I had a pretty bad hangover on Easter Sunday, 2007. Through the fog I tried to read the Observer. A small headline in red print jumped out at me.
You Have Been Warned, it read, and the story underneath stated that John Healy, author of The Grass Arena, was to appear at a literary festival in Galway that summer. It was intended to warn the reader about Healy's supposed violent tendencies but that didn't bother me (much). I was just thrilled to discover that a writer whose work I loved, and who, it seemed, had disappeared off the face of the earth, was within easy reach.
Via the festival I got a number for John, who was still living in his native Kentish Town.
I remember how nervous I felt as I phoned him for the first time. I mean, this man had been characterised as a psychopath, a paranoiac, he'd lived among murderers and nutcases, I was a struggling film-maker who'd just become a father – what was I inviting into our lives?
The backstory goes like this: in 1988, the year I left film school, The Grass Arena was published by Faber. It was the story of a London-Irish man who had started drinking in his early teens, got in the inevitable trouble with the law, escaped that by joining the Army where he became a champion boxer (largely because he fought while raging drunk, reckless and unpredictable), then escaped the Army by going AWOL to relatives in rural Ireland. Finding no home for himself there either, he went back to London to face the music, but only got a dishonourable discharge. He was free – free to live on the streets, do occasional labouring work, commit burglaries, sleep in derelict houses and drink whatever he could get his hands on.
This man had been characterised as a psychopath, a paranoiac, he'd lived among murderers and nutcases, I was a struggling film-maker who'd just become a father – what was I inviting into our lives?
Whilst making Barbaric Genius I spent time with John's former wino compatriots, who painted a picture of a world that ran on fortified wine, skullbusting cider, 'blockbusters of jack' (that's a pint of surgical spirit to you) and 'blue lagoon' (meths). If you could find a co-operative doctor you could score speed, too. What a combination. It's extraordinary that any of them lived to tell the tale – especially given the doctors who made a habit of picking up alcoholic vagrants for their experiments with Antabuse, a drug that makes the human body unable to tolerate alcohol. John's book tells the story of what it feels like to be shot full of this stuff and then let loose on a trolley-load of assorted forms of booze. People went mad, convulsed, some died. The word 'barbaric' in the film's title wasn't come by lightly.
John lived in that world for ten years – while the rest of London was swinging, John Healy's '60s were spent begging, fighting, scavenging for drink & food, occasionally trying to have himself sectioned for a break, and spending various short terms in jail for petty offences. It makes exhausting reading – God only knows what it was like to live it. His missing teeth and the frostbite scars on his ears and fingers tell their own story. His fate seemed unavoidable – he was going to die on the streets and be buried in an unmarked grave in a potter's field. His family had given him up for dead already.
But then an extraordinary thing happened. On a jail term in Pentonville Prison, a cellmate, Harry Collins – nicknamed the Brighton Fox – taught him how to play chess. Who knows what his motivation was, but he must have seen something in this sharp, wiry young character. He nicknamed Healy 'Oliver Twist' and bribed him into sitting still for chess lessons. He also sold him with wily patter: “What would you say if I told you there was a game where you could break into your rival's castle, steal his possessions, mug his bishop, take his queen, and it's all legal?”
Within a couple of weeks Healy had beaten every chess player in Pentonville. “I saw that this could be like a life. You could have status, a peer group, make a living. I decided to give up drinking.” And that was that.
A spell in a drying-out house courtesy of his parole officer Clive (now Lord) Soley, and John Healy was a different man – his strength of will now given over to conquering chess rather than being the toughest lunatic in the open-air asylum of Camden.
The Grass Arena tells this story in powerful, tough and unsentimental language, but the story of my film is a different one – it tells what happened when John Healy left the world he knew for the cocktail parties of Bloomsbury. Who could have known that a man who had survived being attacked with a broken bottle by a crazed pimp would fall victim to the manoeuvres of some well-educated literary mavens with plummy accents? But that seems to be the case.
The newpapers of the day covered the demise of John Healy's career in loving detail – how could a story about a writer threatening to kill his publisher with an axe not cause a stir in the broadsheets? Suddenly he was more famous as a loose cannon than as an award-winning author.
Who could have known that a man who had survived being attacked with a broken bottle by a crazed pimp would fall victim to the manoeuvres of some well-educated literary mavens with plummy accents?
The background to this story has never before been explored, and in Barbaric Genius I've interviewed as many people as I could find who were willing to talk about it. I don't want to go into it here – that's what the film is for - but it seems clear to me that the pressures on Healy at this point in his career were enormous and the level of understanding being extended to him by his publishers was negligible.
It took four years of filming to get some kind of handle on this sprawling, remarkable story. The stuff I had to leave out would have been the highlight of any other documentary – John, stranded in India, taking a job scoring hash on the street for foreign royalty to earn enough money to get home... John teaching Mark Rylance how to meditate in the upstairs bedroom of his mother's house... John going into a field in Ireland, wild with drink and intending to wrestle a bull... Extraordinary stories.
The film is a tribute to a remarkable man who defies categorisation, a supremely rational master chessplayer whose deepest desire is to overcome rational thought through dedicated meditation sessions, a gifted and disciplined writer who has only been able to publish three books in his thirty-year career, a man who has lived in the lower depths but can talk brilliantly about Roman and Greek history and the Napoleonic wars... I've never met anybody remotely like John Healy, and I'd bet you haven't either. The film was an attempt to capture some of his qualities and I think it works.
Barbaric Genius will be out tomorrow, Friday 25th May.
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