Thursday, 7 October 2010

Johnny Come Home by Jake Arnott

There’s a lazy train of thought that has reduced the 1970s simply to a decade that ‘taste forgot’, nothing more than a parade of kitsch, regurgitated on ‘I love the 70s shows’ with their fixation on Marc Bolan and the Bay City Rollers. Jake Arnott’s novel shifts the focus back from the fluff to radicalised politics, social deprivation and the vacuous heart behind the glam of the music scene.

Sweet Thing is a teenage hustler, a seventeen-year-old rent boy, plying his trade at Piccadilly Circus. His best punter is Johnny Chrome, a has been pop star who somehow flukes a number one hit. With a follow-up single demanded by the record company, Chrome falls apart under the pressure, washed out on tranquilisers and white wine:

“I’m ridiculous, ain’t I?” Sweet Thing didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to upset Johnny. He was a good customer, he reckoned. Johnny shakily poured himself another glass of wine and fumbled for his pills. Time to go, thought Sweet Thing.

Sweet Thing falls in with Pearson and his flat-mate Nina who live in a Somers Town squat off the Euston Road. Pearson’s lover has recently committed suicide, but what he doesn’t know is that he was also involved with the Angry Brigade’s bombing campaign. Sweet Thing’s arrival drives the fragile household apart: Pearson is smitten by the androgynous rent-boy and Nina seduces him. Oblivious to the chaos he is causing, Sweet Thing flits back to Johnny Chrome, now dependent on the boy to give him the courage to perform.

When they got back to Johnny Chrome’s house they sat and watched Top of the Pops. Johnny opened a bottle of white wine and poured them both a glass. He took the pills from his pocket and swallowed two of them. “What are they?” Sweet thing asked. “Downers,” replied Johnny. “Want some?” “Yeah, all right.” Johnny handed the boy a couple and Sweet Thing chased them down with the sweet wine. T. Rex was number one with ‘Metal Guru’.

As Sweet Thing starts to realise how much he has been exploited he hits the town with a pocket full of cash. Wired up on speed, he picks up a punter called Walter, a former male prostitute himself, who warns him that he is a lost soul:

Walter went to get a bottle of brandy and two tumblers. “Make yourself comfortable,” he implored. Sweet Thing slumped on to a sofa. Walther handed him a glass and poured out a couple of inches of spirit. He sat down next to him, one hand holding his own glass, the other snaking around the upholstery to rest on the nape of the boy’s neck. Sweet Thing’s shoulders spasmed. The man patted him gently. Sweet Thing leaned forward and took a gulp of brandy. “Are you OK?” asked Walter. Sweet Thing swallowed and sighed, breathing the spirit’s vapours. Another gob of speed-phlegm trickled down his throat. He felt the brandy glow inside him, his face blushing with its infusion.

Disorientated, he goes back to the squat. Pearson and Nina invite him along to a fund-raiser for the Stoke Newington Eight. Sweet Thing gets pissed on Bacardi and Coke:

“It’s Sweet Thing. He’s drunk. We better take him home.” They found him propped up at the bar. “Fucking hippies!” he was calling out... They hailed a cab and bundled him in. When they got back to the squat they pulled him out and steadied him up the stairs. They got him into his room and lowered him onto the bed. He looked up at them and grinned. The ceiling began to spin above his head.

The hangover is going to last a while. As Johnny Chrome’s Faustian pact with Sweet Thing lurches to its terrible conclusion, Pearson plans one last spectacle in the name of the Angry Brigade. Like the decade itself, the results are explosive...

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