guilty pleasures (summer reading)

jake arnott’s johnny come home

set in the london of the early 1970s, jake arnott’s johnny come home features true-life plot elements involving the angry brigade and the stoke newington 8 defence committee, references to david bowie and guy debord, ziggy stardust and the situationist international, plus a glam rock star patently derived from gary glitter.

it’s a fast and entertaining story, and arnott’s eye for the shabby and the insincere conveys an atmosphere not that much different from that in his trilogy of crime novels (the long firm, he kills coppers and truecrime, all loosely based on the lives and works of the krays), with much of the narrative influenced by a policeman who could be a literary descendant of balzac’s vautrin: detective sergeant walker of the bomb squad reads up on the political literature of the day, such as society as spectable, in order to better turn angry brigade cell members into informers. 

the first edition of johnny come home was withdrawn in the u.k., because of a legal challenge to the depiction of a slimy bandleader named tony rocco: the actual former bandleader named tony rocco objected to the character’s name. presumably gary glitter decided “johnny chrome” wasn’t a direct enough allusion to bring litigation or maybe being imprisoned in thailand accounts for his silence.

and speaking of names, we learn on the last page that the real name of the rent boy “sweet thing” is stewart laing: presumably “laing” after the 1960s anti-psychiatry guru r.d. laing, and possibly “stewart” as an oblique homage to another great writer of underworld london, stewart home — “home” as in “johnny come home.”   “Sex, drugs and Judas”
By Michael Arditti
Friday, 14 April 2006

The 1970s Yorkshire TV documentary Johnny Go Home shocked the nation with its portrait of teenage runaways forced into prostitution in places such as the Playland amusement arcade in Piccadilly Circus. Jake Arnott plays on memories of it in his new novel, the evocatively titled Johnny Come Home, which offers a vivid exploration of the seedy sexual and political underbelly of Seventies London, a decade in which “all the hope and optimism of the sixties seemed to have burnt out into bitterness and powerless rage”. 


Cover illustration of the teenage hustler Sweet Thing:
“I’m rent, not bent.”


Playland itself features in the book as the favourite haunt of Sweet Thing, an abused and abusive 17-year old, whose “body was trade, he was business made flesh,” and who sees Gay Liberation as meaning that boys like him should give sex away for free. He is the hub of the novel, around which the three other main characters turn. They are Pearson, a young painter who has been sucked into the nihilistic world of his lover, O’Connell; Nina, a bisexual known as Betty Bothways, who shares his squat; and Johnny Chrome nee Savage nee Rebel nee Evans, a tortured glam rock star.

Sex is a tawdry business in this world. Sweet Thing uses his body as a means of both self-validation and revenge. Johnny as a youth was debauched by the impresario, Larry Parnes and is later taken by his manager to a Surrey disco where a group of predatory pop figures prepare, Jonathan King-like, to “groom” the teenage boys. Pearson has been seduced by O’Connell and moves in with him, only to find himself subjected to the ultimate rejection when O’Connell commits suicide.

O’Connell is the book’s most enigmatic and fascinating character, an anarchist and would-be novelist on the fringes of the Angry Brigade, who identifies with Judas. Unlike many good writers who portray bad writers, Arnott has the courage of his descriptions and includes long passages of O’Connell’s atrocious prose. It is Pearson’s discovery of O’Connell’s treachery that leads him to take the action which forms the novel’s climax.

Johnny Come Home is a beautifully observed and brilliantly paced book. As in his best-selling Long Firm trilogy, it is Arnott’s evocation of period that constitutes his strongest suit as a writer. He is utterly convincing in his depiction of the quirks of an era in which drug-dealers sell “dope in ounces and speed in grams” and Biba is the easiest place to shoplift in London.