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Camden New Journal - One Week with JOHN GULLIVER
Published: 25 September 2008

John Healey, right, with music photographer Tom Sheehan at the book launch for The Grass Arena
Book launch for ex-street drinker a sober experience

FOR a reason I cannot fathom, the first time I read John Healey’s searing account of his days in jail and as a street drinker in Kentish Town it left me cold.
There was such pain in the book, The Grass Arena, it shouldn’t have done. But it did.
However, when I heard John read an excerpt from his extraordinary book at the most unusual launch I have attended it was then that I felt the power of the words.
His description of a scene in which he got sozzled with drinkers until one stabbed another to death almost moved me to tears. Later that evening at home I couldn’t put the book down.
My epiphany occurred in a large Victorian house in Bartholomew Villas, Kentish Town, owned by the writer Charlotte Raven who generously threw it open to guests to celebrate John’s arrival as one of Britain’s top living writers. His book has now been published as a Penguin Classic.
John grew up among the poorest of the poor of Kentish Town after the last war. His father regularly beat him. To escape he volunteered for the army – and got beaten there. He found solace in booze and roamed our streets in search of it until he landed in jail. There he learned to play chess and later told his life story in The Grass Arena.
The 50-strong audience, sitting in rows in an upstairs room, listened enraptured by John reading his memoir.
It was a bit of an odd sight. Most of them were the sort who go to book launches: middle-class professionals, comfortably off. And here they were hearing a tale of a life that must have seemed as foreign to them as a tale from a far away country.
Earlier in the evening I spoke to John and sensed him to be a shy, slightly introverted man.
Later, standing in front of a crowded room, with all eyes turned on him, must have been a bit of an ordeal.
He struck me as a typical working-class fellow you’d meet in Kentish Town, getting on a bit, nothing boastful about him. I could have been chatting at the bar of a pub. Not an ounce of self-publicity in him. What a contrast to the egos you meet in book launches, all self-centred, trying to make smart talk.
It was fitting that he was introduced by another old lag, Erwin James, who has emerged from 20 years behind prison bars as a successful writer, with a regular column in the Guardian.
He had discovered John’s book in jail and the “sheer power of the writing” had brought him “through dark times”.
In reply to a remark by someone in the audience that his “terrible experiences” had enabled him to write the book, John said: “I would rather have had a normal life.”
Writing it hadn’t been easy, he said. Often he suffered “fits of anger” – perhaps, I thought, from reliving his dark times.
When someone asked him how he felt now that he ranked among the greats such as Kafka, also published in Penguin Classics, he complained he was still looking for a publisher for another book “under his bed”.
Often I find when John’s name comes up in conversation someone wonders whether he’s working on another book – as if one Penguin Classic to your name isn’t enough. And this from a man who barely went to school!
People ask the same question about Harper Lee, but millions love her classic To Kill a Mockingbird!
Summing up his life, John said at the end of the evening: “We are defined by what we do.”
And what a great thing John has made of his life.

Poet Dennis’s new best cellar

WITH an estimated £750million fortune, some might imagine that Felix Dennis has it pretty good.
But Dennis, famed for his role in one of the longest conspiracy trials at the Old Bailey as co-editor of Oz magazine in the 1971, confirmed to me this week that money does not buy happiness.
Living in his plush pad in Kingly Street, Soho, Mr Dennis claimed fame and fortune had left him feeling “homeless in the heart” until he found “redemption” through composing short poems, sometimes five or six a day.
“The thing about poetry is that I don’t have time to get up to no good anymore,” he said. “I literally don’t have time for crack cocaine or any of that stupid stuff I used to do. It has been a redemption in that way.
“The poems cover my whole life, from being born to nearly dying. There are love poems, and ones about animals – I like animals, they can’t argue back – to an ironic take on women’s liberation.”
Dennis’s poems have drawn astonishingly high praise from such luminaries as Melvyn Bragg, Stephen Fry, Mick Jagger and Jon Snow. Tom Wolfe, the best-selling American author, described him as a “21st-century Kipling”.
His latest compilation – Homeless in the Heart – will be aired next Thursday (as well as October 17) at the Shaw Theatre, Euston. All 500 seats have been booked.
“I still keep an eye on my magazines though, which are doing well I must say,” he said. “Magazines are a good hedge in bad times. Some of the poems in this latest book are about the financial world, and greed. I think that’s something I have on the other poets. They haven’t got a clue about that world.”
Dennis is also planning to plant the largest natural wood, called Forest of Dennis, somewhere in the “heart of England”.
“Entrance will be free to the public,” he said. “All the trees are all British.
“The event at the Shaw Theatre is free – but I will be asking people to donate a fiver if they can to my forest.”
“Did I mention the free wine?” adds Dennis. “It’s all from my own cellar.”

Night with Berger proves to be a classy affair

THE internationally acclaimed critic, artist and novelist John Berger is as cerebral as you can get.
For 50 years he has astounded the intellectual class – as well as the general reading public – with his novels, poems, art criticisms and political activism for the left.
His latest novel, From A to X – A Story in Letters (Verso, £12.99), has been long-listed for the Booker Prize.
But while his audience listened in awe at the ICA on Tuesday evening as he unfolded his thesis that we are all “prisoners” of the world corporations, one man made it clear he didn’t agree.
After Berger had read mainly from his persuasive booklet, Meanwhile – which states that “across the planet we are living in a prison” – up piped John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, who was sitting in the second row.
He said he had come from the working class where there were plenty of “scumbags”. He was also an ex-offender so he knew a thing or two about prisons.
But in the past few years 70 per cent of the working class had become middle class so they weren’t in a prison.
“John,” he declared “You’ve got it arse upwards!”
Berger, who does not so much give a talk as a performance, with his Gallic gestures – he has lived for the past 30 years in a French mountain village – shrugs and rolling of the eyes, looked astonished at Bird’s accusation.
Lost for words, he could only say, as far I could make out: “Don’t you understand, we are not free!”
But Bird, wearing fashionable dark shades, wasn’t convinced, and could be heard muttering to himself as he left the auditorium where every seat had been sold.

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