My fascination with the interwar period started young with the colourful (and with hindsight carefully edited) tales of my grandfathers youth, we grew up with the legends of shipwreck, near disaster in a bi-plane on the way to a funeral, trips to the Paris Ritz, country house parties, hunt balls, and so much more.
Since discovering Waugh and Wodehouse my search for twenties and thirties literature has never looked back, sometimes I’ve struck gold as with Dornford Yates, or Beverley Nichols (who’s title I have borrowed for this, and who's picture you are currantly admiring) and sometimes not so much, as with Michael Arlen. (Cecil Beaton image below)
Ah, it all seemed so promising.'The Green Hat' was one of the first titles from Capuchin Classics; a book to keep alive – the promise of a dashing young heroine who races around Europe in her yellow Hispano-Suiza, verbal smartness, youthful Cynicism... But it’s not a style that’s aged well in my mind. I found it almost impossible to read – prose that made me feel like I was wading through metaphorical treacle.
Arlen with his European background, yellow rolls, immaculate clothes, and fascination with high society was the sort of man that my grandfather would have described as “Not Quite Quite”, a sentiment Beverley Nichols clearly shared. Arlen gets a dig in every one of his books I’ve read. Nichols is a curious character in his own right, and I think might be about to have a moment as his name seems to keep cropping up. I’m bringing him up because he manages to elegantly sum up an issue I’ve expended a lot of time trying to work out thus; “whether we are discussing personalities or works of art, the second–rate dates, the first-rate doesn’t.” I’m inclined to agree with this sentiment, and coincidently it’s just the beginning of an attack on Arlen’s ‘The Green Hat’ which I’m going to copy out faithfully here because it sums up my feelings entirely.
“Iris Storm, the palely promiscuous heroine, is speaking:
‘I am a house of men,’ she begins, ‘of their desires and defeat and death.’ Which, one would have thought, was enough to go on with. But no. She continues: ‘You laid your foot down on the soil of kindness, but where your foot fell there leapt up a dandelion...and in the heart of the dandelion a tiny little rose, but what, my friend, is just one little rose surrounded to suffocation by a huge dandelion?’
My own answer to this question would be just one little lemon; one just has to rub one’s little eyes after reading such stuff.”
I’m glad I stuck with ‘The Green Hat’, If I want to get a real feel for the period I can’t ignore it’s best sellers, but I don’t think I’ll read Arlen again, however I will cherish the image of a slim, dark, young man driving round town in a yellow rolls, that’s the stuff that legends should be made of.