Again, to the shadows
By Richard Kovitch.
“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
“Memory is a dream machine.” – David Shields
John Healy resists definition. Irish-immigrant, London-vagrant, alcoholic, solider, prisoner, chess master, award winning writer, genius, psycho – these are the roles he has assumed, each one confounding assumptions about who the real John Healy is. Unravelling the mystery is the task filmmaker Paul Duane sets himself in Barbaric Genius, a feature-length documentary that confronts Healy in the present with the intention of illuminating his past. Tension between filmmaker and subject haunts every frame. The deeper Duane digs, the more Healy clings to the shadows. It presents a dilemma. When does scrutiny become intrusion? Whose needs does the filmmaker serve – his own, his subjects or the audiences?
Nature rendered John Healy an enigma; desperate circumstances hurled him towards oblivion. As Healy recalls in his memoir, The Grass Arena, a visceral flashback to his life as a vagrant in 1960s London, first published in 1988: “Everyone and everything is full of tension. There are no tomorrows; tomorrow can’t be relied upon to come.” If London was swinging in the 60s, there are no traces of it here. Healy’s London is a man-made hell, closer to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and Its Poor (1861) than the hip consumerism of Carnaby Street. The UK capital is cast as the diametric opposite to the rural Ireland his Catholic family left in search of work. London offers only damnation. Alcoholism is still just a vice while the Anti-Vagrancy Act of 1824 continues to empower the police to maltreat any individual reduced to begging or sleeping rough. As Healy ghosts between Euston and North London in search of yet another drink, violence stalks him on all fronts. That he survived was a miracle. How he survived is even more astonishing.
The Grass Arena takes its name from the London Park by Euston Station where Healy and the other winos killed time – and occasionally each other. The clarity of Healy’s writing renders his nightmare all the more brutal – “All night long kept getting the horror dreams. DTs. Wake up shouting at the five-legged rats biting into my guts.” When the manuscript finally found its way into the hands of Faber & Faber in the late 80s, they instinctively embraced it. What could be more ‘real’ than a vagrant writing about vagrancy in unflinching prose?1 In his introduction, Colin McCabe deemed The Grass Arena worthy of comparison with William Burroughs’ Junky – which by 1988 had been rehabilitated as a post-war classic – and even downgraded George Orwell’s Down & Out In Paris & London to a “meaningless tourist guide” as means of heaping praise upon Healy’s text.
That The Grass Arena is deserving of accolades isn’t in dispute; Healy’s story is extraordinary and his prose strikingly frank. Yet comparisons with Junky are superficial and smack of marketing. Burroughs was an educated man whose prose was noir-inspired, self-consciously taut and hardboiled. Healy’s education was non-existent, his prose conversational and free of literary conceit. Moreover, as a portrait of the urban landscape and its predatory shadows The Grass Arena is closer in spirit to John Rechy’s City Of Night, also from the same era, also written by an outsider. At his weakest Healy hammers the exclamation mark too hard. At his best his words explode across the page like Henry Miller in full rant.
Despite lacking a formal education, Healy’s intelligence was immense; a period in prison in the 70s finally gave him his first outlet from his downward spiral – chess. His capacity to master the game mirrored his ability to survive on the streets – as Barbaric Genius illuminates it was all just “breaking and entering”, a “blood sport” in which Healy sized up his opponents, located their weaknesses and seized his advantage. Healy’s approach to life as a series of conflicts reveals many of the ‘whys’ that Duane has made it his objective to unearth, Specifically, it introduces the tyrannical presence of Healy’s father, a man who “didn’t look like he would harm anyone” only to then “lash out”. Yet if everyone is a potential adversary in Healy’s world, how does a documentary filmmaker gain his trust and reveal the ‘real’ Healy, whilst satisfying the ‘reality hunger’ of the audience?
This dilemma is at the centre of Barbaric Genius and is the making of the film. It elevates it beyond mere biopic to comment on the documentary medium itself. Since Errol Morris’s seminal The Thin Blue Line (1988), various feature length documentaries have confounded audience assumptions mid-investigation in an attempt to undermine viewer complacency. By the 00s Morris’s influence was pervasive, reaching its apotheosis in Capturing The Friedmans (2003) and Catfish (2011). In Barbaric Genius Duane humanises this approach, shifting the subtext from media obfuscation to hone in on the ethics of invading an individual’s privacy. How much of John Healy’s inner-life is it right to expose to public scrutiny? How to satiate the viewer and still respect the man? To illustrate the point, Duane’s camera pulls away at crucial moments; yet rather than cheating the audience out of vital details, the effect ratchets up the tension. A nervy soundtrack underlines the mood. Healy’s capacity for violence is infamous; publishing folklore alleges he threatened to take an axe the top dogs at Faber & Faber when they blacklisted him as an author. Duane is evidently walking a razor here. Healy is no doubt thinking several moves ahead. How to draw the subject out on his own terms? How to avoid a hatchet job – in every sense of the phrase?
Barbaric Genius navigates this balancing act deftly. The way Duane and Healy’s relationship develops is fascinating, even as blackouts and inconsistencies deepen the mystery at the heart of Healy’s story. The contradictory recollections from those who have crossed Healy’s path – not least a shifty Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief at Faber when The Grass Arena was first published, and believed to have been the recipient of Healy’s death threat – expose the class divisions and obstacles that Healy has always been struggling against, both as a vagrant and later as a celebrated but feared writer. To underline how things failed to improve for Healy even when he was briefly cast into the light in the early 90s, the photographer Jo Spence, Healy’s confidant and initial link to the publishing world warns him: “You are in with the middle-classes now & they are the most dangerous enemies you’ve come up against yet.” Nobody is surprised – least of all Healy – when the same forces that liberated him from obscurity just as readily cast him back without a second’s thought. “From genius to psycho in a week,” he observes. And back once again to the shadows.
So where does the ‘truth’ lie? Well where do you want it to lie? Barbaric Genius great strength is it proposes satisfying explanations for what drives Healy whilst sparing him the indignities of the full media autopsy that is de rigueur in tabloid culture. As David Shields observed when discussing the rise of the memoir as a dominant literary form in the late 00s: “Memory is a dream machine. Nonfiction isn’t ‘true’. It’s a framing device to foreground contemplation.”2
Barbaric Genius is a brilliant re-framing of Healy’s ‘history'; whether we really know him now who can say, but we are certainly wiser. And so we’re left to revisit The Grass Arena with renewed urgency. Healy may yet again return to the shadows, but the portrait Duane has presented in Barbaric Genius feels nothing less than definitive.
1 There is a tendency among readers to credit literature that details degradation as ‘authentic’ and revealing of ‘a deeper truth’. Yet, the thrill of reading Burroughs’ Junky or John Healy’s The Grass Arena is surely enhanced by the fact that the majority of readers have lives totally devoid of the extremity these books document. Such portraits of life lived on the wild side succeed in part, not because they get to a deeper ‘truth’ about existence, but because they’re an anomaly to the norm, and thus represent visceral escapism for a readership whose lives are relatively safe and predictable.
2 The illusion that memoir is a version of the truth still persists, as the public flogging of James Frey in 2009 underlined. Frey confessed he’d fabricated portions of his drugs-Hell memoir, A Million Little Pieces and that it was in fact much closer to that most terrible of things – a work of fiction. Yet all writing is to some degree a work of fiction. What unites De Quincey, Orwell, Burroughs, Rechy, Healy, Wojnarowicz et al is less their recourse to ‘the truth’ but that they are all great writers. That they’re also all unreliable narrators over-reliant upon inebriated memories is rarely conceded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Kovitch is a writer, photogrpaher and director based in London whose work has won awards in Europe and the US. He has been published by Clinicality Press and is currently developing several screenplays.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 24th, 2012.