BRIXTON PEOPLE: John Bently, artist

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John Bently on stage by Stuart Devoil

By Lucy Binnersley

John Bently, a South London based artist, performer and writer, has been making art in book form since 1983. Under the imprint Liver & Lights, Bently has produced a staggering 51 volumes so far. Beginning anti -Thatcherite manifesto, the books have evolved into all manner of things including exhibitions, performances and community projects. Yet, the thread connecting all of his work is his unwavering, almost documentary style of human observation. Bently’s work has been a Circus best seller since the shop opened in Brixton Village market in 2010. For Circus John has now developed a new series called ‘English Road movies’. Each handbound book details a London bus journey and the collection is housed in a painted ‘London Bus’.

Bently drew inspiration for this from his own time spent living in Brixton. Two weeks after the the first Brixton riots in 1981, Bently was sat on a bus heading towards Brixton in the search of cheap rent. This journey on London Transport was to be the beginning of a life-long exploration and campaign to make sense of what it is like to live in South London. Like a modern day Dickens, Bently constructs characters against an almost mythical backdrop of South London streets. He takes the places and people around him, turns them into his projects and books, and in doing so nurtures and celebrates them. These characters are often those who go ignored by society and live through hardship. One such character is called Joe Soake. Bently describes Joe as “a composite of various local homeless people” who becomes the voice of all the things that Bentley himself detested about the “shallow uncaring world of the 1980s”. Yet, by the end of the story the seemingly derelict alcoholic antihero Joe is transformed by love and art into a reluctant Messiah, the antithesis of all things Thatcherite, thrusting and materialistic.

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John Bently – Picture by Lorna Milburn Photography

Bently is the perfect involved outsider – he watches and also experiences how it is to live in South London – think a mixture of Charles Dickens and BBCs ‘The Office’ (weird I know, but go with it). He captures the rather beautiful melancholy and mundane theatricality of city living. Incidentally, all the books have been made to be performed; Bently states that this is central to his process of observing and recreating. Along with his fellow Bones and the Aft band members, Lord Biscuit on drums and Ian Mckean on guitar, Bently is part of a project that he labels “a bit of music hall and a lot of rock and roll!”

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Picture by Abul Ahmed

The name of the book series, ‘Liver and Lights’ refers to a lit-up sign Bently once saw in a butcher’s window in Deptford. Hanging next to this sign was a piece of offal (the entrails of a butchered animal). It is these internal organs that are the most important during the life of the animal but in death become the cheapest bit of meat. This seems to perfectly encapsulate how sometimes the real heroes of this world are the Joe Soakes that we find on the street with nothing more to their name than an empty bottle. A scavenger of social archaeology, Bently has created a moving portrait and a living history of Brixton; a place that has been many things, but never the same.

John Bently performs many of his stories with the band ‘Bones and the Aft’ – CDs and information available here:

Liver and Lights books and information available here:

Also available at Circus, Brixton Village Market