John Healy: The Grass Arena

For breaking the fast of the Booker longlist, what better than a Penguin Modern Classic? Like policemen, Penguin Modern Classics seem to be getting younger, and John Healy’s memoir The Grass Arena was first published as recently as 1988. This new edition has done rather well, hitting the top 40 in Amazon’s chart and being reprinted within a few weeks of its publication last month; and all with an unknown author and no publicity (other than a fascinating piece by Erwin James in the Guardian).

I like to think the Penguin Modern Classics range will bring me new literary experiences, and The Grass Arena certainly is that. It’s unlike any other book I’ve read, and it takes some adjustment for a reader unprepared for its raw edges. By that I mean that anyone who, like me, is initially alarmed by the occasional roughness and even naivety of the prose – there’s a fondness for exclamation marks and alliteration – is advised to read on.

Healy describes his life from childhood, batting between his parents in London and his extended family in Ireland. His father is an ogre (after giving Healy a hiding, he “started to wipe the blood and snot from my nose, saying, ‘Be quiet, or I’ll tell your mother what a tyrant you are'”), his mother ineffectual, and his school peers consider him an “alien”. His father is unsympathetic:

‘How is it they only beat you up? It must be your own fault!’ As he could hardly hit me in the state I was in, things took a new turn. ‘You’ve no respect for God, that’s your trouble. I’ll see that you get religious; yes, I’ll see that you get religious all right. It’s my duty, I’m your father!’

Only in Ireland, working in the fields and farm, does Healy feel release from the “tension in my upper neck and back, which gradually caused me to walk hunched up.” Fortunately, “there’s a sort of calmness that seems to come out of the grass and the ditches and the mossy banks,” but when Healy returns to London, to his father and his ‘friends’, there’s only one thing that relieves the tension.

Albert said, ‘Two brown ales, mate.’ … The time flew round and when we came out at closing time I felt a bit giddy. It was a terrific feeling and my back and neck were not playing me up. I’m going to have some more of this, I thought.

This reminded me of Bukowksi’s fictionalisation of his discovery of alcohol in Ham on Rye (“Why hadn’t someone told me? With this, life was great, a man was perfect, nothing could touch him. … I thought, well, now I have found something, I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come”). But where Bukowski managed a working life, Healy drops through the loose loops of the social safety net and lands heavily. The bulk of the book describes his extraordinary existence in ‘the grass arena’, the curious society of the underclass, the criminal, and the hopelessly addicted. It’s a world of high violence:

A guy called Mills, who they told me was a bit of a psychopath, fell over at the height of the afternoon’s drinking and damaged his wrist and ankle. He was lying moaning on the ground when his troubles came to the attention of one of the Scotch blokes. The little Jock was smaller than Mills and, I was told, had been beaten up by him several times in the past. Here was one chance to even the score a little. He did – by kicking most of Mills’s front teeth out as he lay writhing in agony. He had further plans for Mills too, but fell down drunk before he could carry them out.

and curious insights (meths is “hard to get down first thing in the day – any time for that matter. Bastard stuff”), not to mention surprising humour:

Fred has just finished doing three months. Done a big shit in a shop doorway. Got nicked. In court he said he’d been drinking cider for months and not eating. The big police inspector got up. He wasn’t going to let him get away with that. Looking over at the magistrate, he said, ‘I don’t know about not eating, Your Worship, but by the look of the evidence it took a considerable effort!’

These scenes take us up to close to the end of the book, and the effect can be disorienting. People – fellow winos – come and go (“I shared a cell with Tin Legs Alex. He fell on a railway line in Scotland dead drunk one night and only woke when a train had gone over his feet. He had to have them both off”), and there is little clear sense of time. This could be frustrating, until I recognised that it represented Healy’s life perfectly. The chaos of the story is the chaos of Healy’s past. “Memory goes and returns.” The book does not represent the life; the book is the life, and this is what makes it so powerfully affecting.

What I would have liked more of is Healy’s return from the grass arena (most people, he finds, “drink tea instead of methylated spirits…”), which only gets about 30 pages here, and in particular an update on how he has fared in the twenty years since the book was first published. For that we have to turn to Erwin James’s recent Guardian article, linked to above, which is somewhat ambiguous. It’s a sign of how much I warmed to Healy during the course of The Grass Arena that I want it to be successful for him not just because it’s a gripping and eye-opening read, but because – dammit – he deserves it.


  1. I don’t think it’s memoir. It’s quite possible to write fiction from one’s lived experiences. And many real writers actually use their first-hand experience to write great fiction.

  2. Mrinal, yes, I realise that “it’s quite possible to write fiction from one’s lived experiences”, I simply wanted to know whether this was a memoir or not. I have looked it up on Amazon now and the full title is “The Grass Arena: An Autobiography” so I think I’ve answered my own query! 😉

  3. The third line where John Self says “John Healy’s memoir The Grass Arena” was a clue. I bought this recently, since I try and snap up the Penguin Modern Classics as they come out. But “a fondness for exclamation marks” is not something I find myself tolerant of.

  4. Yes, it’s a memoir, though Mrinal is right of course – we were discussing Tobias Wolff’s use of his real life experiences in his fiction just the other day. That said, it’s doubtful that Healy would claim the book represents a chronological and factually impermeable account of his life on the streets – not least because he was wasted half the time. In these cases, it is perhaps the spirit which the story conveys, rather than the details of the story, which is most penetrating and most lasting.

    Stewart, you will definitely have to adjust to the style; I did. But it is definitely worth doing. There are criticisms one could make of The Grass Arena on literary terms, to be sure, but in this case at least, I think they would miss the point somewhat.

  5. I really enjoyed this book (for its substance, rather than its style for the most part, as you say). I work in an organisation where a lot of ex-heroin-users, ex-alcoholics and ex-prisoners volunteer, and it was a sobering reminder of what a lot of the people I chat with during the course of a working day have been through.

  6. Earlier this year I read the original Faber hardback, borrowed from a friend. As Erwin James mentions in his laudable article, the game of chess was a profound factor in his personal redemption. Yet, there is no mention of it in the the review, John, nor in any of the comments. Has the PMC been edited I wonder ? I found this the most fascinating part of the book.

  7. You’re right Quink, chess – or addiction to it, to replace his addiction to alcohol – is the road to Healy’s salvation, and the Penguin edition is complete as far as I know. And I knew of this before I read the book, because of James’s article and other reading around the book, such as the gaudy ‘unofficial website’.

    However I decided against mentioning it in my review because I noticed that the back cover of the new Penguin edition doesn’t, so I guessed this might constitute a spoiler of sorts. The ‘redemption’ section of the book is pretty short, but constitutes a definite conclusion, which not every reader will be expecting. It also ends with a rather surprising declaration, which was part of my wish to understand more of Healy’s life since the book was written.

  8. I find myself more interested in the author than the book. There seems to be little information about him. Supposedly some think he doesn’t exist, that is that the book is a fiction written by some other author using a pen name. It’s been 20 years since 1988 – enough time for some bio to accumulate. Is he still alive and what’s he done since 1988?

  9. I believe he is, Peter – see the link at the start of my post to a recent article on Healy in the Guardian – but I share your desire to have some details of what he has been up to since The Grass Arena. As indeed I said above!

  10. Found the first edition of this in the library and read it pretty quickly. Healy isn’t a great stylist or anything, but it’s a harrowing, very brave account with a truly remarkable ending. On finishing, it was wonderful to see the Guardian piece and see him standing in that smartly kept room with the PC and printer – clearly still healthy and writing away.

  11. Yes indeed Gavin – though I must admit ‘healthy’ wasn’t the word that sprung to mind for me! He looks quite frail in that picture, though it’s quite low resolution and frustrating as a result.

  12. Certainly a lot healthier than the young man we get to know in the book 🙂

    Oh, and I’ve just bought Lush Life. Looking forward to that next…

  13. Dear John Self,

    Having noticed your book reviews on WordPress, we would love for you to review Graham Bendel’s A NASTY PIECE OF WORK.

    We think you have excellent taste, and a responsible (honourable) attitude to reviewing..

    fortune teller press.

    ps We are confident that you will enjoy this particular title, as it seems to be going down a storm with recent readers.

    We are also putting out James Young’s masterpiece SONGS THEY NEVER PLAY ON THE RADIO..about Nico, in the 1980s – at a time when no one wanted to see her.

  14. Interesting, insightful piece and comments – and just to add some fuel to the debate, I’ve been filming a documentary about John Healy, his life and work, for the past three years. He most definitely is not a pseudonymous author! The film, titled Barbaric Genius, should be complete in early ’10, and will include interviews with some of John’s fellow survivors of the Grass Arena, as well as those who know him from the chess world and of course from the publishing and film world (the book was filmed in 1990 by Gilles MacKinnon).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s