Bright Younger People

In yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, Toby Young writes about his days at Oxford in the 1980s, energized to do so by a new book out later this week by Dafydd Jones. This is entitled Oxford, The Last Hurrah. The US edition will be out early next month. Young begins his essay with a description of the first time he encountered Boris Johnson:

The audience at the Union roared with laughter – and it was laughter of appreciation, not ridicule. There was something so winning about this befuddled yet strangely charismatic 19-year-old that you couldn’t help warming to him. This was the first time I ever set eyes on Boris Johnson. I’d been at Oxford for about a week by then, searching in vain for the Bright Young Things I’d found so appealing in the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

It was watching that ITV series that had made me want to go to Oxford in the first place – there was something irresistible about the Olympian insouciance of the characters. And here at last, performing a comic turn honed to perfection over five years at Eton, was someone who conformed to the Oxford stereotype. Blond, handsome, oozing with confidence and humour, it was as if Boris had sprung, fully formed, from Waugh’s imagination.

It was only later that I learned he was the son of a middle-class farmer on Exmoor who was himself the grandson of a Turkish immigrant. After landing at Eton on a scholarship, Boris had set about recreating himself as a cartoon version of a posh public schoolboy […] The number of people pretending to be posher than they were was one of the striking things about Oxford in those days.

Looking like you’d been born with a silver spoon in your mouth hadn’t been fashionable in Britain since Labour won a landslide Election victory in 1945. But for a brief period in the mid-1980s, it was surprisingly cool to be privileged. It’s hard to imagine today, but people from quite ordinary backgrounds would go to parties wearing tailcoats and silk dressing gowns, as if to the manner born. The 1960s gave us hippies and the 1970s gave us punks, both determined to overthrow ‘the system’.  The 1980s, by contrast, gave us Sloane Rangers and Young Fogeys, as if a new generation were reacting to the misery of the previous decade by thumbing their noses at the finger-wagging egalitarians.

Young goes on to describe his first encounters with other members of these Bright Younger People such as Hugh Grant, David Cameron and Nigella Lawson. Toward the end, he offers a roll call of the entire decade at Oxford, including BYPs in the years before and after his own Oxford career, some of whom came as a surprise to your correspondent. The story is illustrated with several photographs from the book, which are what it’s all really about. Dafydd Jones seems to have done for this new generation what Cecil Beaton did for his own contemporary BYPs. There are several amusing photos of the people Young describes with evident retrospective enjoyment as well as one of him enjoying himself first hand.

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