Barbaric Genius is a documentary about John Healy who was born in London during World War II. Healy went on to be an army boxer, then a homeless street drinker and petty criminal before learning chess from a fellow con at the age of 30. After release from jail he became a chess champion and was particularly adept at playing multiple games simultaneously. Realising he’d learnt chess too late to become a grandmaster, Healy gave up the game and wrote an acclaimed autobiography The Grass Arena (1988). He fell out with his publishers Faber and Faber in the early nineties over nothing very much and his memoir was taken out of print in English.
Duane focuses on Healy as a character. Healy’s street drinking, chess playing and disputes with his publisher are at the core of this documentary. There is little about Healy’s time in the army and as a boxer: and nothing about his second book, the novel Streets Above Us. I guess this is because to have included everything that happened to Healy over the past seven decades would have slowed and complicated the film’s driving narrative.
Once Duane has addressed Healy’s (undeserved) ongoing reputation for violence and time living rough on the streets of north London, the screen unexpectedly goes white and and the narrative shifts to Healy’s yoga practice and spiritual interests. Healy demonstrates various poses and obviously has remarkable flexibility for his age. That said, a jump cut from the final yoga sequence to Healy walking Charlie Chaplin-style with his feet splayed apart like a penguin dramatically undercuts any notion viewers may be harbouring that he is a fully fledged yogi. Healy walks with a gait that is typical of a Londoner of his class and gender; whereas someone who’d properly mastered yogic techniques and integrated them into their life could reasonably be expected to move with their feet parallel to one another. That said, Healy appears more interested in meditation than the physical aspects of yoga, so while his development of the practice looks to be a little one-sided, it reflects his interests and personality. I really dig the way Duane shows us things like this rather than tells them to us. Duane also illustrates very well (without ever explicitly mentioning it) that Healy finds it easier to get on with middle-class women than upper-class men; although this probably has at least as much to do with sexism within the bourgeoisie as Healy’s troubled relationship with his father.
What I found most interesting about Barbaric Genius is the way it depicts through Healy the class biases of the English literary establishment. While Healy was treated in a particularly vindictive way by Faber and Faber (and specifically by Robert McCrum), his story is far from unique. Writers from ordinary backgrounds are consistently under-valued by the bourgeois literary establishment: and this is as true for best-selling names like John King or Irvine Welsh as for everyone else who isn’t a posh boy. The publishing industry in the UK still favours ‘writers’ with a private education followed by a stint at Oxbridge since they come from the same privileged background as those who generally edit and review books. Obviously, standards of writing and intellectual debate are driven downwards by the limited world-view and experience of these plodding clots.
McCrum is clearly the villain in Duane’s movie – and rightly so because he is a stereotypical example of the over-privileged and completely untalented tosser who would have never got anywhere close to the ‘successes’ he’s enjoyed in his life were it not for his family background. When McCrum describes Healy as angry and resentful he might just as well be talking about himself. The reason literary pond-life like McCrum hate working class writers in general, and Healy in particular, is because without the benefits of a fancy education they are still objectively way more intelligent than a moron like this former Faber and Faber and Observer literary editor. Among other things, Duane is to be applauded for demonstrating so well that Robert McCrum is a vindictive little twerp.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!