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".
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.
Arnott here throws off his "geezer chic" persona to explore a world that is just as venal as that of the violence and criminality of his previous novels but which has far less of the superficial glamour. Moreover, his calculatedly dispassionate prose style makes it hard to engage with the characters or to empathise with their plight. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating portrait of impotence and amorality by a writer unafraid to take risks.
Michael Arditti's 'Unity' is published by Maia PressReuse content