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.