‘Suddenly a hand wrenched my neck back. Others grabbed my arms, my legs ... One of them squeezed my balls so hard. I got a pain in my guts making me dizzy.’ Brooding malign silences wind the tension to breaking point, and are punctuated by sudden eruptions of violence: it is a survivalist world, bleak and uncompromising – the world of competitive chess.
John Healy arrived there, without papers or proof of identity, a drowning man coming up for the last time. It was his only way of escaping from the slow-motion suicide of alcoholism, and he took it with manic relish. His book, The Grass Arena, is a devastating account, told directly and without subterfuge, of that journey. These painfully retrieved highlights stun the reader like blows from an invisible assailant, leaving him dizzy, and slightly high, trembling in an amphetamine stutter. The procession of images once launched seems predestined: savage childhood, petty crime, the Army, booze and vagrancy, a willed renunciation, rebirth into chess, guru-chasing and, inevitably, the in-tray of Colin MacCabe at the British Film Institute.
Now the book (or, more accurately, John Healy himself) is everywhere; the knock-on effect, the metropolitan whispers that can rush the latest hot item from the Guardian to the heavyweight Sundays and a full retrospective in the London Review of Books. An authentic report has been brought back from somewhere exotic and unknown, the pavements of this city. And as the gadarene and glitz-fed sprint of enterprise capital attempts to corral any citizens with loose change in their pockets into Fort Apache-style ex-industrial ruins, such as the Bow Quarter, so life outside, street life, with all its fevers, dirt and aliens, is reduced to a matter of local colour, window-dressing, spice to garnish the sales patter. We are acquiescing in a scenario that ensures the success of such a testimony as John Healy’s – if only because these things will soon be as scarce as shops on the Isle of Dogs. The miracle is that the book exists at all: it is what we remark on, ignoring the buoyant and quirky humour that makes the grim tale palatable.
Yet The Grass Arena has not, I feel, been altogether fortunate in its sponsors. It needs all its high-octane crack to pull free from the gravity of MacCabe’s introduction. My advice would be to skip this or read it at the finish.
MacCabe feels the need to place the text safely within the corporate body of world literature, to find something else that is just like it. He flies a few kites on sex and chess and alcohol. He expresses earnest amazement on learning that vagrants lead lives almost as complex as those of cultural commissars. Pete Townshend’s little collection of stories, released on the same label, did not require a pundit to explain how a deaf ex-addict rock musician brought back the goods from his twenty-year nightmare of fame and lunacy. A chess-playing wino? That’s another ball-game.
The story, in truth, tells itself. Healy’s methods are basically conversational – with a narrative drive that is apparent from the first sentence. He does not deserve, or solicit, MacCabe’s blustering endeavour to marry the ‘crippled Utopianisms’ of addiction and political terrorism. Nor does he demand, beyond the desirability of a strong quote for the dust-wrapper, any comparison with William Burroughs and Junkie.
We are told by MacCabe that Healy’s reading habits favoured trash-factory crime fiction. Therefore, it is presumed, he dropped naturally into ‘the hard-boiled cadences of a Hammet [sic] detective novel’. It is regrettable that MacCabe (or his editors) should have such a slender acquaintance with this field that they cannot even spell the name of one of its most fashionable practitioners. In fact, the only time Healy did any reading was in prison. Usually, put away for a few months at a stretch, he found that for the first two weeks he could barely see: it was a physical struggle to unstick his eyelids. Thereafter he binged on the excesses of James Hadley Chase, the thrill technician guilty of No Orchids for Miss Blandish and the psychotic charms of Twelve Chinks and a Woman.
Healy’s style, though it borrows the odd gestural shrug or swagger from twin-fisted romance, is his own. It is the evenly-modulated voice of the yarn-spinner, the spieler: remorseless, unflinching, letting each episode die into its successor. ‘My father didn’t look like he would harm anyone’: his opening gambit is deceptive, warning us that fists will soon drum against the child’s skull. How did he survive? Physically slight, an Irish immigrant with a Londoner’s tongue in his mouth, he was belligerent with innocence. He belonged nowhere. His minimal presence in the family home was enough to infuriate his father and bring down the repeated assaults of fate.
The narrative is chronological; its rhythms are swift and terse. There is an overwhelming sense of the authorial presence racing to snare memory beyond memory – without a hint of the self-promoting strategist faking the odds to ensure a final apotheosis. The plot will be familiar to readers of ghosted East End gangster memoirs: bother with the law, church, boxing club, billet in the White Tower, Colchester, battalion champion, guardhouse, on the trot. It is at this point that John Healy’s autobiography diverts spectacularly from the route chosen by those premature Thatcherites, the Brothers Kray. They plunged into the abyss from an entirely different cliff.
A natural defaulter, Healy deserted to Ireland, willing an escape into his imagined past. A dream landscape: the world slowed down, physical sensations overwhelmed him. He had infiltrated the pages of Patrick Kavanagh’s Green Fool, but the lyricism was spattered with ancient brutalities, bedridden bachelors, mud-slow policemen, bicycles, stone fields – and, always, the drink. Attending him on the farm, as in the city, never further than the end of the bed, was his dark twin, ‘tension’: a shudder, a shoulder-twitch, a clinging sense of doom that Jack Kerouac called ‘The Shadow’. There was the expectation of disaster that made its arrival ever more certain. The shudder can only be muted in pints, the drinking life, oblivion: clubbing the wolf into silence, inhibiting conditioned reflexes. The slide into vagrancy is a letting go, a surrender that is not without its compensations.
The vagrant in fiction is a solitary with ‘a past’. His descent into the nether regions is frequently heroic and, in achieving it, he is ennobled but emasculated. David Goodis is the laureate of this mood. William Kennedy, a more recent mythologist of hobo as artist, has seen his novel Ironweed make it all the way to the screen, where Jack Nicholson was obliged to continue his career-long impersonation of the damaged but still-sneering loner. Other avatars range from the ferocious peasant-author of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger to the merely interesting ‘tramps’ who enliven the conformist fringes of Richmal Crompton’s Arcadian sagas. Another striking manifestation has been the vagrant-spectre who roams the blighted London of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, like a virus waiting to be directed. These drop-outs are all repositories of forgotten knowledge, ageless, fraudulent – amnesiac Merlins.
But they remain strangers to Healy’s Grass Arena. His drinkers belong to ‘schools’, and outsiders, attempting to break into these protected circles, would not survive. There are no personal histories beyond tribal knowledge, the tricks of subsistence. These men and women are ruthless in their self-interest, but share the only thing that matters, the bottle. Alone, they would die. They would be picked off in days by a society that has no use for them. They are unexploitable. Their own friends will strip any remaining assets if they falter, will clean out the pockets of the epileptic or the dying. They have their territories and they hold them. They cluster safely within the maternal embrace of the particular railway station that links them to their place of origin: so that the Irish stay on a tired grass patch alongside Euston, where they tumbled from the Liverpool train, white the Jocks wander the perimeter of King’s Cross, eager to avenge imagined aboriginal slights.
Communication, speech itself, is a dangerous luxury. Sudden bolts of violence climax some rambling and elliptical monologue, while Pinter playlets are consummated in blood and froth. Healy sketches these dramas with forensic skill: the pivotal moment in the bar when the man beside you decides to shove a broken bottle into your neck. Peripheral vision is an essential tool. The wino’s life depends upon a kind of neurasthenic cinemascope. All those sentimental low-life icons are torn to shreds – as when the genial tart’s salutation sends Healy spinning into a scramble to escape from her black pimps. He is offering us that species of dead-end fate-tale perfected by the late Jim Thompson, himself – like so many journeymen of hard-boiled or proletarian literature – no stranger to the bottle.
The liberal press have tended to receive this book as startling intelligence brought back from some impenetrable other world. It is happening elsewhere. We are, of course, properly concerned – but not implicated. It is all as fascinating and remote as a traveller’s tale, and as hygienically distanced as Arthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago or the ‘Monster Doss House’ photographed for the first edition of Jack London’s People of the Abyss in 1903. But the news is that the Doss House is still there in Fieldgate Street, looking ripe to fall to the front-line developers whose eyes light up as they prospect yet another gold-brick poverty façade. Those wonderfully gothic post-Ripper slums were built to last for a thousand years, a reich of charitable intentions. Beyond them, shadowed on the itchy grass, are the immortals: the unhoused, the ‘wet-brained’, the psychopaths.
What might be disturbing, to those who have up to now preferred not to think about it, is a sub-text that Healy lays bare, but does not stress: the way that the state exploits our indifference to abuse these marginal non-producers. There is, as yet, no heritage zoo, or theme park, in which to display them as shudder-inducing Dickensian chimeras. That may come. For the time being we condone, with a nod and a wink, what can only be called a policy of unauthorised culling. Clean-handed collaborators, we are able to mime our horror at each freak example that finds its way onto the inside pages of provincial newspapers. The vagrant is at the bottom of the trench, a social zero. He is frequently loud, aggressive, foul-smelling, incontinent, abusive of authority, eager to lift anything that isn’t chained down – so the bored coppers, uniformed garbage collectors in unmarked vans, get their retaliation in first, bend the rules of engagement, kick the living daylights out of their conveniently anaesthetised customers, speed them on their way down some distinctly hazardous staircases, or ballast their pockets with strips of lead, in order to massage the arrest statistics and shunt the problem onto the overcrowded shambles of a Victorian prison service. The weaker brethren are ticketed for the path labs and we are rid of them. Medical benevolence is restricted to cocktails of Scotch and Antabuse: the obliging guests retch up their intestines, yard by yard. The quacks ‘always put “Heart attack” on an alky’s death cert ...’ Who is going to complain? Certainly not John Healy. He has surfaced with enough rancid anecdotes to launch a first novel and two or three plays. No researcher could fetch him such uncut abattoir fables. He is a writer, and the worse things get the better we like it. But when he strolls through the arena, nostalgic for its ‘strong energy’, the old faces are missing. The body-count is unchanged but newly engrossed death-masks stare at him without any spark of recognition.
The helpless and the hopeless are dumped in the rag shop at Pentonville, a mumbling crew of psychos and inadequates, suffering the casual viciousness of the system, and the spasmodic spankings of the gangsters on top of the rat-heap. Healy’s twitchy intelligence, his street nous, kept him clear of the worst of it. But he remembers, and will never shake free from, the screams of some feeble-minded sex offender whose eye was skewered on a needle by a quorum of high-minded moralists.
The author is now a lively, but posthumous man; a combat-shaken veteran. He is a youthful, if slightly foxed, 45-year-old – turning himself, by way of his fame, into an exhibition of his own past. He can scarcely believe that it happened. As if to prove its truth, mostly to himself, he heaps verification into your lap: corrected typescripts, and the Junior ABA certificates his mother preserved, along with the chess cuttings from the Evening Standard that Faber chose, rather pointedly, to reproduce on the final page of the book, as if to say: ‘See, dear reader, it’s all true!’
He takes your hand and gently guides it towards the hardened tips of his ears, where the frost-bite got him. He balls his fist to model the displaced knuckle. You admire the particular quality of blue in the scar tissue around his left eye. He can no longer dredge up the stories of all the wounds: after the first eight pints there is only darkness. He could have killed without knowing it, or fathered children.
The coda, asserting that there is life after alcohol, takes up only 26 pages. He knows that half his brain has gone for ever, shrivelled by horror. Chess, despite the modest sponsorship of Jim Slater, is not enough. Card-carrying members of a yogic orange-lodge, neocolonialists, tempt Healy to India, where he discovers only heat and confusion: beggars more terrifying than anything in the Cider House. They hustle and bait him, these demons of guilt. Neither is the ashram much help: ‘In India we do not sit on holy books.’ His dream woman, ‘the Countess’, evaporates, another post-traumatic illusion. ‘Time clouding memory cured my longings ...’ The light goes out and the story ends.
Now the jackals, myself among them, beat a path to the door of his mother’s flat, tucked away off the Caledonian Road in a labyrinth of brutalist concrete that would astonish an earlier inhabitant, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. A novel, Streets Above Us, has been completed, its title joyfully echoing Patrick Hamilton.
It would be a nice irony if the brewers, Whitbread, saw their way to handing John Healy a cheque that would keep him writing for the next year or so. I shall certainly be watching out for whatever emerges – if Healy does not get bored with practising a form that he has already mastered, or discover that there are more scoundrels in Bloomsbury than in any Grass Arena.