Friday, September 21, 2012

The Grass Arena by John Healy 

John Healy’s autobiography begins with a description of his father, a violent Irish emigrant in London punching the then six year old author in the face for having the audacity to ask did he have a dog licence.

Such an arresting opening sets the tone for the rest of Healy’s book which from the outset bristles with violence and unexpected moments of tenderness and beauty. Healy graphically describes the brutality he endured at the hands of his father which only for the interventions on behalf of his mother stopped his father from carrying the beatings further.

As the narrative progresses the author is subjected to violence from older boys who regard him as being Irish. Ironically when he travels to Ireland he is called a “black and tan” on account of his English accent. He suffers from tension which causes him to walk with a stoop later he will learn that the only way to relieve this tension is to drink and it is here that his main troubles start. Drink and subsequent alcoholism will lead to Healy’dismissal from the army, his homelessness, subsequent brushes with the law and incarceration.

One of the strong points of this autobiography is the strong narrative voice. Healy tells a warts and all story of his life on the streets, the characters he encounters and the casual and routine violence he endures. In total he would spend fifteen years as a homeless alcoholic.

His life on the streets is related in a series of vignettes which are neither maudlin nor sentimental but rather get straight to the point. Stories run into each other and you get the sense of days running into months then years, punctuated only by short prison terms. Here the prose is short clear and as sharp as as a knife blade.

"So the days merge together more and more, each one like the other. You wake, rise, look for drink, fall asleep again, staring into darkness, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, hearing nothing. Time passes nonetheless."

In just a few sentences Healy can bring characters from the street to life. Mad Gerry, Dipper, Long John, Taffy and Ginger are some of the individuals Healy quite vividly and with ease brings out onto the page. Each one has his or her own personality, there are no stereotypes here only vivid descriptions of people the author knew only too well.

A grain on humour runs throughout the narrative, but it is humour of the darkest variety. Casual violence and death are commonplace and both are treated with a manner that is matter of fact but in no way blasé.

Redemption of a sort comes when Healy, while in prison, is introduced to the game of chess by fellow inmate Harry "The Fox". Immediately he becomes addicted and vows to quite the drink and concentrate on chess. Of the game of chess Healy calls it a jealous lover alongside which nothing can possibly prosper.

True to his word John Healy quit alcohol and instead turned his focus on the chess board. In a characteristic clear headed style he relates playing against grand masters, playing tournaments, playing matches blindfolded and multiple matches played simultaneously. At one point he is invited to peoples houses to play chess where he says he’s given,  "served in patterned cups, by wives in lovely dresses and sensible, low-heeled shoes". All a far cry from the outdoor drinking schools of inner city London.

In The Grass Arena Healy introduces the reader to a world many of us will have absolutely no knowledge of and will go to incredible lengths to avoid. John Healy doesn’t want sympathy instead he chronicles the life he has lead, the people he has encountered and his eventual escape from the street.


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