Before And After The Grass Arena: John Healy Interviewed

Austin Collings chats with author, chess master, ex-prisoner and former boxing champion John Healy, the subject of new documentary Barbaric Genius, which opens this weekend. Chess photograph by Glyn Roberts

In Martin Amis’ cleverly written memoir, Experience, one serious and salient issue looms large: outside of death – other people’s death – very little happens to Amis, one of England’s pre-eminent literary heavyweights, and a dead cert for publication, regardless of content. Teeth are taken out at great expense; he writes about this with customary wit and style. But his ‘experiences’ are mainly privileged and banal.

The same could be said of many if not most relatively successful English writers. They lead lives much like their (middle or upper class) fathers’ or mothers’, who aimed was also to avoid confrontation and incident. What they put down on the page is generally the extension of dinner or literary party discussions and ideas. Hard-life experience is what happens to other people: this seems to be what they’re implying, as they revel in, and benefit from, successful inaction.

But in 1988 an outsider darkened the doorstep of this cosily insular gathering. An ex-soldier, ex-boxer, ex-wino and ex-prisoner, turned chess master turned writer: a true one-off literary sensation. Faber & Faber published his book, The Grass Arena. It went on to win the JR Ackerley Prize for autobiography. Harold Pinter described it as ‘terrific’. A BBC film adaptation was praised to the hilt. Today, you can buy the book as a Penguin Classic, with an introduction by Daniel Day-Lewis. So why then was the author – John Healy – blackballed by the publishing industry? And why are none of his other books readily available?

There are gut writers like Nelson Algren and Charles Bukowski, and there are head writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow. Then there are the rare instances when the two are combined, like when Malcolm Lowry – that most reckless and concentrated thinker – focused the sublime ruins of his drink-led and drink-ravaged imagination to create Under The Volcano. Healy lies in this same offbeat, oddly focused and hard to fathom category.

He’d lived rough for 15 years on the streets of London under the Vagrancy Act, when begging carried an automatic three-year prison sentence; ‘lulled, dulled [and] skulled’ out of his head. He’d seen fellow winos killed with smashed bottles. He’d drank enough cheap and powerful alcohol to stun a mule. He’d hit the cliché rock bottom, and maybe even fashioned an even lower status for himself, as he journeyed through this subculture of dark desperation.

Finding himself in prison again, he met Harry The Fox, who taught him the dense art of chess. Healy was instantly hooked. He left prison a 30-year-old chess obsessive. He swapped drink for chess. Soon after he was playing masters, and winning championships. But it all became too much: as with the booze, chess consumed Healy. Eventually, he turned to writing. And naturally it was these extreme experiences and consequences of the homeless life that leaked out of him, and bled into his masterpiece, The Grass Arena.

Once published, it all seemed to be going so well for him, for once. No more low-life for John anymore. Not now he’s with Faber. Not now he’s on TV, being interviewed by Jonathan Ross. Not now he’s being talked about like some freakish genius. But then it all turned to shit. John wanted to speak to Faber. Faber didn’t want to speak to John. John got increasingly frustrated. One of Faber’s editors at the time, Robert McCrum failed to return John’s telephone calls. The old tension began to creep back into John. His anger swelled. He spoke to a female assistant at Faber on the phone, told her to tell them upstairs that he was going to chop their heads off with an axe. Daft comment. Flippant. Not meant. Not really. He was spiralling out. They were treating him like a tramp, but he wasn’t a tramp. He was a writer. A chess whizz. The girl on the phone knew this. She liked John. She knew he needed a different level of attention. But why didn’t they answer his calls? Why didn’t they put his galloping mind to rest? Doing her duty, she relayed the message. Word got out. John was a mad axe man. Faber blackballed him. The Guardian ran a front-page news story about it. Rubbed salt in the avoidable wound. The Grass Arena was then pulped – despite selling 20,000 plus copies – and John hasn’t been in mainstream print since. From bliss to piss, again. You get the horribly distinct feeling it could have been so different.

Now 69, and scraping by in the margins, Healy’s the subject of a fittingly intense and considerately observed documentary – Barbaric Genius – directed by first-time filmmaker Paul Duane. One hopes that the publishing world realises its mistake in silencing such a uniquely powerful and important working-class literary voice. And it’s a testament to Duane’s patience and diligent love (the film was four years in the making) for the subject matter that finally we can get to see and hear one of literature’s true greats recalling the lives he has lived before and after The Grass Arena.

The following conversation took place at John Healy’s studio flat in Kentish Town, London.

I admire the grave-black humour that runs alongside the obvious brutality and grimness of The Grass Arena.

John Healy: Violence was the currency of The Grass Arena, of the place. It was quite a backwards subculture in this respect – almost like Vikings. There’s no home, no solace, no social security – except the bottle. You’re loused up all the time with lice. Everyday was survival. I wanted to convey to the reader that you’re in there: in the moment. That’s how I write. And I think black comedy is a strong feature of working-class people. I’ve seen it in prison; people with very heavy sentences – they’ve got humour.

Charles Bukowski was very good at that: elevating the gutter-life with black humour.

JH: Bukowski made trouble for himself. He kept making trouble in order to write about it. Funny writer though – with those clever short sentences. But the problem with Bukowski was he thought he was Mozart when he was drinking. He thought he was supreme.

Another thing I’m drawn to, and that you excel at, is titles. The Grass Arena is a beautiful title, as are The Metal Mountain and The Glass Cage, your two unpublished works.

JH: The Metal Mountain is a terrific book. It’s been gifted to me. And the title means something. After the Second World War. At that time you needed metal to fight a war. Now it’s mainly nuclear. Back then, they would come and take your railings from outside your house. That’s why you sometimes see lumps of concrete outside houses with little stumps of metal – that’s where they’ve taken the railings. And they’d put all this metal into mountains around Britain… After the war some of these were left over. There was one in Kentish Town, patrolled by police dogs and railway police. And that’s what the metal mountain is. I’m very pleased with it, but very sad as well. If you could just be able to read it, you’d see… It’s heartbreaking in a way.

The Glass Cage: I was in Oxford Street, and I was getting really frustrated, being out of print and everything, in the early ’90s. I was in a store that had a glass lift and as I was going from floor to floor everything started to look even more glitzy. People are well dressed and they’re selling stuff. And there’s all these colours from floor to floor. You can see it but you can’t touch it. That’s my situation. I’m out of print and I can’t do anything about it. So I got this urge and went and nicked a pullover. Just out of anger. There were no cameras then so I didn’t get caught. It’s not a classic unfortunately. That’s why I can’t get published – because I haven’t got any more classics – but I’ve got good books.

I think the suppression of white minority voices is almost a given nowadays, because it’s tricky ground: ‘white minority voice’ generally translates as ‘racist’ or ‘stupid’ in the media world. Would you agree with this?

JH: The middle-classes have made the publishing industry artificial. They go to school and learn to write, and they’ve got no experience of life, growing up in a middle-class household. And then they go to a university and they start using big words and imagination but they’ve got nothing for the imagination to feed on, to draw on – so they just end up spunking out all this drivel. And the people who buy these books are from a similar background. They also speak in this code; but some of them are a bit cleverer than that and they just leave the books on the shelves.

I’m the only one who’s been put out of print and they [Faber] destroyed the rest of my work. They gave me a letter saying this, saying they’d pulped the remainder of the books: just destroy the rest of his work, put the book out of print. Why would they do it? They wouldn’t like to be stopped themselves, or put out of print. They destroy a working-class person because they think you’re nothing… If I was a writer from another country who’d been silenced and I came over to England then they’d be holding it up as a humanitarian act: us middle-class here, we’re humanitarian. But you’d have to be middle-class yourself; otherwise they wouldn’t have you over here.

Middle-class voices do seem to dominate the media…

JH: Everything’s middle-class. The people on adverts are middle-class. If they do a foreign voiceover on the news they use a middle-class voice and it doesn’t sound right, but it doesn’t matter because it’s middle-class.

What I like about American writers is that they’re half working-class and half middle-class. They’re highly educated. Books like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey, Midnight Cowboy – James Leo Herlihy. That one in particular. Brilliant writer. It’s a masterpiece. I’ve read it a few times. It’s a killer. I tend to do that: read and re-read. And I take my time over the words. I read slowly.

Those books are understandable and they entertain. I see The Grass Arena like this, in that type of genre. Everybody loves it, but they want to batter me into the ground for some reason. Some say it’s because I was a wino. And they say I was barbaric. I wasn’t barbaric. I know people who wouldn’t let you past the door if you were barbaric or anything: beautiful female journalists…

When The Grass Arena was originally published in 1988, British writers like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan were at an all-time high, being feted and praised…

JH: I hate these academics that get praise, and they’re shallow. It’s all smug and bullshit. [Ian] McEwan and [Martin] Amis and all them. Middle-class mafia… They can buy their way to a lifelong competitive advantage over the uneducated and poor. This middle-class business, it’s the only place in the world where it’s really strong because it comes right down from the Queen. It’s a nepotistic way British society is run. They don’t draw from the whole gene pool, like America. That’s why you get good writers in America. There’s never been any great writers here in England, not in the last century. Look at Kingsley Amis. You can’t believe in the characters he writes about. And the experiences he attributes to them. And yet they made him a Sir. They’re disgusting people really. It can be treacherous, the publishing world.

Were you influenced in any way, by any writers or books, such as George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London or Jack London’s The People Of The Abyss, when you were began The Grass Arena?

JH: No. Not at all.Down And Out In Paris And London, that’s just phoney. If God came down and played me for a day, he could be all casual about things because eventually he’s going back to heaven. It’s the same with Orwell’s approach. And them dossers he was writing about would tell him anything for a cup of tea. He’s not experiencing it properly. That’s why I wrote the book as I did, so people could experience it. At the time when I was amongst this subculture I wasn’t thinking about becoming a writer. I was just living it… I couldn’t even believe that I could live one hour, or one day without a drink or a cigarette. I didn’t have the willpower to see beyond any of it. And when I was first on the streets I’d try and stay clean, try and keep my suit spotless, but it took a lot of energy. I’d try and find empty buildings that had reasonable clean floors, but then I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about it all. I didn’t know any other way.

I don’t know a great deal about chess, but I like the way you were introduced to it in prison by The Fox, who suggested you should look at the chessboard in a similar way you enact crime: you steal a piece here, a piece there, etc.

JH: Very clever that. I was supposed to play chess with Stanley Kubrick at a garden party once but it never came off. I don’t want to denigrate him but I didn’t think he was that good. I played the Shah of Persia’s nephew. He was an expert. I was lucky to win the game, very lucky. This was in the West End. I’ve played a few top grandmasters. One of them was called Bent Larsen. He was Danish. He was very well known at the time, ranked above Bobby Fischer. I drew with him.

I watched a very good documentary on Bobby Fischer recently [Bobby Fischer Against The World].

JH: Bobby Fischer always said he wanted to write but he couldn’t. Bobby Fischer could only be a chess player. There’s nobody like me in that respect. From an uneducated background: a writer, chess player…

Going back to The Grass Arena, I think it’d be quite hard for people to imagine the devastation of the Vagrancy Act, in our age of social security.

JH: It was the British Vagrancy Laws that were barbaric. Not me. Many people in concentration camps and Russian stalags had to do terrible things to survive. But nobody ever refers to them as barbaric. It was the repressive system that they were under. It goes back to the breakdown in feudalism. In 1824, servants and suchlike were forced to fight in the Napoleonic Wars and when they came back with limbs missing and eyes missing, society, or the middle-class didn’t want them. They didn’t like the look of these people anymore. So they brought the Vagrancy Laws back when these people became beggars. And in 1824 the laws were amended to ‘stop the excesses’. What are these excesses? The excesses are the soldiers returning form the Napoleonic Wars, begging, sleeping rough.

The incident at Faber, and the subsequent pulping of your books: it all seemed very clumsy and could have been easily avoided, I think.

JH: I never actually said anything to Faber. I never even got to see them. I was just frustrated. Having a bit of a breakdown really. And the message was relayed through somebody else… They wanted the book, but not the man. It was obviously a class thing.

The worst part for myself as a reader is that you seemed to have been silenced just as you were getting going. Your second book, Streets Above Us, was published with a small press, but now it’s unavailable. It all seems very extreme. All you really needed was somebody to speak to you properly, and nurture your natural gift as a writer.

JH: For the first few years I was very angry. I couldn’t do anything. But then the urge came back. I don’t write now because I’m getting beaten down. You need a bit of praise otherwise there’s nothing in it. You can’t keep getting refused. I’ve got a body of work to last a lifetime – and a lot of it’s in different spheres, different genres.

You were a national boxing champion at 16. Do you still keep tabs on the sport?

JH: I had a knockout punch. Concussive power in both fists. I seem to have mastered most things I’ve got into: writing, chess, boxing. I shouldn’t have really been boxing, as I was on the drink at the time. I don’t follow it now because there’s no one to hate or like – there’s no Naseem [Hamed] or Chris Eubank. I loved Gerald McClellan. He was a hero, one of the legends. I think there’s a lot to do with luck in life, with fate. Look at Frank Bruno. He was useless. His trainer was my trainer – George Francis. They keep looking around for somebody’s who dying nowadays, out of the geriatric home, to get the title off them. That’s what Amir Khan’s up to. It’s cynical. It’s not sportsmanship.

Paul Duane’s documentary Barbaric Genius opens today at Odeon Panton Street in London and the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, then tours. More information can be found here. The Quietus will run an extract from The Metal Mountain in early June.

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