Sunday 18 March 2018

John's grim but true tale

Paul Whitington


(Club, IFI, 72 minutes )

Director: Paul Duane Stars: John Healy, Robert McCrum


In 1988, a formerly homeless man of Irish extraction called John Healy caused a sensation in the publishing world with his debut book, The Grass Arena. A harrowing but very nicely written memoir, it described Healy's experiences during his 15-year stint as a street alcoholic, and gave middle-class readers a vicarious insight into a brutal and barbaric underworld.

Nothing quite like The Grass Arena had appeared to that point: it earned comparisons with William Burroughs and Jean Genet, and made Healy a star.

But this sudden rise from obscure poverty to celebrity gave Healy a bad case of the bends, and he would explode his good fortune in a very public fashion.

This painstaking but slightly reverential documentary from Paul Duane investigates a truly extraordinary life.

Born in Kentish Town in 1943 to Irish immigrant parents, Healy was beaten and bullied from an early age by his father, and left school at 14 to escape his family by joining the British army.

After being dishonourably discharged for going AWOL, he wound up in the grim London subculture of street drunks.

Healy's many fights and scrapes with death were etched into his prematurely haggard face by the time he got his act together and reconnected with his family. And one of the things that helped him recover was a talent for chess.

During a stretch in a London prison, he was introduced to the mysteries of the ancient game by an inmate with the wonderfully Dickensian soubriquet, the Brighton Fox. Healy became obsessed by the game's endless permutations, and found that chess and heavy drinking were incompatible bedfellows.

He won tournaments and later staged contests with multiple opponents, but turned to writing when he realised he would never become a grand master.

Duane's film includes extensive interviews with former street comrades, literary associates and Healy himself, who emerges as a fascinating and contradictory character. Understandably, Duane's thorough but sometimes plodding film is immensely sympathetic to Healy, but rather less so to one Robert McCrum.

Mr McCrum was editor at Faber & Faber when John Healy was their star. But after a dispute over royalties, Healy allegedly intimated that he intended to introduce Mr McCrum's head to the business end of an axe.

Healy was dropped by Faber, and The Grass Arena went out of print for almost 20 years, causing the author great anguish and considerable hardship.

What exactly happened is never quite established, but McCrum emerges from Barbaric Genius in a most unflattering light, as indeed does the entire world of London publishing, which lit on Healy as a literary freak show and dropped him like a stone once they were done with him.

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