I came to this award-winning autobiography via the documentary Barbaric Genius, by Paul Duane.
Blistering, terrifying, sobering – which seems quite an affected word to use, but it is correct. Healy’s autobiography tells it straight, asks no quarter and expects no sympathy. He has lived, what has been by any standards, both a hard and extraordinary life.
London-born to Irish immigrant parents, in the 1940s. From the off he faced racism and violence – the book opens with Healy at 6 years old getting a savage beating from his father, for an apparently innocuous exchange. He was bullied at school, at play, in the army, in the street and hence was constantly bruised and bloodied, and to his own description developed a high tolerance for pain – something which served him well in a brief career as an army boxing champion. By 15 he was regularly drunk. He had a couple of spells in the army, both of which he absconded from and by his late teens was homeless, habitually drunk, “pilled”, in custody, losing days of memory, begging, and stealing, all in a world that permanently teetered on the verge of swift, unrestrained violence.
“It is always like this on wet days, sitting on a bench in the soggy park waiting for someone to walk in and coax life with a bottle. I don’t need the sunshine anymore, nor the sky, nor the earth. Not even the heavens, all I need is the bottle.“
“A new guy arrived in the park – young and tough as nails. He didn’t give a fuck about anything. I liked him. His name was Jarvis. He had threatened to kill Mac – which was another reason I liked him. I would’ve liked him even more if he did. We hit it off from the start.“
The cast of characters spool across the page – the inhabitants of The Grass Arena, the area where the drinkers congregate and where fights often break out – in brief, vivid sketches, some of them quasi-Dickensian (the Dipper, the Sham, Spitty Phil, Liverpool Lil), before disappearing into the night, the prison or the (pauper’s) grave.
The writing is ferocious from the start. The is no question that Healy was playing at this, he wasn’t a tourist in this world. By the age of 30 and in prison once again, an inmate says he will introduce him to a game that will so occupy his mind, that he will stop wanting that next drink. Healy is sceptical. The inmate teaches him how to play chess, and it seems Healy is a natural, coming out into the world of chess and for a while taking on all-comers and making a living – even challenging masters of the game.
And it is there, in the late seventies, this book ends. From the documentary, you learn that Healy’s volatile nature made his move in the world of literary salons and plaudits…difficult, but that is the documentary and not this book, which is simply essential for anyone wanting to understand another tier of metropolitan living; one that is hardly ever looked at with any care and never with understanding. The writing is first rate, in the style of the “Hemingway”, punchy-short sentence. Overall it is brutal and a classic.