Prising The Pen From My Cold Dead Hand


As the very first copies of the new Bryant & May novel start to go out, I know I’m about to face a few questions. The very first is going to be, what happens now?

Here’s the state of play.  Intimation of mortality concentrates the mind wonderfully, so I’ve been very busy. Pre-pandemic, I set out to clear the decks by writing books I’d had clear ideas for earlier. There were five in all; the first one I finished was written in particularly traumatic circumstances and is simply not good enough to publish. Its timing and subject feel wrong for now, so I have dropped it into a cyber-filing cabinet marked ‘Not To Be Opened For A Decade’.

It joins three other novels I’d written at various points of my career which I felt – and still feel – to be not good enough. Quality control is a harsh but necessary lesson to learn. I tend to think that much writing  destroyed across the centuries is better left off where it fell.

Of the remaining four books, one is ‘Total Midnight’, the complete short stories, 161 tales in all. About them, the Guardian wrote; ‘He repeatedly challenges the reader to redraw the boundaries between innocence and malevolence, rationality and paranoia. His strength lies in the way he unveils the darker side of the ordinary.’ So that’s me for you, apparently. 

Some of the stories have never been published before and many have been revised. I have no way of bringing out such a paving stone, so until some lateral-thinking entrepreneur comes up with a brilliant idea for publishing it, ‘Total Midnight’ goes into a different kind of cyber-drawer.

That leaves three other books.

The first is ‘Hot Water’, a thriller about a missing girl that I think, like ‘Little Boy Found’ reverses the usual expectations of the crime novel. I’m proud of it, and think it will stay in your minds, partly for its unguessable twist.

I was excoriated by an ‘Interzone’ critic for daring to write a near-future novel in ‘The Sand Men’ (he all but screamed ‘It’s not proper science fiction like Dr Who!’) but the novel was exonerated by the Los Angeles Times, who dared to suggest it was the book JG Ballard didn’t write. It encouraged me to try another genre beyond my usual remit; historical fantasy. So the second book is ‘The Foot on the Crown’, a rambunctious epic that also reverses traditional expectations. It’s with my agent now.

When you live with a book for a long time it’s hard to be objective about what you’ve written. For all I know it might be terrible. I’m sure some socially challenged bloke in a basement will set aside his Playstation controller long enough to deconstruct it for me in hideous detail but the key question – did I enjoy writing it – has been answered to my satisfaction.

Which leaves the third book, which will be ‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’.

Arthur Bryant’s evening job as a rather over-opinionated tour guide makes him the perfect host for this freewheeling, kaleidoscopic look at the series’ third main character, London, with a little help and some hindrance from his friends and colleagues.

So whatever happens, that’s the next two years taken care of. Today I’m in the wonderful position of being able to sit back in my armchair and think about what else I might like to do. I must say there aren’t many jobs with this luxury attached. Normally it would be the perfect time to go abroad, but thanks to Boris ‘Cock-Ups’ de Pfeffel Johnson the UK is now once again the diseased pariah of Europe (even though the French Covid approach has been far more disastrous, they have ended up with fewer cases). Although I’m marooned here I’m quite happy – surrounded by books and a view of St Paul’s isn’t a bad way to live. The sturdy, oaken spouse is handling it well, too.

And so is the real Maggie Armitage, due to be eighty next month and currently planning her birthday bash. This is a woman who is only just considering giving up her bicycle (I wouldn’t want to cycle around North London, even at twenty). I think it’s soon time to have another dip into Maggie’s text messages, if only to include the immortal, ‘Thank you so much for lunch yesterday. I didn’t actually throw up.’

The people around me have stamina. My uncle John, 91, just texted his son to ask ‘Where’s my ladder?’ Most of the other real-life characters upon whom the Bryant & May team are based have survived personal injury, fire, flood, madness and illness to be here, so I may once more press them into service to provide inspiration for more words. And there’s a new character in ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ based on a woman I met in a coffee shop.

A short break from creating would be good, though – with no fresh sensory input to restock the imagination the mind can run a little dry. If the government lifts its travel ban I’ll be off – if not exactly filled with Jack Kerouac’s freewheeling spirit as I’ll be hauling enough medication to open a branch of Boots – and hopefully filling my brain with the kind of small wonders you experience in new places.

16 comments on “Prising The Pen From My Cold Dead Hand”

  1. Rob Lloyd says:

    Hope you get that holiday, Chris – one you have to travel for. (Or to.) Is Hot Water to be published?

  2. Jo W says:

    What a wonderful upbeat post that was today,young Christopher and on such a wet,grey day. The news of your books to come has certainly brightened my world. I shall instruct Alan to plan more shelves.He became an octogenarian the other week and is making a to-do list and places to go list. He’s counting on being around until ninety two. Years worked will then equal years of work pension.
    When you can get away,Chris,will you go to your flat in Barca and find out just how much post is piled up,waiting for your attention?
    More of Maggie’s bon mots,please and say from me,she still doesn’t look her age. Thank you for a little lift in spirits.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’ — ​Dorothy Parker, American writer and wit
    Keep up the good words!

  4. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘His strength lies in the way he unveils the darker side of the ordinary.’

    May I add to that ‘the way he unveils the things that remain constant in a world where everything changes’

  5. Brooke says:

    Ms. Armitage is a fashion and intellectual inspiration. I wish I had her gift for language when writing a thank you note for a luncheon with people I detested, ineatable food and boring venue.

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    Summer came in here on the Wet Coast with blazing sun and the twittering madness of birds. All it needed was word from London that there are more books to come. Here’s hoping for a travel opening soon.Best wishes to Maggie and belated congrats to Jo’s Alan.
    I really liked the Sand Men, in spite of misreading the ending.

  7. Colin says:

    I loved Sand Men , think it’s my favourite!

  8. Roger says:

    The translator Barbara Wright carried on cycling into her eighties, so tell Maggie Armitage she’s a long way to go.

    “hauling enough medication to open a branch of Boots”
    That can create real problems. Years ago – before mobile phones – a friend on many massive doses of medicine used to carry three alarm clocks with different rings and a notebook to remind him to take one of his varied drugs he had to take at particular times. he then had to reset the clock for his next dosage.

  9. John Howard says:

    Well, I’m looking forward to all of those books. Especially “The Foot on the Crown”. You are sitting in the UK wishing you could get away to other climes and I am sitting here in Spain wanting to get back to the UK to make myself a nuisance to lots and lots of friends and relatives… Ah well… thanks Mr “Cock-Ups” Johnson….!!! As Alistair Campbell says, “Don’t call him Boris”
    Stay safe both of you and have fun.

  10. Susan+Drees says:

    Love reading about the books to come and looking forward to reading them. Hope you can travel before long. Here in the U.S., we can travel but I’m not, at least not now. But reading takes me so many places, thankfully.

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Susan Drees, my calligraphic exhibition piece this year is Reading gives us a place to go when we have to stay where we are. (Mason Cooley)

  12. You’re an inspiration in so many ways…

  13. lee taylor says:

    Wondering which book to begin with. Christopher: any books make reference to music halls (even Players’ Theatre)?

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @lee taylor You might start at the start with ‘Full Dark House’ which features the Palace Theater and backstage goings-on during the Blitz.

  15. Philip Sugden says:

    Just finished Oranges & Lemons. Wonderful as I was a B&M virgin, though Paperboy I loved and constantly recommend. Re. Sidney, named after S.James. You’ll know this I’m sure but worth a try – our Sidney was born in S.Africa well known, but actually born on Hancock Street, Johannesburg. Makes yer fink dunnit!

  16. Always enjoy your work!

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