The other Grass Arena – where the history of mortality beckons

Story of a man saved from life of an alcoholic by a fellow prisoner introducing him to chess


Some of us will never understand the madness of Cheltenham. Who honestly does? My dad still swears unholy allegiance with the place even though he’s never been and I know at least one person who bet on a horse this week based purely on the sound of its name.

As a sporting event – if at all defined that way – it’s a sometimes strange contradiction. Like the way Patrick Kavanagh once denounced the Irish love of the horse as a myth, only to find himself becoming increasingly devoted to the betting shop. Take your pick on that one.

Con Houlihan also told a story about one of his many trips to what he called The Institution of The Cheltenham Festival. He’d usually stay in London and travel up on the train, and that world between Swindon and The Cotswolds, “enchanting country – valleyed and wooded and watered”.

On one Gold Cup day he found himself in the company of some publicans coming up from London on “an almighty freebie”: about half-way to The Holy Land a man comes along the train saying rather loudly; “Is there a Catholic priest on board?”And a voice pipes up: “Has somebody become ill?” “No – we’re looking for a bottle opener.”

On another day, with a few hours to spare, he wandered away from the old grass arena and the main streets of Cheltenham, and discovered “pubs where the clients were palpably not overburdened with worldly wealth”.

Non-sensible gambling

Even from a relatively safe distance there appears to be little evidence of non-sensible gambling at Cheltenham, or indeed drinking for that matter, and even if there was it’s only four days of the year. Except for Grand National day. Or maybe the US Masters. And like drinking there is no strict way of even defining what is sensible gambling. If that was the case there might not be anyone left at Cheltenham by day four.

Maybe there is a more worrying contradiction here, especially at a time when one sport is putting a widespread ban on betting sponsorship (including competitions, teams and facilities) based on evidence of increased gambling addiction, while others are becoming increasingly flippant about it. And not just sports but sporting broadcasters too.

By now half of the Premier League’s 20 clubs have the names of bookmakers or related businesses on their shirts, and they all have commercial links to at least one betting firm. This is usually defended by the argument that betting is regarded as a leisure time activity, with roughly half the British population participating, with only 0.5 per cent identify themselves as “problem gamblers”.

Whatever about the true cost of betting on society, there is also that often brash assumption it will never become a problem to you – whether that be betting or drinking. Here there is one still powerful piece of writing to suggest otherwise.

In the now 30 years since John Healy wrote The Grass Arena there are parts of London which to some people may have changed beyond recognition. Even around southwest Twickenham, though still most famous for its grass arena and old mansions and riverside pleasure grounds, and where this afternoon history and immortality beckons.

Further north around Kentish Town, where Healy was born and still lives, some things have been slower to change. It was here that Healy ended up a wandering alcoholic, living rough for 15 years, typically “lulled, dulled (and) skulled” out of his head, at a time when under the London Vagrancy Act begging carried an automatic three-year prison sentence.

Violent alcoholic

Healy certainly served his time – both on the streets and behind bars. Born to poor Irish parents, his father already a violent alcoholic, his once promising boxing career – at age 16 he was sparring in a professional gym – quickly hit the canvas when he started to enter the ring drunk, having turned to booze to relieve some of the tensions of his environment. Healy tried the army too before being dishonourably discharged for drunkenness and then spent 15 years roaming among the homeless in London, like an extra from a Dickens novel.

“Woke up lying in a puddle of water at the bottom of some iron stairs in the basement of a house. Got up as quickly as the stiffness in my body would allow. Climbed the stairs. No one around. Slid out onto the street . . . Limped over to the park. Lay across the seat. Start to doze off. Horrors again . . . I’ve got them bad . . . hundreds of rats, each threatening to bite before racing past. Kept spewing up. Didn’t even fancy a smoke. F*** the drink.”

The grass arena to which his book title refers was a small London park that was the haunt of mostly Irish and Scottish vagrants, a usually deranged and unpredictable place of crime and the occasional killing – and where the history of mortality still beckons.

Healy’s life was saved by another strange contradiction – a fellow prisoner introducing him to the dense art of chess, which Healy soon found even more addictive than alcohol. He left jail and re-emerged sober and determined and for the next 10 years became a champion chess player, taking on the grandmasters and capable of conducting several games at a time.

Healy is a writer who like George Orwell should be rediscovered in every age. After another strangely violent chapter with his original publisher, Faber, The Grass Arena was 10 years ago republished as a Penguin Modern Classic. In the foreword to that edition, Daniel Day-Lewis writes about Healy’s grass arena as one we pass many times in any given day, averting our eyes, “into whose violent clutches we might descend more easily than we dare to contemplate”.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.

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