If an era is to be judged by its nickname, then the 1920s really takes some beating. This sparkling little period has two suitably dazzling aliases — the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age — and I find it hard to hear either without pining a little.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of an age that roared? I know we’re only halfway through our current decade, but I suspect the years 2010-19 won’t be remembered for roaring. (What will we call them, I wonder? The Yawning Teens perhaps? The VaJazzle Age?)
In the case of the ’20s, the roar refers to the cultural explosion that took place in many of the world’s biggest cities. But to me, it also implies a sort of cavalcade of jollity — an endless soiree where no one ever leaves, the music never stops and the dawn refuses to break.
It’s strange to feel such nostalgia for an era I never experienced. But there are just so many handles on this period, so much to get to grips with. There’s that wonderfully frenetic, life-affirming big-band jazz that served as its soundtrack;
the colourful cocktails that lubricated every social gathering; independent, newly liberated women decked out in the glamorous threads of the flapper; and let’s not forget the Charleston — an utterly demented dance craze, but the calling card of an era that knew how to have fun.
Outside, the streets were being beautified by an array of art deco edifices, from the palatial picture houses materialising all over the country to the elegant tearooms appearing on every corner. Tourists travelled in style, whether they were taking the Blue Train down to the Côte d’Azur, or admiring the New York skyline from the deck of a luxury ocean liner. And in drawing rooms across the land, impeccably-dressed houseguests listened attentively as Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey pointed the finger at the ‘murderer’.
I often used to wonder why, as a bored child on a gloomy Sunday night, the sound of the Jeeves & Wooster theme tune was the only thing that could distract me from the suffocating thought of school on Monday (it succeeded where Highway, Songs of Praise and the Antiques Roadshow mysteriously failed). But I suppose, even then, something about this era reminded me that there was an exciting world outside my window.
And it’s fair to say this passion, like so many others, has been clarified and shaped by travel. When abroad, I’ve always found myself drawn to anything symptomatic of the era, be it a well-preserved period hotel, a restored cocktail bar or just a flash of art deco on a cafe facade. Travel is always so good for connecting you to the past — and while there are few real remnants of the Jazz Age on my doorstep, there are plenty of places elsewhere in the world that still bear its stamp.
Of course, I’m not daft. I appreciate the ’20s wasn’t fun for everyone. Given my own background, had I been alive in this era, I doubt I’d have been sipping gin fizzes with Bertie Wooster at the Drones Club. I’d have probably spent my days in a miserable factory or in domestic service, being encouraged to know my place and respect my betters.
What’s more, even those who did have it good, didn’t have it good for too long. Having just emerged from the trauma of the First World War, the ’20s crowd were understandably keen to enjoy themselves — but little did they know what horrors were to come, with a Great Depression looming and the Second World War hot on its heels. Viewed in this sobering context, the Jazz Age looks like a speck of caviar in a sea of gruel.
But, if anything, this makes it shine even brighter — a brief moment in time when large sections of the world sorted each other out and had so much fun they involuntarily roared — a roar that rang brief but loud, before being eclipsed by the grim business of history.
Well, that’s how I like to think of it. And if there are any budding historians out there who know otherwise, please… just keep it to yourself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a luxury train I need to catch.
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)