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Interview: Paul Duane & John Healy of "Barbaric Genius"

Paul Duane

I've seen two documentaries by Irish filmmaker Paul Duane, "Natan," and "Barbaric Genius." In both cases, Duane highlights an individual who has been struck from the record for mysterious reasons.  In "Natan," he and co-director David Cairns, investigate the story of Bernard Natan, the pioneer of French cinema, who has been so effectively erased that there is barely a trace of him, the only thing left being nasty rumors and speculation. Duane and Cairns sensed a story there and set about to find out what really happened to Bernard Natan. And in "Barbaric Genius," Paul Duane tries to understand why John Healy, whose 1988 memoir of his life on the streets of London, "The Grass Arena," was so celebrated that it won the top literary prize in Britain and was turned into an award-winning BBC film, was seemingly blackballed by the very same publishing industry who had so wholeheartedly embraced him. Similar to Bernard Natan, rumors circulated about Healy, that he was violent, volatile, dangerous. But was any of it true? Or was the reality more sinister? Was this a calculated process of character assassination?

Both films, "Natan," and "Barbaric Genius," left me with a sense of helpless outrage, and a feeling that something needed to be done to repair these men's reputations. Both films remind me of John Proctor's heartfelt cry at the end of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible": "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" John Healy, the onetime literary sensation, has had his name taken from him, his reputation. Why?

In 1988, the somewhat complacent and insular British literary world was rocked by an unforgettable voice from the outside when "The Grass Arena," London-Irishman John Healy's memoir, was published by Faber & Faber. John Healy wrote with blunt unforgettable prose about his rough 15 years on the streets of London, a part of the wino subculture, and then his complete re-invention into a chess champion. John Healy was an Irish immigrant in London (his family had moved there from Ireland when he was a child), and he lived wild on the streets, struggling under England's draconian Vagrancy Laws which criminalized homelessness (mandatory three-year prison sentences).

With "The Grass Arena," Healy became the sensation of the literary world. The book was critically acclaimed, winning the J.R. Ackerley prize for literary autobiography, the top prize in England. It was also turned into an award-winning BBC film (with Mark Rylance playing the Healy role). John Healy was omnipresent as a guest on television talk shows, interviewed in the national and international press, praised by luminaries such as Harold Pinter and Irvine Welsh (who called the book "a masterpiece") and adored by his massive readership. And then came almost total silence.

Rumors floated in the press that there had been some kind of rupture with Faber & Faber, there were stories that John Healy had threatened an editor with an axe. He was referred to as a "psychopath" in the press. His fans waited anxiously for more books from John Healy. They are still waiting. "The Grass Arena" went out of print, despite clear audience demand. In 2008, the book was re-issued by Penguin Classics, with an introduction by Daniel Day-Lewis, but it is still very difficult to find copies of it. In 2010, a small chess publishing house brought out a book about chess by John Healy, but other than that, nothing.

So what happened to John Healy?  Award-winning Irish filmmaker Paul Duane wanted to find out.

Duane had read and loved "The Grass Arena" when it first came out, and had heard the rumors about Healy's violent behavior. Duane reached out to John Healy in 2007, and over the course of the next four years, interviewed Healy about his life, his books (published and unpublished), his philosophies, how he felt about things.  Duane also tracked down the key players at Faber & Faber during Healy's time there as a writer, including Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber, whose revealing interview in "Barbaric Genius" has to be seen to be believed. There is a major class critique in "Barbaric Genius", an insinuation that the high-class and middle-class literary types who had initially embraced John Healy into their midst, were all too eager to remind him that he was just a visitor in that echelon.

John Healy emerges through the film as an intelligent man with an understandable sense of paranoia and persecution. He is sometimes uncomfortable being interviewed, but through a slow process of trust-building, he opened up to Paul Duane. The interviews with Healy and his friends are incredible.  "Barbaric Genius" unfolds like a detective novel, following the clues along the way, tracking down the real story.  John Healy is still alive. He has a couple of unpublished books. He yearns to get back into print. Much of what has been said about him is a flat-out lie. There is a strong sense of mission in "Barbaric Genius." It is an angry and urgent film. I had not read "The Grass Arena" when I first saw the film, but you can bet I have read it now. The book is amazing, not just because of its perfect prose, but because you can sense the extraordinary man behind all of it. John Healy was a homeless wino, a boxing champion, a soldier, a best-selling author, and a chess master. It is a great story in and of itself, made even greater by his writing. Healy has that ultimate rarity in the literary world: a truly authentic voice.

"Barbaric Genius" was Duane's first feature-length documentary. Duane's film "Natan," co-directed with David Cairns, premiered at the Edinburgh at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2013. ( contributor Glenn Kenny reviewed "Natan" on his own site.) Duane's documentary about Memphis musician ("the last rock 'n roll outlaw") Jerry McGill, "Very Extremely Dangerous" has also won wide acclaim and will be released by Fat Possum in September 2014.  Duane is also the co-creator and co-producer of the television series "Amber," broadcast on Irish television in the fall of 2013, and now available on Netflix.

After a cinematic release in the UK and Ireland, where it got superb reviews, "Barbaric Genius" is set to be released onto Hulu and Netflix in the States at the end of this summer. In the meantime, "Barbaric Genius" can be rented on iTunes. You can find out more about the film at the Barbaric Genius site.


"Barbaric Genius" made me extremely angry on your behalf.

JOHN HEALY: It's terrible to get anger and emotion, Sheila, but you know what I'm angry about? I'm angry that they've made me angry.  I was dealing with psychopaths. I was treated like Ned Kelly in Australia, like an outlaw.

Could you speak a little bit about the Vagrancy Laws?

The Vagrancy Laws were introduced into England in the 14th century. They were to stop the breakdown of feudalism, to stop the people wandering off the land. After 4 days, if you were found out walking, you were branded on the forehead with a "V" for vagrant. It's all to do with class, Sheila. When the Napoleonic wars started, they needed soldiers. These rich people in posh England, they used to send their servants to go and fight against Napoleon, and the servants would come back with a leg missing or an eye missing, so their only option open to them then was begging. The people who had previously sent them to the war didn't like their servants begging on the same corner they used to work on, with legs missing. So they brought back the Vagrancy Laws, and they were the same laws that we were under. You weren't allowed to sleep rough, in a hay field, or anywhere, it was against the Vagrancy Laws so you'd get arrested. On your third offense, you went to a criminal court and you got a three-year's mandatory sentence. 

One of the amazing things about your story is how chess came into your life. 

I was put in a cell one time, a lucky accident, with a Brighton burglar named Harry The Fox and he got to like me and he kept telling me about chess. Before he left, he taught me the game. I had a good aptitude for it. I never took a drink after that. I got into chess tournaments, I used to play four games simultaneously while blindfolded.  Chess masters usually have delicate upbringings. These are all highly educated people. I couldn't use my fists or violence to communicate, so it was frustrating, and I had to learn, You can't talk to these people like that. 

The mental state that you need to be in to play chess - did you find that draining or exhilarating?

It's draining. I counter that by meditation and yoga. That is the reason I learned meditation in the first place. I was getting worse and worse with the stress. I couldn't relax.  You can't get into deep meditation if you've got things on your mind like chess.

How did you decide to write "The Grass Arena"?

Sheila, I never thought I'd be a chess master or write a book. People usually have something in their minds when they're kids of what they want to be, but even if I wasn't a wino, I wouldn't have "author" in my mind because that would be a middle-class thing. Writing was a middle class thing.  Some posh woman said to me, "You've got a story, you should write it down."  So I started to write and that became "The Grass Arena" after about a year. The lucky part was - again, like the chess - I had a gift for it. I had a gift for writing prose. I wish I had a gift for winning the Lottery!  The book got the top prize in Britain for literary autobiography.  I won it outright.  I'm not boasting, I'm just stating the facts. I was born with that kind of brain, I was born with the talent, in more ways than one, and they make Hollywood films about that kind of stuff, they try to make up stories like that, and then when they get the real thing, they try to destroy it.

Did the success of the book feel good or was it a strange experience? 

There was a lot of stress involved. These are sophisticated educated people and they've got power and you haven't. It was a strange experience, yeah, going to these events and having to watch your Ps and Qs. 

The way things went down with Faber was so unnecessary. It was outright character assassination. 

There was no need for all that. There was no axe throwing or anything like that.  Some people were nasty about it, said that I'm a psychopath, I shouldn't be allowed to write. I "shouldn't be allowed to write"! 

Are you working on anything else right now?

I wrote "Blood Sport," a book about chess. I wrote "The Glass Cage." I've also got a play I've been working on. Then I wrote "The Metal Mountain." "The Metal Mountain" took me years. It's a beautiful novel about an Irish family. It's what a novel should be like, you know. And no one will publish it. 

There was a great quote in "Barbaric Genius" about the middle class being the worst enemy. Can you talk about that?

Oh yeah, Jo Spence said that to me. She was a feminist but she still understood blokes. She said to me, "You've traveled through galaxies to reach this pass, but now you're facing the middle-class and you'll find they're the worst enemy you've ever come up against." 


When did you first read "The Grass Arena"?

It was impossible to be ignorant of the book at the time. It was a #1 bestseller, and since John had an interesting background he was lionized by the press. I read the book when I was graduating from film school [Dun Laoghaire College of Art]. It was the period when The Pogues had come out and they were tough, they wore suits, they were a bit criminal-looking. It was at a period when there wasn't anything particularly cool about being Irish, and the two things, The Pogues and "The Grass Arena," seemed to click for me. You also couldn't be ignorant of the large population of semi-indigent second-generation Irish laborers in England. It was the generation the Pogues were giving a voice to, it was the generation that John came from. John's book told the story of those men from the inside.

A film was made of "The Grass Arena" and it was a massive success, it won awards. And then John dropped out of sight and I wasn't clear on why. There were rumors of acts of violence and axes being brandished at the publisher's office and fire extinguishers thrown through windows. His name was always uttered with a dark warning. I finally got the opportunity to approach him when he turned up in Ireland many years later at the Cuirt literary festival in Galway. I spoke to him on the phone about doing a documentary about him. He was very cagey. He was concerned about being misrepresented. We negotiated quite a lot about how I would proceed.

I knew there was a story there, I just didn't know what it was.

How did you go about the filming process? It unfolds almost like a detective story, revealing to us clues along the way, like Healy's chess-playing and his mastery of yoga. You don't reveal everything about him right away. Could you talk about how you went about that?

John's a very private person and I had known him for about a year when the yoga thing came out. I noticed that he had a portrait of an Indian man on the wall and I asked him about it and he was quiet, until finally he said it was a picture of the guru Muktananda and that he practiced meditation. The next time I visited, John had taken the picture away. He felt self-conscious about it. But it was good to talk about his meditation practice with him because it was obviously very important to him. I asked him why he didn't want to talk about it and he said he didn't want to seem like a weirdo. 

If you imagine yourself in his position, you can see why he is very sensitive about his image becoming distorted. It took a long long time to peel through those layers. 

The film works on a couple of different levels. You're seeing this man and you can't help but think, "He's been through a lot, he's had a rough life." You're making judgments, in other words. Not necessarily negative judgments, but still, you're trying to evaluate him. And as the film continued, I started to realize how I had limited my conception of him without even meaning to. That was one of the most powerful things about the film.

More than anything else I wanted to avoid speaking for John, or putting myself as a mouthpiece or an interpreter. I wanted people to find and discover John by themselves, out of his own mouth, with his own words. We interviewed an awful lot of people who didn't end up in the final documentary because when we looked at the interviews, we realized they were explaining him. There is a mystery there with John.  I don't want to attempt to explain it away. 

Tell me about talking with the people from Faber, Robert McCrum in particular.

Most of the people at Faber point-blank never responded to our requests for interviews.  But McCrum did respond and I don't know why. It seemed to me that he wanted to find out information about John. He asked what John was up to, where did he live.  Maybe John scares him. What motivated him to say Yes to the interview, I don't really know, because the interview he gave us was very damning. There's a reason why the DVD includes the full version of the interview so people can see we didn't distort it, or edit it in a certain way. We were very scrupulous about trying to make sure that no one would feel we had manipulated that footage.  McCrum has a very aristocratic view of things. He feels that John's work is worthless, and he was baffled as to why the book was published at all. I find it extraordinary that a man whose first book was so enormously successful got no leeway from the publishing world. 

If you're that successful first time out of the gate, it sometimes takes 10 books for people to give up on you.

Exactly. Penguin Books did a "25 Years Since 'The Grass Arena'" celebration last year. We had a screening of the film and John was interviewed live onstage by a prominent journalist. And it wasn't reported in any of the major newspapers. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but that is beyond my understanding.  His book is still selling in enormous quantities. I feel that it's a story that the press doesn't want to be opened up again. For a long time I thought John was paranoid. But then "Barbaric Genius" did well in the UK, it got a cinema release, it got 5-star reviews, and still, nothing was written about John. They wrote about the film or about me, but they didn't write about John.

They've closed ranks on him.

Unfortunately. They shut him out. It's something strange about British society: it is supposed to be egalitarian, it's supposed to be a meritocracy, but there are levels where it doesn't operate like that.

The film is very angry and I felt this about one of your other films, "Natan." My blood was boiling after I saw "Natan." I felt: "What has happened is wrong. And something has to be done about it." And that was my feeling watching "Barbaric Genius," that what has been done to John Healy is wrong.

I felt it was important to tell his story. I had this picture in my mind that if I didn't finish the film, John would die at some point, and there would be an obituary in the major newspapers saying, "Oh, this poor man was so neglected in his latter years."  You know, they would all compete to eulogize him at his death and I desperately wanted that to happen to some degree while he was alive. John is an extraordinary man, an extraordinary writer, and an extraordinary talent.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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