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Historical scrapbook

John Healy’s latest book is a work of fiction. But, Dan Carrier observes, it could well be a sequel to his acclaimed memoir, The Grass Arena

25 April, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Master storyteller John Healy

THE mountain looms over its surroundings, and is described as “this iron escarpment, streaked throughout with variegated coloured metal objects of every conceivable size and description, had provided the country with the munitions to fight the Second World War…”

A pile of scrap, found next to a canal in Camden Town, is a central plank in author John Healy’s new novel, The Metal Mountain – and is a key part of his recreation of a post-war London and an Irish family living in it.

John, who lives in Dartmouth Park, has spoken in passing of this book to Review for some years, hoping to find the right publisher at the right time – and the wait has been worth it.

John’s personal story has been well chronicled in his 1986 memoir The Grass Arena, and his life as a child and young man in Kentish Town shines through the pages of this beautifully lyrical novel.

The Grass Arena – published by Penguin and available in their Classics series – gives the reader a unique insight into John’s early life. The Metal Mountain draws on similar personal experiences, but is told through a third person narrator and is a work of fiction, no matter how much it feels true.

John was born in 1942, one of five children, and grew up around Leighton Road in Kentish Town.

He had a job as a market porter at Covent Garden, trained as an amateur boxer and worked as a sparring partner for professionals – but also, in his teenage years, fell into alcoholism.

In 1959, he joined the army but went AWOL and was soon captured and punished.

All this is told in The Grass Arena: his 15 years’ living rough in Kentish Town, sleeping in squats in Highgate Road, wandering through Camden Town and the West End, trying to find a few shillings to pay for the next bottle.

Begging and sleeping rough then was a crime – and John saw the inside of prison cells because of his lifestyle. It was during one such spell behind bars that he met a man called the Brighton Fox – a notorious car thief, who also happened to play chess. He told John he should take up the game, and he discovered a particular talent.

In his 30s, he won 10 major British chess tournaments, drew with the Soviet grandmaster Rafael Vaganian, who was at the time rated as the second in the world.

It changed his life. He settled for a time in King’s Cross, and wrote The Grass Arena – and it became an instant classic, and in many ways The Metal Mountain feels like the natural sequel.

We meet an Irish family living in Raglan Street, Kentish Town. Mary Jane Docherty is mother to Danny and Michael, and wife to Sean. What starts off as an interesting portrait of a typical Anglo-Irish family, with its insights on how the Irish diaspora felt and lived and survived and thrived in NW5, the work they do, the poverty and racism they endure, takes a sinister turn: death and conspiracies, politics and poverty loom across each page. It is the mark of a master storyteller, confident in his own voice and with a wealth of memory to draw on.

While the plot is enthralling, it is John’s lyricism that carries you along. From his opening description of a street party to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, to scrumping apples from the garden of a posh house in Hampstead, each passage stands on its own as a beautiful example of his descriptive powers.

John takes us back to a world older north Londoners will recognise – the near-past of the laundry rooms at Prince of Wales Road baths creates a backdrop for one memorable piece of scene setting and characterisation.

“After purchasing a ticket from reception, she began to carry her wash into the main building,” he writes.

“The place was humming with noise-full women arguing, shouting, their voice carrying across the steaming room, their bodies drenched with running sweat… old women, seasoned skirmishers, veterans of many a wash house campaign, rising from the scum of water the top of their chemise or brassiere daringly exposed, waddling on their swollen ankles between drying horse and washing troughs, gasping under the weight of excess flesh their whalebone corsets were striving to contain, joked, smoked and scavenged cunningly as they meandered among the groves of heavy wet linen, swaying in the steam of sheets waiting to be starched stiff and ironed flat, before being folded together with their own cleanliness.”

Then, in the second part of the novel, we meet Michael as he has grown up, with the opening section of the book acting as a frame so we can understand his actions as a young adult better.

He starts work at a scrapyard – the metal mountain of the title – and learns a trade under the guidance of Pop, a man who cuts metal and then sends it on for re-smelting.

John describes the sensation of having to climb up, over and through the twisted scrap with a fine art painter’s eye for detail. It creates a dangerous and intriguing landscape for the second half of the novel to play out against.

John Healy’s work is at the pinnacle of London memoir and London fiction. He brings back a past not long gone, but close to fading from living memory. His power as a storyteller should be celebrated – but also his role as a chronicler of our social history should not be overshadowed by the fact he has a captivating way with words.

His subject matter goes hand in hand with his voice and The Metal Mountain is a unique achievement.

The Metal Mountain. By John Healy, Etruscan Books, £14.95

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