The Metal Mountain
By John Healy
Published by Etruscan Books (2019) £14.95

Review by Howard Colyer

It begins with a party that doesn’t happen – at least not for the young family who try to celebrate the queen’s coronation. They are asked to leave because they are Irish, and so they must get up from their street-party table and trudge their way home before the eyes of their neighbours. The official who asks them to go has kindness enough to be embarrassed, but he’s in the grip of public opinion and is compelled to be cruel – he has ample decency but insufficient courage. Yet the opposite could be said of Healy’s central character, Michael Docherty, the middle of three sons and the boy with the greatest initiative by far. He is nine when the novel starts in 1953 and the book follows his life and tragedy.

Though The Metal Mountain has wider themes than one boy becoming a man, it is also concerned with the relationship of Britain and Ireland – of the pain and brutality and even the affection – and of what Healy suggests are the two intertwined strands of the Irish character, the Christian and the pagan – one deriving from Celtic Catholicism and the other from the Vikings.

And it’s a novel of vivid scenes written with considerable skill. Healy evokes life in London in the 1950s through Michael Docherty’s eyes – of his conflicts with authority but also of his awe of the immense city in which he’s growing up and its institutions, be they the Juvenile Court in Kentish Town or the wash house in St Pancras.

The noise of the machines reached every corner of that unearthly inferno along with the harsh gurgle of water as it escaped down the drains and only when it was necessary did Harry the janitor descend from his rooftop office to take part in some mechanical capacity, while Doris Day began singing from the communal radio, “that her dreams are getting better all the time…” 

But there is also a parallel story. If Michael Docherty represents the Viking heritage and its wild physical courage, then his young aunt, Bridget Kelly, represents the quieter courage, and the compassion and tenacity of the Celtic missionaries. However her efforts at helping others, and of getting justice for the Irish in London, bring her to the attention of the police and then MI5, and ultimately a file is opened on her which bears the label ‘Subversive’.

Yet the central image of the novel, the mountain of metal, belongs to her nephew. It’s a great pile of scrap a hundred feet high and many hundreds of feet wide, which is being cut up by just one man. He did have a boy to help him, but he fell, broke his back and died. Despite this Michael Docherty is keen to take his place – and soon proves himself the best lad that the iron cutter ever employed. And the mountain has a fascination and a gravity which they can’t escape.

“Ever thought of doing something else?”
“There’s something else?”
“I hope so.”

There isn’t.

The iron enters into him, and the tin and the steel – they take possession of Michael Docherty as he strives to take possession of the mountain.

The novel is rich in the details of post-war London but it’s also poetic and mythical, in a way that reminds me of Melville’s Moby Dick, and Peake’s Gormenghast. And for the picture it paints of immigrant life, I’d compare it to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, and the London Diaries of Lorenza Mazzetti. Indeed it’s so good that it seems a shame that there’s been a gap of twenty-nine years since Healy’s first novel was published.

As far as I can tell Streets Above Us is no longer in print. It was published by Macmillan in 1990. I managed to get a second-hand paperback published by Paladin in 1991. According to the blurb on the back it’s about a man, Mo, who was a homeless alcoholic, but has given up drink and is trying to become a writer, and now feels isolated. All of his former acquaintances are still dedicated drunks, and regard his new sober character with distrust; yet all of the people he meets in the publishing trade are middle-class and alien and patronising. He has a room and a place to write but little else. And this is an excellent premise for a book, and some of the writing is sharp and witty. But Healy doesn’t keep to the subject, he strays into vignettes and anecdotes – some of which I found interesting, but others seemed to be limp farce. To me it doesn’t feel like a finished novel, rather a draft for a collection of related short stories. Perhaps it was published too soon to try and keep people interested in the author after the great success of his autobiography, The Grass Arena – which is in print and published by Penguin. 

This won the JR Ackerley prize in 1989 and was adapted as a film in 1991 with Mark Rylance as John Healy. It tells how the author was brought up in a poor Irish family in London and savagely beaten by his father, how he became a prize winning boxer in the British Army, then a drunk, a rough sleeper in parks and a witness to a number of brutal murders, how he became familiar with many of England’s jails until he was in Pentonville with a Brighton villain, Harry the Fox, who pestered him until he gave in – and learnt how to play chess. 

I was thirty years old and had become besotted with chess; ate it, drank it, dreamed about it. It had replaced everything in my mind. 

And to improve his mind he takes up meditation and then goes to India. There are not many autobiographies like The Grass Arena – and not many novels like The Metal Mountain.

The Metal Mountain (£14.95) and The Grass Arena (£9.95) are available at the Printed Matter Bookshop at 185 Queens Road, Hastings. Howard Colyer’s latest book is Haiku Diary (2018).

Read HIP AUTHOR PROFILE: John Healy here

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