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.