London, Ireland & Hastings

By Nicholas Johnson

The writer John Healy was born in Kentish Town London to Irish parents hailing from Sligo and Roscommon. Healy was born on Armistice Day in 1942. Raised by a violent father in a house where his sister hid beneath the stairs reading for peace, John as first-born was singled out in his father’s rages. By the time he heard his father had died, Healy had become a violent alcoholic and destitute at a time when begging carried an automatic prison sentence. 

Healy had been a lightweight boxer and, after absconding from the army, headed to Ireland. This was the Ireland of his childhood summers, which he would evoke in his autobiography The Grass Arena. Upon capture, Healy got transferred to a penal battalion. Published in 1988, this book captured John’s life leading to 1973. The book and Gillies Mackinnon’s fine film adaptation have gained between them over a dozen major national and international awards.

John’s two magnificent obsessions were yoga and chess, which he was taught in a Pentonville prison cell by Harry the Fox. Extraordinary for an adult who never saw a chessboard as a child, Healy would win ten major British chess tournaments, forcing a draw from the Soviet grandmaster Rafael Vaganian, then graded the second best player in the world. Healy was able to play four games simultaneously while wearing a blindfold.

Healy first visited Hastings 45 years ago, and has written:

‘My first visit to Hastings was in 1974 where I played [friendly] matches at the chess club every month during that summer. The club was founded in 1882 and is still going to this day. I used to wander around Old Town browsing in the antiquated book shops and remember reading a motto over the door of one shop, Magna est veritas et praevalet which I found when I looked it up means ‘Great is truth and mighty above all things.’

The trajectory of John’s life until he set out to write The Grass Arena appears mythic: boxer, derelict, wino, deserter, street thief, pension-book scammer, market porter, heath groundsman, yoga devotee; chess champion, writer. A writer of two novels, two autobiographies, three plays and short stories.

Following threats Healy made to his publishers Faber & Faber, rather than listen to Healy’s frustrations, the police were sent to Healy’s home, and a memo was sent to the Fabers’ staff, from the director Lord Evans, that said: “Destroy the rest of his work and deem the book out of print.” With The Grass Arena pulped, and Streets Above Us not reprinted, John began speaking of a second novel: The Metal Mountain that he was formulating, out of his childhood memories of English hostility to the Irish. This would offer ‘insights on how the Irish diaspora felt and lived and survived worked and thrived amongst the poverty and racism they endured in 1950s England before the introduction of the first race law’.

The Metal Mountain has weathered countless rewrites, to be what it finally became.  I liken it to a cathedral window in its rich Watteau tableaus of sensory detail. It is also a window looking on to an Ireland of the Easter rising and the cruelty of British rule.

While The Grass Arena is a young man’s autobiography, by a man with extraordinary recall, essential for chess, whom when first we met, read me passages from William S. Burroughs’ Junkie about rolling drunks (robbing winos during their stupor), written every other night after toil as a jobbing gardener, The Metal Mountain is an intricately assembled novel on family, power and obsession. These cinematic tranches of long-vanished North London life, streets where Healy created skippers to doss in, are also Edenic; orchards, wash houses and rail depots, in a bucolic long-sentenced image-rich narrative that careers towards a grim body count. 

Despite a sojourn living at Rottingdean in Sussex, Healy has remained close to his North London roots near to the heath. Over the years he has returned to Hastings, to play chess, including a big chess congress at Christmastime. 

In 2013 he gave his first public reading in England for 18 years, and I have been privileged to see him read six times. A compelling reader and a vibrant conversationalist, he read twice at Black Huts festival in Hastings, which also showed the documentary on Healy by Paul Duane, Barbaric Genius. His co- readers included Tom Pickard and Stuart Christie, both who have passed time in prison, and James Kelman, vital visceral writers and auto-biographers, self- taught scholars, who like Healy, have courage and dignity in spades.

His books are for sale at Printed Matter Bookshop and Hare & Hawthorne, Hastings.

Read our HIP review of The Metal Mountain By John Healy here

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