Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Grass Arena

There are only a handful of books that I've read in my life that have truly - hand on my heart - moved me.  The Grass Arena by John Healy is such a book.  In my quest to read 27 books before my 27th birthday this year, I've been reading with a gusto reminiscent of a newly admitted college student supplied with a summer reading list, eager to be the first to raise her hand in class. 

With its opening sentence, "My father didn't look like he would harm anyone," The Grass Arena had me intrigued and was easy to read during my morning and evening commutes.  What really got me, however, was the fact that the author was not only completely "untrained" as a writer (thus making successful novelists whose biographies boast of MFAs, MAs in Creative Writing, etc. look completely amateur and stupid in comparison) but that he had spent most of his life caught up in a vicious cycle of drug and alcohol addiction, crime, homelessness and overall vagrancy - that is, until he was introduced to chess in one of his multiple prison stays and became an extremely successful chess champion who then retreated quietly into the world of writing.  That, in my mind, makes John Healy a hero.  Unlike middle-class writers who share stories of their personal struggles with addiction and sinking to the "lowest of the low", Healy doesn't ask for pity nor does he seem to possess any self-pity.  His recollections of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, the descent into alcoholism and violence, crime and thievery are told in a matter-of-fact and cynical tone which dips in and out of dark humor.  It is as if he is sitting across from you at a table, telling you these stories of horrific violence and the most crippling dejection - stories that often beggar belief. 

I encounter people who live in The Grass Arena every single day: the man foraging in the bins on the Strand at 8:45 a.m. for half eaten food or drink, the men sleeping rough in the doorway of Ryman's on the same street, often with a bottle of alcohol clinking empty next to their heads, or the two men huddling together to keep warm in a park John and I dubbed "Needle Park" in Aldgate East due to its druggie status.  Upon seeing these men, my conscience tells me to volunteer at The Connection at St Martin's or duck into McDonald's or Pret to buy them a proper meal.  And then I read Healy's reactions to both ideas and they turn my naive, ignorant thoughts on their head, especially when he describes a fellow vagrant's begging techniques, saying "[he had] every move worked out - like what you do when some bastard won't give cash, and insists on buying you a meal."

In his afterword to the book, Colin MacCabe comments that, "by the time I had finished reading this extraordinary document I saw the streets of my native city - which until then I had thought so familiar - from a new angle and with a different light that revealed a whole society of which I had only seen isolated individuals ... there can be few who live and work in Central London who have not encountered the inhabitants of The Grass Arena."  I really couldn't have said it any better. 

I won't give away too much, but I urge everyone to buy a copy of the book as soon as possible - it won't change your life, but it will change your mind about the people you pass every day who (barely) live in the Grass Arena.


  1. FYI there's a film of the book for the illiterate amongst us:

  2. Yup, thanks for adding that - there's a film (which I haven't seen yet and I'm not sure I want to as I don't think it would do the book justice) directed by Gillies MacKinnon.


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