The beggar's gambit

BOOK review

Not so long ago, I was standing in a bus queue when an old man lurched towards me asking whether I could possibly spare the price of a cup of tea. He was polite and not unpleasant, and I parted with a handful of coins. An effusive series of Thank-you-sirs, and God-bless-you-sirs rewarded me before the man, evidently a heavy tea-drinker, moved further down the line to repeat his request. This time, however, he was dismissed with a blunt refusal, which he acknowledged with a threatening wave of the fist and a shout of "Well, stuff you then!"

John Healy's book The Grass Arena will shatter the illusions of anyone who believes that such people are sponging vagrants. Their life is a full-time exercise in brutal survival techniques in an alcohol-dependent society with its own highly structured rules of violence, an unending real-life video nasty.

Healy paints a stark picture of street life, where each morning is greeted with a vicious hangover in an unfamiliar doorway. "The day always begins with the shakes, sickness, fear, paranoia, constipation, dry retch and complete loss of memory, which only a drink will cure. So begging a bottle can often turn into demanding with menace, and threatening behaviour into grievous bodily harm."

With alcohol withdrawal symptoms the greatest terror of all, sobriety, becomes a state to be dreaded. The endless daily cycle of drink, begging, crime, more drink, stupor, and black-out is broken only when the morning awakening finds Healy in a prison cell, oblivious of the actions that led him there, or in hospital, having had his head kicked in by a fellow vagrant in settlement of an old score. To have escaped from this hopeless existence is rare enough, but John Healy's achievement in writing about it with such stark realism, and without any trace of resentment or bitterness, is quite remarkable. It provides us with a unique and compelling picture of structured degradation on city streets, made all the more frighteningly readable by a vivid, though understated style, and the occasional glimpse of humour: "I got home before dawn, being sick outside the door. (The week before I was sick inside the door. My uncle was pleased with the difference.)"

Without any homilies, this autobiography charts a rapid and inevitable decline into the gutter-life. With a violent father and a loving, but emotionally undemonstrative mother ("She would recoil if I tried to cuddle or kiss her"), Healy unsurprisingly found it hard to develop close personal relationships. Every woman mentioned in the book is attractive, beautiful or gorgeous, and unattainable. Those within his reach are too disgusting to contemplate. Whenever a relationship threatens to develop, he flees to the bottle in fear, unwilling to test reality against the illusory perfection of his idealising lust. The least convincing part of the book is Healy’s account of his escape from the death sentence of life in the Grass Arena. Discovering the game of chess during a stay in prison, he falls hopelessly in love with it with the suddeness of Saul on the road to Damascus, John Healy’s dependence on alcohol is instantly transferred to chess. Study, practice and considerable natural talent brought him success in club and county championships, and financial assistance when he caught the eye of national chess talent-spotters Despite some evident exaggeration in his chess tales, Healy's success was :outstanding for someone who came to the game at the age of 30, quite apart from his earlier history. / But was the transition from alcoholic to chess junkie simply a substitution of one obsessional neurosis for another? If- so, what preconditions are necessary to make such a switch? Can any alcoholic be cured by chess? Healy's account glosses over his conversion too swiftly to offer any clues. Neither is there any indication as to where his writing ability originated; for his chess has now given way to a literary addiction, and here his skills are undeniable. - I finished reading The Grass Arena on an underground journey. Changing trains at Euston, I saw a wino collapsed on the platform. Before, I would not have given him a second thought, but now I found myself wondering whether there was a human being inside the alcohol-rotted shell. It is a very disturbing book.

William Hartston