The Sixties Return In March
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.
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.)
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.
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.
And 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.
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.