The Sixties Return In March

Great Britain

They say if you can remember the sixties you weren’t there. I wasn’t. By which I mean I was at school, and being a tiresomely studious child I knew absolutely nothing about what was going on in certain select (ie wealthy) parts of London. The heady smell of patchouli and dope, the sounds of the Kinks and Scott Walker were not for me, I was faceplanted in mildewed history books, some of which had last been taken out in 1873. I didn’t get taken out until 1973.

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By which time the swinging sixties had ceased to swing and were left dangling, as Mr Edward Heath, the yachtsman and orchestra conductor, took the helm of the country and ran the SS Britannia aground. (I suppose things could have been worse; Jeremy Thorpe, the closeted leader of the Liberal party and hirer of dimwitted hitmen, could have taken over and had everyone who annoyed him shot.)

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By the time I joined the human race the lessons of the sixties were already being abandoned as the country sank into strikebound poverty. Creative types osmotically absorb the years just prior to their flowering and become fascinated by the years they missed – it’s possible to guess the age of designers by their influences to within a year. And I became obsessed with the sixties I didn’t experience. I loved the clean lines of sixties design (and still own an original 1963 Eero Aarnio ball chair). But eras don’t simply stop and start; the sixties took a decade to catch on. So as old became new it mixed and matched its eras as Victorian design blurred with curved white plastic.

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Peter Blake, in particular, inspired a generation of art school students who realised that all you needed to make art hip was an old magazine, scissors and some glue. Marble busts – those ubiquitous status signifiers that ended up gracing suburban homes – received a lick of purple paint and turned up in space-age interiors, as did Victorian tailors’ dummies painted in optical art. Even cars were reinvented in the most radical fashion possible; the E-type Jaguar became the epitome of confident, mould-breaking design. My best friend at school had a bright purple E-Type because – sorry, X-gens – kids could afford cars then.

tumblr_nb6g75UHFG1rpgpe2o4_1280And designers once more became known by their names; Hardy Ames, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Ossie Clark, Laura Ashley and Jean Shrimpton existed beside rock stars in the roll call of fame. Art, literature, film, fashion and design gained the confidence to be daring and influential in a way that has not happened since.

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Away from the cities, though, little changed. As the pre-war world order was dying off, the grand country houses of England became insolvent and their owners were desperate to offload them. Many had been used as schools, hospitals and barracks during the war, and were no longer fit for habitation without expensive renovation. They vanished from the landscape at a phenomenal rate; some 1,200 grand houses were torn down. That’s the background to the next Bryant & May novel, Hall of Mirrors.

Into this world I’ve placed the young and energetic Bryant & May, on an undercover mission to a country house which everyone has an interest in. The trick with a Christie-inspired tale is to avoid the boredom that leaves us stranded on say, a snowbound train while a detective interviews every suspect in clockwork rotation before announcing the killer. The answer, I came to realise, is not to trick out the tale with chases (a trap the new Murder on the Orient Express tumbles headlong into) but to make the characters less timeless and more aware of the era, as one would be.

Hall of Mirrors arrives in March, along with the paperback of Wild Chamber.

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16 comments on “The Sixties Return In March”

  1. Looking forward to your take on the classic country house mystery and your revelling in the 60s; this sounds typically intriguing. Have pre-ordered now.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    I will have to order it from Amazon Uk. I never wait for it to come out here. Once , one of your books came from Germany which I thought was odd.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    I was born in 1963, so I remember the end of the decade, and a lot of the music, too. My parents were always buying records of all types. My mum would stack up the red Dansette whilst she did stuff about the house, so I might hear, in no particular order: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Mario Lanza, Jim Reeves, Edith Piaf (I love ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’, because I remember quite clearly being puzzled that I could not understand the words, and Mum telling me that the lady singing came from France, another country, where they had their own words for things. My tiny mind was blown. As it holds so many memories, I can’t listen to it much. Piaf’s plangent vocal is utterly beguiling and heartbreaking. If you ever want to see a middle aged man, built like a brick shithouse, and with a face like a rucksack full of broken bells weep like a baby, play me that record). The nearest I got to the ‘Swinging Sixties’, was my mum’s younger brother. He had long hair, a motorcycle, and had psychedelic posters in his room, and he listened to what sounded to me like weird noise. It was Jimi Hendrix. My 1960’s were: ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Captain Scarlet’, ‘Joe 90’, ‘The Avengers’, ‘Man In A Suitcase’ ‘The Saint’, ‘Batman’, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ ‘Danger Man’ (I wasn’t allowed to watch ‘The Prisoner’), ‘Dads’ Army’, and ‘Doctor Who’. All that went out of the window once astronauts ventured for the moon. I knew about rockets, I had books, and I was disturbed in 1967 to find my mum crying. Crying because three young men had been burned to death in a rocket, several thousand miles away, practising a launch. She never forgot their names (‘Gus’ Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, if you are unfamiliar with the crew of Apollo 1). I don’t think that a lot of people today realise just how monumentally big a thing the ‘Space Race’ was – it was a high tech branch of the Cold War, if you like, but it caught the public imagination like nothing else, before, or since. To anyone who still harbours the idea it was faked, let me say this to you: wasn’t the CGI fantastic in 1969?

  4. Jan says:

    Chris a lot of what you are saying about country houses and their estates dissolving in the 1960s was pretty much a re run of what had occurred from 1919 onwards when the men returned from WW1.

    Down here in the West Country we have one of the first UK council estates created in Crewkerne South Somerset when the men returning from the Great War found their original employment on the gardening strengths of the great country houses had disappeared. Kitchen gardens, arboretums all gone, never to be recreated. The tied accommodation the men and their families had lived in also disappeared along with their employment.

    This really was the start of large scale public and charitable housing. More large private estates disappeared in the 1920s than ever before or since. About a third ( – maybe more) of the country mansions that survived the 1920s disappeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

    The two decades brought new found freedoms for youngsters, short skirts and hair cuts for women. New music and new ways of expression blossomed both in the 1920s and 1960s eras which to me r uncannily similar. Both end in decades of economic hardship the 1930s + 1970s. Both were eras dominated by youth and social experiment.

    Perhaps the most mysterious decade being the 1950s rationing persisted + it was still very much make do and mend Britain.

    One small point Mr F. – how do two guys whose first case was in the WW2 era emerge as young enthusiastic UC officers in the 1960s? Are these guys in a timeframe all their own?

  5. Brooke says:

    Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of your blog! It’s quite an achievement.
    Another item to celebrate–Wild Chambers in now available at B&N NYC and Philadelphia– perhaps you should visit the US more often.

    The US 60’s and the UK 60s are different planets. It will be hard for me to relate to this B&M adventure.
    However, I am interested in your research for HoM; any readings you would recommend?
    .

  6. Davem says:

    Pre-ordered, looking forward to it.

  7. admin says:

    I signed copies in BN NYC Brooke – and Jan, you haven’t been paying attention; the full explanation for B&M’s WWII memories was recently explained in the books!

  8. Richard Burton says:

    The E type picture you used is an interesting one. It’s the Lindner/Nocker low drag car. It was rebuilt after being left under an old race track for decades, after a crash that killed the driver and 3 marshalls. The financial crash really boosted the investment values of cars like this, which had previously been treated as sort of memorials. Actually there’s quite good research for story ideas in this sort of thing. The story of ‘Babs’ (one of the real Chitty Bang Bangs -also a great story) is a good example but a bit earlier. https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/june-1968/35/babs-controversy

  9. John Griffin says:

    The 60s outside Central London were more or less the 50s but less Brylcreem and trilbys. Everywhere was black with soot, and we didn’t wear trendy garb, it was at best paisley shirts and greatcoats. Most of us owned Dansettes, reel-to-reel tapes and small radios for pirate stations. As my gran said, there was no sexual revolution up t’North, everybody was at it in her day, they just didn’t broadcast the news.

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    What made the sixties the sixties? We had more, genuinely better educated people than ever before and probably since. All those educated minds were stimulated by advances in communication. There was a lot talent looking for something to do, but being stifled by our financial system, a financial system that has abandoned its original raison d’être, the generation of wealth by supporting creativity and manufacturing, in favour of fast bucks from trading money. The result was an explosion of creativity. Unfortunately, it was yet another tide in the affairs of men not taken at the flood. If more of those wonderful people had access to the tools they required … ?

    Attaching everything too tightly to one decade may be misleading. I’m sure the designers Chris lists, and certainly Malcolm Sayer with his E-type, were developing their ideas back in the 1950s. Anyway, it was a great time for many, though, like Chris, I don’t recall enjoying it so much, but I am pleased to see him celebrate it with B&M.

  11. DebbyS says:

    Book pre-ordered from W H Smith, thank you. For quintessential sixties viewing I propose The Avengers, with Steed and Mrs Peel, the black and white era. I’ve just emerged from the rabbit hole of watching “The House that Jack Built” (1966) for the first time in over 50 years (on Dailymotion). Marvellous.

  12. Graham says:

    Jan, unless I’m mistaken, a couple of books ago our host retconned Bryant and May’s history in a way that would make a writer at Marvel Comics blush. At least he hasn’t brought anyone back from the dead… yet.

  13. Jan says:

    Now I do remember reading something a bit back that I didn’t feel totally convinced by…..

    I had obviously blotted it out pretty well!!

  14. Jan says:

    Liberty Du Cane replacing his brother
    Fraternity Du Cane
    Or was it the other way round –
    Fallen and recreated?

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I married in 1964, was teaching in a very small village and was pregnant just over a year later. I missed the wild part of the 60s, too. I missed most of the music, too, because I listened to CBC radio which didn’t play “that” kind of music.
    (So you were 13 when you were staying up at night phoning Hollyweird, Ian L. Just about the age one would expect.)

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