Bryant & May: Cosies Or Subversives?
When I was a child, I became aware that I was supposed to be listening to the Rolling Stones, not Gilbert & Sullivan. When my classmates went to a Marc Bolan concert, I went to ‘Die Fledermaus’. They liked the lyrics of Leonard Cohen. I liked Cole Porter. It seemed I was always running 50 years behind everyone else. This doesn’t mean I didn’t pay attention to modern music too, but I needed to connect the past and present.
I was not alone, as Twitter reveals a wealth of interests from surprisingly young people who shouldn’t really be studying 19th century railway layouts and dressing like 1920s dandys. There’s a pressure of conformity on us to act our age. While a youthful liking for Victorian music is tolerated, a middle-aged person listening to music considered to be the exclusive right of teenagers is frowned upon. The old, of course, know all the secrets of the young, although there is a moment when informed opinion becomes prejudice.
Still, it didn’t prepare me recently for being called an old fart online, after I posted a jocular piece about London in stasis. I do see London in stasis, and have the experience to do so; its theatres, sports grounds, churches, pubs, meeting rooms and houses have hardly changed at all – only the business districts have in any sense altered, and I pointed this out. Moreover, even under the burden of an increased population London has somehow become more ‘Londony’ than ever before. Recently I managed to lose my wallet in a supermarket and leave my iPad in a cafe – both were handed in and returned with great politeness.
However, we live in times when freedom of expression is changing because of economic movement. New social rules govern internet behaviour, yet one has to be careful now about using the weapons of the writer, irony, sarcasm, satire. It’s surprising how many people fail to get the joke about stand-up Al Murray’s pub landlord character; that he embodies popular British prejudices while subversively drawing his audience into the very prejudices he personally hates.
Making a clever, outrageous joke in print is risky; this is no longer the right time to do so, and cleverness is often slammed down – yet many US TV shows, from ‘True Blood’ to ‘Game of Thrones’, have, to my mind, a slutty lassitude to them that mixes outre sexual activity with childishness and triviality.
All of this brings me to Bryant & May. When I invented them I was still a relatively young man, and writing about older people made for a novel news item. I had them behaving subversively, causing trouble for the state, the law and the church, and by doing so joined an illustrious roll call that included WS Gilbert and Joe Orton. I was shocked to hear them described as ‘cosies’ by a friend in America, when I never thought of them as such, but compared to ‘The Wire’ and the books of Elmore Leonard, they most certainly are.
On Monday I did an interview about the series, and as I replied to the list of questions, I realised that I’m still operating in a field of one with the Bryant & May novels. There are gritty procedurals that touch on the concerns of modern life, but I know of no series that lightly mixes humour, darkness and themes of ageing, loss or – in the case of ‘Bryant & May and the Invisible Code’, politics.
In a few months’ time I start another volume, and feel I’m at a crossroads. I’m thinking of taking the characters into darker areas – still maintaining some humour, but (as you’ll see in the next volume due out in March, which has some of my most serious writing yet) tackling present-day concerns. In any urban environment we daily face moral decisions, and I’d like the books to reflect that.
The alternative is to start a new series that explores darker areas, while making the Bryant & May books light summer reading. The wonderful thing is that I still have the freedom to go where I want – and right now, I’m open to all ideas.