The Grass Arena: an autobiography
Did I enjoy this autobiography? No, not really. However, I’m glad that I read it, despite the fact that it is relentlessly grim.
From violent childhood, to lonely adulthood – via the gladiatorial arena of Euston Park, where winos live from one drink to the next and will slash your throat with a broken bottle for no good reason – there is little to smile about in this book. Even Healy’s redemption through chess, his years of sobriety and success as an author are tinged with a sense of melancholy.
Healy is obviously a very damaged person and started drinking as a teenager, out of sense of social awkwardness and to numb the physical pain of a back injury. It was also a result of the frequent violence inflicted on him by his father.
I was thinking today, how an abusive childhood becomes inscribed upon the body. The resulting shame, anxiety and fear can manifest themselves physically as well as psychologically, in tics, poor posture and unattractive mannerisms. People who were abused as children are also likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as addictions, thus significantly shortening their life expectancy. (An ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score above 6 could mean a decrease in life expectancy of twenty years, according to one study in the USA).
I don’t blame John Healy, but instead think, there but for the grace of God go I. I first got drunk when I was eleven and drank alcohol through my teens and twenties; binge drinking myself unconscious on a regular basis. Though, to be honest, I don’t think this counts as unusual behaviour – everyone else was doing it too. Fortunately, despite an ACE score of 10 out of 10, I didn’t take to drinking wine, meths and surgical spirits and end up living in a hole, or going in and out of prison.
Healy has a real talent for writing and a number of passages will stay with me, such as his description of him and his wino ‘raspberry ripple’ mates drinking meths diluted with water from a toilet.
We’d jump the tube, George leading the way with his one eye (lost the other in a fight over a bottle of wine. Maybe that’s why he only drank jake now); Ernie next with only one hand (lost the other with gangrene). Me hobbling along behind with my fucked-up head and body. We’d cut the jake with pisshole water.
I’m not sure what happened to Healy in later life, although I think there was a documentary made about him recently. I hope he has eventually known some happiness, whether through chess or writing, but I sense he never really became comfortable enough in himself to overcome his early tribulations and develop any deep relationships. At the end of The Grass Arena, he is disappointed that his attraction to a middle class woman never goes anywhere, due to his inability to shake off the survival instincts which have become part of his personality:
[T]he Countess and her world were totally beyond my reach. It wasn’t just the money and education, more the personality and feelings. Mine were hyped up and geared to attacking and warding off threats, so even the most innocent question worried or startled me.
The trouble is, once you have spent years honing your survival mechanisms, it’s difficult to persuade yourself that you no longer need them.