mark the moods that shape today. Like the Roaring Twenties, we are once again living through an era in which we are preoccupied by youth, technological innovation and conspicuous consumption. Gender politics have once again risen to the forefront, and the conversations around sexual identity and self-expression have all been opened wide.
Looking at Francis Rose, pictured by Beaton in 1939 in a dress (his moustache painted out), I am struck by how uninhibited and fearless the Bright Young Things could be. Of course, their stage was smaller, and today’s “social influencers” may use another platform through which to steer the latest fashions, but the prettifying filters, whether they come courtesy of a fawning society photographer or Instagram, are much the same. We think of today as being an era of unprecedented opportunity, free speech and individualism. But in fact we look like amateurs compared to our centenarian ancestors, for whom the millennial #yolo might have been invented. They knew how to spend it – and spectacularly so.
Lastly, for those of you clamouring on email (you know who you are), Technopolis is here. There was widespread panic after the redesign that the page might have been dropped. Fear not, it was only resting during the themed issues. Check out our coverage of insectoid drones and the Land Rover Defender of phones – gadgets that will keep everyone occupied for hours.