GLAAS News visited prize winning writer and novelist John Healy who for fifteen years lived as a street drinker in the skippers and parks of the violent Grass Arena, the title of his prize-winning autobiography,
The Sunday Correspondent asked ', John Healy to do a piece on the new generation of homeless wandering the Capital's streets. He came up with the title 'ragged gladiator beware!' He knows what he is talking about. The School of Hard Knocks is a high care centre for the delicate compared to Healy's upbringing when his Father and the local kids shared the regular task of beating him up. After early poverty, degradation in the army and police cells and prison and years of alcoholic desolation, the fact that he is still sane is remarkable. The fact that he is a writer of phenomenal power and intensity is miraculous.
There's a theory that goes the greater the suffering, the greater the art. Without the persecutions of Tsarist Russia, no Dostoievsky, it runs; without The Camps no Primo Levi. As an argument, it stinks: a publishers reductio ad absurdam of the human condition - 'Well, at least you got a book out of it!'
So far John Healy has got two books out of it, his autobiography which won the J. R. Ackerley prize last year and, just published a novel called Streets Above Us.
The Grass Arena has been compared in style to George Orwell and William Burroughs but without the class voyerism of the former or the loopy artificiality of the latter. Neither Burroughs nor Orwell were street wise or bred. They were both privileged men who thought it would be good to go and have a look. Healy started without much choice in the matter and he is clear about the pain involved: 'I'm damaged. I don't see others getting out of it. They're double damaged. Some of them used to read, (the other dossers) some of them had big ideas. Thought they were poets. I never thought that. I just used to try and get a drink. But I've come to terms with it. I thought that was my station in life. I've got damage from there. I don't hold it against the past but I'd rather have done without it:
It is a book of immense power, extreme violence and despite everything, moments of real beauty in the chapters that deal with his visits to family in Ireland, first as a child, then on the run from the army. It's written with a kind of total style, so that the language's texture and rhythms change with the surroundings: full of lilt in Ireland, tough and clattery in the army, prison cockney in jail and a compound of broken, mixed-up images, shrieks and roars on the streets.
Healy's life began to turn around when he discovered chess and that even as a late starter he was a born player. He managed to displace obsessional drinking with obsessional playing and then released himself from theendgame on the board by writing.
The Grass Arena ends in 1977, by which time, Healy had discovered yoga and travelled to India. His second book, Streets Above Us is a fictionalised account of events since then. It bumps around a bit, trying to deal with the less brutal more complex theme of getting on in society. It fractures between life above ground among small time North London litterati who pick up Mo (the central character) and show him off and under ground on the Tube, where
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Mo's ex-compatriots the dossers still lurk, along with a grand guignol set of Transport Police.
Like Mo, Healy seems to find his position in the new world he occupies ambiguous and a little treacherous. He must be the only Faber author who shares a small council flat with his mum. Anthony Burgess, another J. R. Ackerley winner lives in Monaco, presumably in somewhat grander style. 'The class system in this country is savage,' says Healy, 'The middle classes control everything ... how they look ... how they talk. My books have had to find their own level. I'll be getting nothing that I'm not entitled to. It's like a fighter isn't it? I'll have to give value for money in the ring.'
I called round while he was having supper, he and his Mother seem well together after so long apart. Outside was a lovely sunny evening and I was given a cup of tea while he ate. It was hard to believe that the terrible things in The Grass Arena actually happened to this man. Apparently Faber had had the same problem: 'They didn't believe it at first. They didn't know a lot about alcoholics. Drug addicts yes. They've got that pop star ... Townsend. Chess at that level ... killing people - they didn't believe it. I had to show them a letter from Clive Soley who was my probation officer at the time and my boxing certificates and a chess tournament thing. Then they believed it. They tried to pretend they had all the time:
His books have both been hugely successful in Ireland and he was invited to appear on the Pat Kenny show on TV there. 'This young pop star was on it. They called her the white Tina Turner and all these other poncy pop star guys. And when it came to the announcement that I'd been a chess master and a wino and that, she went 'Ooo, who's the wino, who's the wino?' And 1'm sitting there drinking a cup of tea and when I came out they went 'Oh, it's that little bugger!' Because I had this lovely suit on I never looked like the wino: He clearly takes a certain wry pleasure in the contradiction between what he was and what he has become.
I asked him finally what he would have liked had he had different breaks: 'I'd like to have been more relaxed. I'd like to have worked on a little farm or something: Then he said 'I could have been champion of the world in chess if I'd started younger. Because I had the faculty to see accurately.'
In his writing, he still has.