Walpole Editorial | The Great Gatsby is a Great Lesson by Peter Howarth

For those of us hoping for a post-pandemic re-run of the Roaring Twenties, we might do well to be careful what we wish for. As Walpole’s star columnist Peter Howarth says, Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the jazz age, the Great Gatsby, has some warning signs tucked into the glamour, and could provide some clues to what luxury could or should expect on the other side.

 

A couple of weeks ago I caught Radio 4’s In Our Time, in which Melvyn Bragg habitually discusses some often arcane topic – the Mytilenaean Debate anyone? – with a group of experts. Pre third lockdown I was in the habit of listening to these on catch-up in the gym as a way of garnering some useful dinner party conversation, but now I’m back to tuning-in while I do the washing up.

Occasionally there will be an episode about something I do know a little about, and so it was with this recent one, which was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful The Great Gatsby. For my money this is one of the most perfect works of art ever made: beautifully written and constructed, and haunting; plus it deals with some of the big questions. In Gatsby’s case, as has often been remarked, these would seem to be the American Dream and whether it’s achievable. Along with an exploration of man’s ability to remake himself in a new image.

As I listened to the show, it struck a peculiar chord, partly because Donald Trump’s extraordinary ride at the White House was coming to an end – an example of man’s ability to create his own myth if ever there was one – but also because here, in our third lockdown, we seem to be experiencing the closest thing in my lifetime to the kind of global psycho-drama created by a world war, complete with restrictions on our freedom and an underlying sense of anxiety and dread.

The Great Gatsby was written after just such a period in the shape of WWI, and documents what happened when that particular “lockdown” was lifted. The Jazz Age – a term coined by Fitzgerald, and the period of which he is the great chronicler – was an expression of relief and an explosion of energy and activity, economic and cultural. Suddenly, it seemed to me that Jay Gatsby’s wild parties and financial success might point to a possible post-pandemic future in which pent-up desire for what we have been missing – travel, socialising, shopping – leads to some full-throated hedonism.

The Roaring Twenties 2.0.

In the case of luxury goods this would no doubt be a welcome conclusion to months of disruption. And it looks likely. Walpole saw some research from The Economist last week that suggests that life after the pandemic will usher in a whole new era of visible luxury. The magazine surveyed an international group of HENRYs (High Earners Not Yet Rich) and HNWIs in 2019 and again in 2020 to get an insight into their attitudes. In June last year they seemed more dedicated than ever to luxury, and there were stirrings of a new opulence – no more stealth wealth, at least not from the “relatively normal” luxury consumers, rather than the immensely wealthy ones. They want things to look discernibly expensive and to signal status, almost certainly because there are now so few opportunities to go out, so when you do, you want to peacock a little. Imagine what they will do when their confinement is over.

But The Great Gatsby comes with a warning. What I found really fascinating about the Radio 4 panellists – who included the excellent Sarah Churchwell, whose book on Gatsby (Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby) is a must for anyone who wants to know more about the story behind Fitzgerald’s masterpiece – is that they made me think about what such a post COVID renaissance might really mean.

You see, as Melvyn Bragg’s programme pointed out, Hollywood has skewed our opinion of Jay Gatsby. If he’s the impossibly handsome Robert Redford dressed by Ralph Lauren, or Leonardo DiCaprio complete with a mansion imagined by Baz Luhrman via Busby Berkeley, then he has glamour and style, and sits in our memory as a kind of GQ cover star. And yet, as In Our Time pointed out, in the book Gatsby is tacky, a man in a silver shirt and gold tie, who wears a pink suit, who tries too hard. He’s fascinated by gadgets, like a machine that can juice 200 oranges in half an hour at the repeated press of a butler’s thumb, and owns a hydroplane as well as a yellow Rolls-Royce. His world is populated by the latest toys and lit up like a fairground – literally by the coloured lights in his garden. And it is all a façade: his mansion is a fake French chateau, and he has a high Gothic library full of unread books.

Fitzgerald, of course, makes the point that the old-money world of class will never accept Gatsby, and Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, suggests that in trying to live out the American Dream, and being thwarted by the hopelessness of the attempt, Gatsby attains some sort of heroic status. And I believe he does.

But he is also an example of someone for whom luxury is simply a question of money, to be acquired as if available on a shopping list – mansion (tick), car (tick), plane (tick), shirts (tick). (For Walpole members, it’s interesting to note how much of Gatsby’s luxury list revolves around British goods and institutions; to the suits, dressing gowns, ties and, famously, shirts, which are all bought for him by “a man in England”, presumably from the likes of Savile Row and Jermyn Street, we must add not only the Rolls-Royce in the drive, but also his stint at Oxford University – his library with its books with uncut pages is even referred to as “the Merton College Library”.)

The harsh verdict of the novel is that this sort of approach won’t lead to any real appreciation of luxury – or indeed, pleasure in it.

It’s not that Fitzgerald is a snob. There is no indication that the characters who come from a more traditional monied background are any more appreciative of what their wealth and privilege affords them – to the extent that Daisy Buchanan seems to treat her young daughter much like a fashion accessory. In this book of post-war excess, mindless consumerism is seen as a universally bankrupt phenomenon.

In this sense, I wonder whether a crazy shopping spree is what we need after our year of confinement. Perhaps it was partly what got us into this mess in the first place – not a cause of the pandemic, of course, but a cause of an unsustainable addiction to newness and trends that took us further and further away from a sense of the important things? Like paying attention to what’s going on in the world around us. And by important things, I don’t just mean the obvious ones like health and family, community and friendship. But also an appreciation of beauty and the care and skill and passion that goes into making exquisitely crafted and designed objects that can give pleasure.

For Gatsby a Rolls-Royce or a Savile Row suit is not about craftsmanship or creativity, it’s just about status. As is his doomed romantic pursuit of the rich girl across the bay. So maybe Fitzgerald is telling us that Gatsby’s tragedy is not only that he finds the American Dream to be just that, a fantasy, but also that because he sees the luxurious things he acquires simply as feathers in his cap, steps on a ladder, and nothing more, he never gets to really appreciate what he has achieved. Or can afford.

Of course, Gatsby is a gangster, a bootlegger in the time of Prohibition, whose glamorous parties flow with illicit booze. But interestingly we are not much encouraged to condemn his morals – his business activities are presented more as a question of economics than of probity; if anything, they act as fuel for the intrigue that circulates around the mysterious inhabitant of the big house on the shore. Indeed, part of the book’s genius is that we are invited to be seduced by Gatsby and his dream – who wouldn’t want an invitation to one of those parties! – before being shown its emptiness.

Maybe what this novel can teach us now, nearly one hundred years after its publication, is that we need to be mindful, so when the Twenties start to roar once more, as I am confident they will, we understand that the real point of luxury is that it resides in things that are made to last, are of good quality, and are conceived with consideration and care, and don’t get carried away with trying to satisfy an insatiable short-term appetite for shiny, new hollow baubles.

The future of luxury could, therefore, be a type of contract between makers and buyers. The former might focus on creating things of genuine aesthetic worth, while the latter would understand the value of these and purchase with a new, more engaged mindset.

We shall see.

Peter Howarth is the CEO of Show Media, a creative agency that works with leading luxury brands, and is former editor of Arena, Esquire and Man About Town; peter@show.london.
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