An interview with AJ Thomas - author of Young Lad on Old Street
Young Lad on Old Street, by AJ Thomas, is a novel set in contemporary London. It’s seen through the eyes of Harry, a gay escort and the son of Steve and Marianne, parents who are high-achieving in their careers but short on marital and child-raising skills. As well as telling the tale of this dysfunctional family, Thomas introduces us to a world of paid-for sex, seedy business and violence at the centre of which is Frank and – accidentally - Arthur.
Here we ask Thomas more about the novel and what made him write it.
What prompted you to write Young Lad on Old Street?
It may sound obvious but the starting point is that I like writing, although there were two things in particular.
First, there was a marriage I heard of that was in deep trouble. In arguing, there was no taboo this particular husband and wife weren’t prepared to break in order to score points. But what was particularly sad was that they let it all play out in front of their young children. Not the first time that’s happened, of course, but it did make me wonder what impact this might have on these kids and how it would affect them as adults.
Second, there is a recent phenomenon of young guys – students, for example – using the internet to offer sexual services as a means of getting some extra cash. Not rent boys, just guys spotting an opportunity and exploiting it. Maybe they just have a more laidback attitude to sex and sexuality than previous generations. Or maybe, in some cases, the reasons are less positive.
I thought I’d put these two stories together. So I took Harry, a young lad whose parents’ dysfunctional marriage has left him cynical and scarred. He works in London as an escort, seeking to reinforce his view that genuine relationships are an illusion.
Then I waited to see what happened.
Would you describe it as a gay novel?
It’s a novel which has a young gay man as its central character, but I would hope we’ve moved on from having to pigeon-hole any such fiction as “gay”. If Harry were heterosexual (which the character might just as well have been), we wouldn’t flag it as “straight”.
True, the fact that he’s an escort does draw attention to his sexuality, but the novel’s about a lot more than sex (sorry to disappoint anyone looking for a Fifty Shades fantasy). Someone compared it to the ’80s film My Beautiful Launderette. That has at its heart a sexual relationship between two men but no-one at the time – and those were certainly less LBGT-friendly days – characterised it as gay.
It certainly gives an insight into on-line gay cruising
Searching the internet for sexual partners is admittedly something more common among LBGT people – especially gay men – than among heterosexuals, but it’s not an exclusively LBGT practice! I aim to put a humorous spin on it – from what I’ve observed, it can be quite absurd.
Isn’t this just another novel about London?
There is plenty to write about contemporary London. It is a dynamic city that has grown in stature over the past two or three decades from what some used disparagingly to call a collection of villages into a metropolis equal to New York. It attracts people from elsewhere in the UK (including me) and around the world. That’s not to detract at all from other places in the UK. London can have a somewhat negative image for elitism and exclusivity, but that’s not the London of the characters in Young Lad.
Do you like Harry?
I like all my characters! Harry is the eponymous one, the story is told from his perspective and so we get to know him quite intimately. I like his take on the world, his youthful cynicism and black sense of humour as well as his vulnerability. If he’d just been an escort, onto whom readers could project their fantasies, then he wouldn’t have been authentic or interesting.
Isn’t he just a spoilt brat?
He comes from a privileged background, but privilege doesn’t necessarily translate into being spoilt. The lad is damaged goods.
And where did you find Frank - he seems an odious character?
Frank’s not all bad. He’s loving and caring where his partner Amita is concerned, and his feelings towards Harry are genuine. He takes Harry under his wing and teaches him how to be an entrepreneur. He’s actually based on someone of integrity whom I greatly like and respect – which shows it’s a short walk from being a good guy to becoming something morally more dubious.
In terms of social background, I envisaged Frank as a Maltese guy who had ended up in London after serving in the British army - he had then got involved with the Maltese gangs who were in Soho up to the ’70s before he turned (more or less) legit.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing a novel set in the Kent countryside – see, I do know there’s life outside London! The narrator is female and the subject matter is difficult. It will be a good read. That’s all I can say.