A novel by Jake Arnott published by Hodder & Stoughton and reviewed for 3ammgazine.com
Jake Arnott’s latest novel johnny come home is set like earlier novels in a period he cannot have known except as a child, but which is well researched, and which cover those few years when anything seemed possible, and radical bohemianism stopped being an elite affair. It is a period that still haunts the rich and powerful; that the poor and relatively poor might be happy, creative and intelligent is intolerable to them. The new novel is set in 1972. The backdrop is the start of the Angry Brigade trial. I was a defendant in this trial, and so with recall the period is alive to me. Life was very intense, and it is tempting to say Oh, he’s got this wrong or that, but he is very fair to the time, the libertarian left, and sympathetic to his characters.
This in itself is in sharp contrast to another novel written closer to the time, Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist. In this novel the dice are well and truly loaded, the protagonists are not just arrogant, careless, stupid wishful-thinkers, but sexually impotent as well. Once can imagine the critical response to this kind of treatment of a successful businessman; that this wasn’t art, it wasn’t fiction, it was polemic, whereas there are still hacks praising the novel. What stands out is how Lessing, the ex-Stalinist, hated the ‘counter-culture’ and its politics just as much as those who kept the faith like the father of the character Nina, and even he is treated with sympathy. Arnott is scrupulously fair in emphasising that the Angry Brigade was not a tight hierarchical group, but also that its SN8 Defence Committee was more politically important than those they were defending.
The tone of Arnott’s novel is elegiac and is set by the offstage character O’Connell, offstage because he has committed suicide but left behind him the potential for a trail of trouble, but also the way in which those who have lived in the same squatted house – Nina and Pearson – come to hook up with the other two main characters in the novel. It is through them – rent boy Sweet Thing and the singer re-invented as Glam Rocker, Johnny Chrome – that the sense of political defeat is linked to a regressive step in a music world that is once again one of manipulation, and this time by predatory gay producers. These are the only really nasty characters in the novel (the character of Jonathan King is thinly disguised, as is DS Roy Cremer – an absurdly romanticized figure in writing about the AB – as the character Walker), and this has some punch to it given the importance of the Gay Liberation Front to the politics of the novel. The contrast of the two worlds also cuts the other way, the bombing of the fashion store Biba (claimed by the Angry Brigade a year earlier), is totally wrong in the eyes of Sweet Thing because Biba’s is easy for shoplifting exactly the clothes that can make him feel not just glamorous, but which are sensually pleasurable.
The four main characters are sympathetically treated but all, except Nina (he was all right after all the Stalinist dad, she is the most solid) are tragic, whereas she unexpectedly at last has an orgasm. They are tragedies coming out of different forms of desperation that are a result of different forms of exploitation, or as a result of what we come to see as O’Connor’s sentimental nihilism. But also as if tragedy was the necessary tenor of the times. It is here that difficulties arise, for it was also the very same time when the miners defeated the state at Saltley, and the leaders of a dockers’ strike were released from Pentonville prison as a result of mass physical pressure that was not clandestine. The absence of even a passing mention matters given that Arnott is addressing younger readers with the very proper intent of giving a feel of that period of passionate politics. It leaves it a little unbalanced. The absence of the texture of pre-gentrified inner London, its egalitarian feel, is less important given that intent. In the end though, I did, as a fiction reader, wish that he allowed the characters to speak more for themselves, to give them a voice, rather than the authorial voice telling us so much of who they are and what they think.
[You can read much more of John Barker’s fiction and non-fiction at theharrier.net]