John Healy, The Grass Arena (1988) - Excerpts.

[ Source:; accessed 29.07.2011.]

The London park, the scene of the action, where most of this took place, is today a quite peaceful spot where the public may sit and rest awhile in comfort, while waiting for their train, perhaps listening to the chimes of Saint Georges directly opposite Euston station as they call the faithful to pray. The old pathway has gone now to make way for a new paved walkway which winds its way placidly through the well tended gardens. The only thing at quarrel are sparrows as they squabble over bread thrown by office workers, on their lunch break, who dwell amongst this pleasant tranquil scene.
 But in the early 50’s up until the late 70’s the place was the haunt of Irish and Scottish vagrants many of whom where ex-servicemen, rejects from the Second World War. Most of these people, which included both men and women, were chronic alcoholics who existing on the literal margins of civilisation were often violently deranged. When not united in their common aim of acquiring alcohol, these winos were often at war with each other over rights and territory such as a park bench to sit on or a derelict house in which to lay down for the night.
 Sometimes people got killed, as usual prostitutes got themselves killed far more frequently than housewives or office girls, and winos often murdered one another over prostitutes, or they fell out over a bottle or the begging of money or else they just fell out.
 By day their fierce and battered faces could be seen as they prowled the area in search of prey, making the public pathway leading to and from the station unsafe for bona fide travellers. Against the traveller’s continuous complaints, the state was at a loss how to curb the excesses of the winos (since at that time it was not yet required by law that the state should accept alcoholism as an illness) and felt themselves justified in allowing the police and courts alike, carte blanche to deal with the drunken menace (by invoking section four of the vagrancy act passed in 1824 to cope with the problem of homeless and jobless ex-soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars). These draconian measures allowed the state to arrest as a rogue and vagabond any person found wandering about, or to charge with sus anyone standing still or sleeping rough in deserted buildings. It also covered begging, deeming those that did so incorrigible rogues, which allowed for them to be tried (without a jury) on a third offence for begging, at a crown court, where a prison sentence became mandatory, ranging from one to three years. Trial moves swiftly on when the judge has determined the sentence beforehand and against that sentence there was no appeal.
 To the winos, therefore, mugging was a better option. It was far quicker, payouts nearly always guaranteed, and if caught there wasn’t really that much difference in the sentence anyway.
 Appalled by the menace these predate [predatory?] alcoholics presented to the travelling public and to the general public alike, the police hit upon the idea of confining them within the local borough parks. But in this way the parks tended to become a refuge for all types of social outcasts. To the police, however, all this seemed ideal since the winos were not so conspicuous now and in their private creche could indulge in violence against one another that could not be displayed elsewhere. If they killed each other, well, culling kept the numbers down and was in itself a sort of solution too. But since the winos could not be legally compelled to stay permanently within the designated areas and indeed did frequently wander out to commit a wide range of felonies, the police often mounted vigorous purges against those who strayed, which lead to dreadful savageries.
 This then is the true story of one such park - The Grass Arena.


Excerpt 1
Skippering is illegal; also rough. Some skippers are fair; most are bad. One feature common to both - they are all lousy. It is hard to describe to a clean and healthy person just how uncomfortable and degrading it is to share your clothes day and night with a load of parasites: apart from the terrible irritation there is the nasty feeling of self-contempt. Fights break out in the night; the police come in, nick you or throw you out. depending on their mood; any nutcase can walk in, burn the place down while you’re in a drunken stupor. You try to sleep in the attic with the birds but end up in the basement with the rats. One day Long John told me about a rough skipper he used now and then when he had some pills - a coal cellar under the road no house above. There was a bombsite. You got to it over a wall and then through a hole in the wall. It was approximately seven foot long. six foot wide and four feet high. There was an old mattress. wet and soggy. It was continually damp - water running down the sides. The butchers used to throw chicken heads and remains over the wall where they landed in a pile at the entrance. This attracted some wildlife - not the sort you see in pet shops. There were long, hungry looking rats. mean crazy- cats, sly eyed mongrel dogs and loads of pigeons and gulls. They worked shifts too: rats and cats at night: birds and dogs in the day. I started to sleep there. No one would ever come near it, I thought not even the police, a good place to curl up in. It allowed me to switch off.
 One night I was sick. Awoke about 4 a.m. Big fat Tessa - Ginger Payne’s woman - was lying beside me on the damp mattress, which had to some extent been dried by the combined heat of our bodies. Her face and nose bashed in. She has two very deep razor scars - one down each cheek - which she got from Ginger. I was fumbling in my pockets for a dog-end. She awoke ... looked in her bag to see if she had been robbed during the night. She gets a few quid on the game. Things seemed to be in order. So she gave me a fag and a light. Pulled out a bottle of wine. What a delightful awakening! Drank the bottle between us. But it didn’t cure me, it benefitted my companion more. Leaning over rummaging in her bag, she seemed to have become completely rejuvenated by it. Swiftly pulling out a shiny little mirror she began powdering her face, vigorously patting it over the badly stitched gashes on her battered cheeks. Then breathless from her efforts in the narrow light she turned towards me. Though she herself would have warded tenderness off with a broken bottle (if you tried to put it on her.) She put her arms round me, snuggling up, started kissing. I wasn’t ready for this, had not thought about such a thing happening. All her snot and saliva going into my mouth and face. She started getting more sexy. Fuck this lark, I know God said love thy neighbour, but you couldn’t when they were all full of snot and slobber. I could bear it no longer. Struggling to escape from under her, I saw Hogan up against the back wall, grinning, enjoying my discomfort. My efforts were making me breathless but I got out at last ... Tessa shouting and screaming, full of passion still, but of a different hue, having accepted her hospitality I must now suffer for it. While Hogan roared with laughter.
 Sitting in the park, thinking I’d like to be in bed with Sophia Loren. Maybe Hogan will put it about, say I’m a powder puff. The lads would fuck Tessa. They’d fuck anything, there’s still a bit of lust left in the dust. I like attractive women, but attractive women don’t fuck with park bench winos.
 Ginger came out today; caught me pissed. Caught me with a bottle too. Needed stitches in my head. A few days later I caught him in the park, drunk. Broke his nose and kicked a couple of his ribs in - now we’re even. Heard the Sham was in hospital; got run over by a lorry. He’s lost the will to live; he’s also lost an arm, poor cunt. He should do well begging though.


 The Dipper looked like something out of Dickens: Long overcoat flapping around his ankles, big mop of hair standing up stiff with dirt, wide-opened surprised look on his face. He’s a good pick-pocket, can take a person’s watch off their wrist without them feeling a thing. He’s fast and quick witted. Drinking in the park one day with a prostitute called Sheila, who’s a bit religious; he laid a trail of peanuts up into her bag. A squirrel came down and gobbled them up, and got into the bag for more. Quick as a flash the Dip shut it and turned to Sheila.
 “Sheila, are you a prostitute?’ he asked all innocent like.
 She patted him on the head gently. “No, no, dear, whatever gave you that idea?”
 “Yes dear?”
 “Give us a fag”
 She opened the bag: SWUSH! The squirrel shot up and out in a flurry blur. Sheila nearly fainted.


Excerpt 2
 IT WAS a cold day, empty of laughter, empty of spirit, empty of everything. I asked a bloke if he could help me out with a couple of bob. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed past me (I was going to have to improve my begging technique fast!). Winos usually have another string to their bow such as shoplifting, thieving, mugging, prostitution-all these acts committed later in the day when you’ve got some wine down. But begging is the drunk’s stock-in-trade. It starts you off. It’s got many aspects: it gets your courage up, gets you communicating with normal people - perhaps the only communication many winos ever have. But, most important, it gets the first drink of the day with which to cure the shakes. The day always begins with the shakes, sickness, fear, paranoia, constipation, dry retch, and complete loss of memory, which only a drink will cure. So begging a bottle can often turn into demanding with menace, and threatening behaviour into grievous bodily harm. It takes about a week’s dry-out before winos show any signs of behaviour that indicates that they might actually be human beings after all. Even then the signs are few!

THE LAW picked me up one afternoon. At court next morning I got a one month prison sentence. I was sent to Pentonville where all the winos go. The place was worse than a nut-house. Every wine school was represented by their own table, so at one end you had the Waterloo mob, the other the Camden Town mob, etc. ...
 I only had three days left to do before my discharge and was surprised when the screw came to my cell and told me to pack my kit - I was going out. Then he explained that one of the boys had come up and paid the three days off my fine. This was sort of standard practice. I would now be eligible for a few pounds discharge grant which would buy the wine. The mate who buys you out is into a good thing - you pay him back out of the grant, he gets half the drink, and you owe him.
 Sometimes you have only been given seven days’ nick, and you are just about getting the drink out of your system and begging to get a good sleep, and rest, when someone buys you out and you don’t want to I go. But once the fine is paid you are out on the street again. The “14 days” lay-down in prison for drunken fines is the only restful bed winos get; saves lives, really.
 Woke up feeling terrible - had a fuzziness in my head, everything seemed blurred, out of shape, odd, like looking through wet glass. I could not remember anything about the last few days. That’s the trouble with drink, it ruins your brain cells, and when that happens regularly you can get a wet brain. Then you’re in a horrible fucking position.
 Mad Rafferty is curled up like a dog in the corner: bearded, straggle-haired, alive with lice, tattered clothes ripped and stained. He’s never been the same since the gypos took him into the country working, never paid him, and tied him under a caravan with a chain each night for a week. He wakes up with a sort of alky shrug, inquiring with a roar if there’s any drink ... Nothing. “Fuck it to hell.” He says “I wish I knew where there was a good ironmonger, that’d give us a bottle of blue.” We make up the price of a bottle of surgical spirits and head for the chemist. I went in alone. Mad Dog was too dirty, but here it wouldn’t have mattered.
 The chemist was a German or something. He said, “Yes, how many bottles you vant?” He’s all eyes: you can’t nick anything.
 We could get no water to mix with it, so we went in the church and filled a milk bottle out of the holy water font and started slowly to swallow it. But it’s hard to get down first thing in the day - any time for that matter. Bastard stuff. It either makes you dead sleepy and fit for nothing, or drives you mad and ready to kill some cunt.


Excerpt 3
 AS Mad Jerry and I climbed the hill leading to the Convent of the Virgin of the Miracles, I wondered if it was going to be another conversion job. Last week he’d been converted to the Church of England for £2, the week before he’d become a Jew for a cup of tea and a packet of fags.
 IN THOSE three months I never took my clothes off or had a bath. About ten of us, men and women, slept in that one room because it was the only one in the house that didn’t have a leaky roof. We were all getting amphetamines off this quack, washing them down with wine and cider. We were like zombies half of the time.
 The room was full of filth - lice, human shit and piss. We were all coughing up jagged gobs of phlegm. TB or not TB? In the end I got the horrors. I used to sit there not caring whether I lived or died. I’d start to doze off and some weird furry animal would slink up to my neck and start kissing me, friendly-like. Then spiteful rows of gleaming teeth would sink into my face and lips. I’d jump up with a scream, doze off again, try to be ready for the dreams next time. But they were already nibbling gently at my skin.
 A wino is a person in total need of alcohol. No one’s going to help you. So I’d drag myself out on to the street and try to hustle up a bottle, get pissed, fall down, maybe injure my leg again. Then crawl back to lick my wounds in the lousy skipper, and after that lay with the others vigorously scratching. Since it was some time now since any of us had set foot in prison, the maturing lice were becoming more aggressive. One night the law came and nicked four of us that were there. We got three months each for being on “enclosed premises”. I was glad in the end - my leg healed up perfectly.
 AS THE few little flowers skirting the edges of the park started to bloom, Livepool Lil passed away.
 I remember when she first set foot in the park, cheeky and smart, not bad-looking for a whore. The lads fancied her like mad. She teamed up with Kelly the Tinker. They made the boneyard their home, pulling strokes, panhandling and hustling from there. Looks fade quickly. Hair turns grey, teeth fall out, wrinkles appear on top of wrinkles, sight fails, bodily functions fail, the mind deteriorates, memory goes, pity goes, to be replaced by aggression. Violent acts quickly punished by further violence deteriorate mind and body more and more until eventually the Chief Psycho puts the final boot in.
 After that Kelly lost weight, spent days without speaking, nursing the bottle. Suddenly he’d fly into a rage at someone, over a long-forgotten incident. Sometimes he’d win, but mostly he’d lose. Never a fighting man, his body couldn’t take it. He was found close to death in the park. Someone had given him a savage kicking. Taken into hospital, he lasted a few months.
 As the flowers slowly withered and died, so did Kelly. Drink is a hard master. Someone got a collection up. Someone else drank it. Someone managed to get a week’s money from the Social, using his name and date of birth. No one really cared. The only sad part was when Scarface Mick dropped a full bottle of wine. The red liquid spread out slowly, like blood from a knife wound.
 FUNNY how things work out sometimes. I thought of every way I might get to wash my feet and change my socks. I’ve been unable to take my shoes off for a week or so and the socks have rotted. They’re not so bad when damp and sweaty. Somehow you can handle that, squelching along. It’s when they’re icy, they become a bit lethal - sharp slivers cutting the toes painfully. And this army marches on its feet!
 It’s not so much a problem to get clean socks - Woolworth’s is a benevolent society for those with quick hands. But where to wash a pair of rotting plates of meat? I know the toilet washroom, if you can find one open, seems the place, but the days have long gone since I was nimble enough to lift one leg up for that balancing trick.
 Nothing worse than getting nicked sober; and soberer than the soberest judge was I when they came in and done me for a fine. As soon as the cell door clanged, I eased my shoes off; took my socks off slowly, peeling the tattered bits gently away from my toes like some second skin.
 A rest to get the breath back, and then the final part of the operation, and the happiest. Sitting on the bed board, I rolled my trousers up, swung my feet over, placed them in the toilet bowl, and after a few pulls of the chain, they were as clean as this makeshift foot shower could make them. It don’t half make you footloose. Pity about the lock. As I lay down, through the door comes the soft coaxing voice of the gaoler. He’s got a cunning tongue. “Son.”
 “Yeah, guv.”
 “We got another little charge for you.”
 “It’s an enclosed premises to steal.”
 “Last Monday night.”
 “I was in here last Monday night.”
 “Don’t be awkward, lad. You weren’t in here.”
 “Yes. I was. You booked me in yourself for drunk." “The book’s been lost, son.”

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