Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 272 pages; 2008.
The Grass Arena, a memoir by John Healy who spent 15 years living on the streets of London, will alter the way you view homeless people.
The book is written in what can only be described as schoolboy English, with sparse prose and an affinity for exclamation points. But this naive, un-educated voice, rings true and becomes rather endearing once you get into the rhythm of it.
It begins by detailing John’s rather impoverished, ultra-religious and violent upbringing in which he sometimes lives with his parents in London and sometimes lives with his extended family in Ireland.
It then turns to the horror of his adult life lived on the margins of society. Here, in the “grass arena” he hangs out with all forms of low-life — petty criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts — and survives by his wits.
Much of his time is devoted to avoiding violence on the streets (nasty punch-ups fuelled by alcohol) and finding enough money — either through begging or petty thievery — to secure the next drink, whether it be beer, red wine or methylated spirits, he’s not fussy (although he does confess that meths is “bastard stuff” which is “hard to get down first thing in the day — any time for that matter”.)
Life is a blur of abject, hopeless drunkenness, broken by stints in prison, but underneath it all you get the very real sense that Healy desperately wants to escape this way of life. And, eventually, he does, by a rather surreal saviour: the game of chess, for which he has a particular talent.
This memoir isn’t exactly a fun read, although it does have moments of high humour of the blackest variety, but it’s an illuminating account of what it is like to be a member of an underclass spurned by society. And it details, almost lovingly, the camaraderie and sense of community which exists between those people who have no homes to go to.
The autobiography, first published in 1988, was made into an award-winning film by the BBC in 1991.
As an aside, I read this book back to back with MJ Hyland’s This is How and was surprised at some of the similarities between the fictional Patrick Oxtoby and the very real John Healy: both suffer from severe tension in the upper back and neck that can only be alleviated through drink; both become alcoholics; and both eventually end up in prison.
To hammer the point home further, Oxtoby reads an unnamed book borrowed from the prison library which I believe can only be Healy’s Grass Arena. I’m convinced MJ Hyland must have read it as part of her research for her novel.