Barbaric Genius directed by Paul Duane

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!

About mistertrippy

Stewart Home was born in south London in 1962. His mother Julia Callan-Thompson was a showgirl and club hostess. He has never held down a regular job for more than a few months at a time. On those rare occasions when he's been forced to work, Home has taken employment as a factory labourer, agricultural labourer, shop assistant, office clerk and art class model. Deciding he didn't like working in factories as a teenager, Home pursued cultural and political interests, writing many books and participating in even more gallery exhibitions.
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40 thoughts on “Barbaric Genius directed by Paul Duane

  1. Ian Long says:

    McCrum’s repeated insistence that he “couldn’t recall” various incidents was reminiscent of Rupert Maxwell’s performance at the Leveson enquiry, and his general belittling of John Healy was nauseating. Having spent a fair amount of time with John, I must say I haven’t noticed the ‘Chaplin walk’, though – he always seemed pretty well-coordinated.

    I thought the film was good; I’d never seen John doing his yoga practice so that was illuminating, and the part when he visited his long-lost relatives in Ireland was touching.

    Faber & Faber obviously didn’t even know how to talk to him, and sending a recovering alcoholic out on a stressful programme of TV and magazine interviews with no real back-up was asking for trouble.

    I think they were surprised when the book was so successful, didn’t want to deal with him on a long-term basis, and essentially set up a situation where they could reject him as a kind of self-vindication: “See? You can take the man out of the street…” and so on.

  2. Ian Long says:

    PS – when he was uncoordinated it was on purpose, rather than something out of his control.

  3. mistertrippy says:

    I’d agree John is well coordinated…. but he is shown walking “badly” from a strictly physiotherapy point of view in that final shot… my understanding is that if you walk like that in the long term it is bad for your hips (but I’m no expert on this so I may be wrong here), I just know it is something yoga is supposed to correct. After seeing him doing the yoga the walk seemed quite shocking. It is of course possible it was put on for the camera but it didn’t look like it to me. Agree with you about McCrum and Faber too of course!

  4. Douglas Park says:

    myself and others know / can prove that even / especially the so-called “inclusive” facets to the tate = terminally amnesiac / ignorant / islamophobic / agist / racist / incompetent.

  5. Paul Duane says:

    Thanks for the excellent piece, Stewart! John’s walk in that final scene is explainable by the fact that he was walking on frozen solid pavement, on a fairly steep slope – if you think he was walking splay-footed, you should have seen me as I attempted (and occasionally succeeded) to keep the camera steady….

  6. Ted Curtis says:

    I saw him reading poetry at the Hammersmith Irish centre, it must have been late 90s, nothing since then.

  7. mistertrippy says:

    I did a reading with John Healy and others under the banner Subversion In The Street Of Shame at The Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street back in the mid/late 1990s…. And he has some small pieces in the publication that accompanied that. He also did the novel I mentioned in the blog… And his book about chess was published in The Netherlands a couple of years ago…..

    @ Douglas Park – Yeah it is true across the culture industry…. but this is a film about a writer…

    @ Paul Duane – that makes sense of the feet but I still find the cut really shocking because of that juxtaposition…. Am I too tuned into looking at posture?

  8. Paolo Luzi says:

    I love your review, Trip; love that guy; love the docu-trailer on YT; love that movie’s torrent. I’m full of love this night!

  9. mistertrippy says:

    Hope y’all get to see it. The film was on at the Panton Street Odeon and screened as part of the Open City documentary film festival in London on Friday – but I’m sure there will be more screenings… and I guess eventually some kind of DVD/download release….

  10. The Cambridge Spy says:

    Robert McCrum is a very stupid and unpleasant man.

  11. Michael Roth says:

    Sounds like an interesting film. I’m not that familiar with Healy but now I will certainly track down The Glass Arena and Streets Above US (lucky for me, my library has both). Unfortunately, I will need to make do with the trailer as I wait for the film to jump over to Canada (or DVD or VOD).

  12. mistertrippy says:

    The director Paul Duane organised the UK theatrical release (May 2012 or there abouts) himself…. and I know there is no DVD releasee lined up right now but he’s planning on it eventually… I guess he’d need somebody to pick the film up for Canada and/or USA for theatrical distribution as that would be hard to organise from Dublin (he personally delivered the film for the London screenings)…. He’s sold a few TV rights so that’s maybe the other way you’ll get to see it sooner rather than later (if Canadian TV picks it up soon))…..

  13. Ada Thompson says:

    All the English editors on this movie look like total plonkers – & Colin McCabe what a dipshit!

  14. Jilly Johnson says:

    But for a posh boy Erwin James is pretty cute!

  15. Steve says:

    “He fell out with his publishers Faber and Faber in the early nineties over nothing very much” – if it doesn’t spoil the documentary, can you be more specific?

  16. mistertrippy says:

    It appears Healy wanted Faber to account for royalties that he thought he was owed – although this isn’t entirely clear from the documentary or newspaper reports of the time: ultimately it seems no one is sure exactly what the problem was although Healy wasn’t asking about anything it would be unusual for an inexperienced author to ask about.

    Anyway he wanted some explanation of what was happening with his book in English and various translations and as a result all the editors and management refused to speak to him. He then told Megan Larkin who was in charge of translations and who was the only person at the company still speaking to him that he was so frustrated that no one else would talk to him he wanted to chop their heads off with an axe.

    What was clearly intended metaphorically was conveyed to the editors and they took this glib comment literally and someone at Faber passed the story to the press who ran with it…. Robert McCrum kept the ridiculous story that Healy is a violent psychopath going when he moved from Faber to working at the Observer newspaper, where he reran it in the intro to an overview of his publishing ‘career’ around 2004 and in a section of the paper he edited in around 2007… Since this is all bullshit I thought it better to simply say what I said rather than repeat a bunch of vindictive lies put about by Robert McCrum among others….

  17. Steve says:

    Cheers. I can’t believe that passed me by. Then again, I never read the Observer.

  18. Luther Blissett says:

    Robert McCrum Is Stupid!

  19. Pete Findlay says:

    The literary establishment is pathetic!

  20. Uncle Ben says:

    Literature is dead! Burn the libraries baby!

  21. Michael Roth says:

    Libraries are dead! Burn the baby literature!

  22. Willow says:

    The people present on Friday June 22nd came to see John Healy. His story is the draw. To be in the presence of a writer whose work affects one’s attitudes permanently is a privelige. I didn’t travel to listen to an ill-tempered ,poorly-stated incoherent rant at Robert McCrum from someone I’d never heard of .BBC Radio 3’s recent interview with Healy afforded him the respect he deserves. Future panellists and co-speakers would do well to remember this modus operandi. The only refence to Penguin regarding John should be in relation to Classics, who recognise The Grass Arena as a unique work of great importance. To criticise his walk,having seen him gracefully descend a flight of stairs in the theatre on Friday ,smacks of SchadenFraude. Perhaps the organisers and agents of further screenings will select a speaker capable of a brief, respectful introduction of this great writer.

  23. mistertrippy says:

    I’m reviewing Barbaric Genius here – not John Healy’s first book or his public appearance last Friday – so I deal with what is in the film. I wouldn’t bother mentioning John’s otherwise unremarkable walk were it not cut against a sequence of him doing yoga. Among other things I say: “Healy walks with a gait that is typical of a Londoner of his class and gender…”

    There is nothing unusual in the way Healy walks in that sequence as I make clear – but it elicits comment because of what it is cut against, not because his walk is any worse or even different (it isn’t) than that of the majority of people from his background. However it is common knowledge that yoga is supposed to teach what its practitioners view as ‘correct’ body alignment and it is not unreasonable to assume that the director is making a point when he follows a yoga sequence with a shot of Healy walking in a way that fails to match yogic ideas about correct body alignment.

    The juxtaposition is to me very striking and I felt the director Paul Duane should be given credit for that. The film is not randomly cut together – although obviously given Paul’s comments (above in this thread) there is probably room for a discussion of how conscious he was of the implications of each and every edit he made.

    Your assertion that “(t)he people present on Friday June 22nd came to see John Healy” is stupid – it may or may not be true for you but it certainly wasn’t for the entire audience. A few people came to see John Healy (as was evident from their questions), some people came to see the director Paul Duane (as was also evident from some of the questions), and it would seem some people only came to see the film since they walked out during the talk. Others were there representing Camden council and when I spoke to them before the screening it became clear at least some of them knew nothing about John Healy or the film. The showing of Barbaric Genius on 22 June was as part of a film festival and people who bought passes to see all the screenings that day did so because they were interested in contemporary documentary cinema rather than John Healy.

    John and Paul failed to meet me when they were supposed to do so before the screening to discuss what we were going to do after – I didn’t ask them why, these things happen. John then started speaking before I could introduce him and I didn’t know where Paul was and why he didn’t arrive at the stage at the same time as John. I arrived onstage without having been given a mike and when I got one it was badly adjusted with a lot of echo on it – again these things happen and it isn’t any big deal to me. Given how things panned out I had to improvise and figured it was best to leave John and to a lesser extend Paul (when he turned up – I was told later he’d gone off to find a mike because he hadn’t been given one either) to do most of the talking. So that’s what I did. I didn’t think it was worth introducing John after he’d already introduced himself – so all I did was ask him a question and then took questions from the audience. If you didn’t like this tough – I did what I thought best in a less than perfect situation. Despite this in my opinion both screening and the Q&A were a success.

    Finally a friend who is as puzzled by some of the comments on this blog as I am reminded me that in one of his books Iain Sinclair provides a description of my gait similar to mine of John Healy’s walk here. I’d forgotten this precisely because I couldn’t care less about it – and as a consequence I find some of the reactions to this blog post peculiar. If Willow really believes Healy is as good a writer as s/he seems to be claiming here, then s/he really shouldn’t need to react in the way s/he has to what I’ve written above. But then again I guess most (if not all) trolls are completely irrational.

  24. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    In the 1990s I was a neighbour of Robert McCrum. He didn’t know me but I knew him and his mediocre writing. I had an uncontrollable urge to smash him in the face and kick his stick away as he shuffled around the local newsagent’s recovering from a stroke. Whatever you say about John Healy’s gait, it’s superior to McCrum’s – ditto any comparison between their prose.

    At this time I thought that the number 23 was out to get me – not just the bus but the number itself in whatever context (door numbers, dates etc). During this period I was addicted to cocaine, red Corbieres and serial monogamy. Needless to say, I was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

    This probably accounts for why, having in my mind head-butted McCrum to the Angel pavement – the newsagent’s was on St Peter’s St in Islington – I would then spit in his tracheotomy, so confusing him with John Diamond, victim of throat cancer and of his wife Nigella Lawson’s home cooking. Since she married Charles Saatchi he’s refused her food and got very thin eating only canapes at the personal views before the private views.

    During my great ’90s off period I also saw Iain Sinclair going through bins in N1 and and saw former St Peter’s St resident Salman Rushdie defying the fatwa and drinking in his local, the Duke of Cambridge before it was gastro-pubbed. The Satanic one would ghost U2 lyrics on beer-mats, and I even saw him in the newsagent’s or thought I did before I realised it was another bad writer from the area with a bad beard, Stephen Poliakoff.

    Rowan Williams was also in on this beard time-share. Like the baggy short-arse trouser time-share between Rushdie, Poliakoff and Alan Yentob, it’s a very complicated arrangment made more so by Steven Berkoff, formerly of Devonia Rd, just off St Peter’s. He doesn’t normally have a beard and narrowly avoids being a short-arse since moving to Narrow St in Limehouse but he does work in a team with Poliakoff doing slum clearance in Notting Hill for Peter Rachman. What a team: Steven and Stephen, hard cop and soft as shit cop. Hoogstraten learned a lot from them.

    As you’ve gathered, in the 1990s I thought the Angel was part of Notting Hill where I was living in a ‘menage a trois’ with Tom Vague, Aatrid Proll, Luke Haines and Michel de Certeau (d 1986). Paranoid schizophrenia plays havoc with numeracy skills and time-lines. Plus I was in love with Rushdie’s second wife Marianne Wiggins the novelist.

    I haven’t read a word of hers but more to the point I couldn’t fully commit to her until I’d checked her legs out. They proved as elusive as those of Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson though for different reasons: I never saw Marianne on St Peter’s St in the flesh and Smith and Wesson are always in trousers. Anyway, slowly but surely I’ve fallen out of love with Marianne – so farewell, and anyway Cerys Matthews is more my type.

    My cure – of the sweet sickness as well as madness in general – is partly to do with becoming an Albigensian heretic in 2004 after staring at a Giorgione painting in Venice for eight hours. I was instructed to thus gaze by the burglar Bull Boardman who faked Leach pots while in prison. I met him upon his release and after a tv chat show he told me that he knew that I knew that he was a Cathar.

    I now no longer holiday in Biarritz but Cathar Country within spitting distance of Beziers. In London I live happily on Broaddhurst Terrace where I own three properties. I live in the ground-floor flat of one of them and rent the rest out. It’s a great location, handy for the Moonlight in West Hampstead where Joy Division have a residency.

    Life is good or I thought it was until I saw BARBARIC GENIUS. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine piece of work and great to see Healy and his writing get their due, plus a little birdie who migrates between Broadmoor and Broadhusrt, tells me that I am on the credits as befits a former delusional paranoiac.

    The problem with the film is seeing McCrum again, bringing it all back home – to St Peter’s St in the 1990s. How dare he make a meal of shuffling while I am waiting desperate to purchase my Monday Media Guardian. That mush was made for me to smash it in. Help me today fill in the smug blank faces of – there are so many: Amis, Mars-Jones, Colm Toibin, Jonathan Coe, Owen Sheers and on and on…

    I’ve just spotted that I am wearing a strait-jacket so I will only realise this bloody pulping of British literary fiction-writers’ faces if I head-butt them. I am not very good with my hands anyway, and certainly could never have faced John Healy in the ring. Mark Bolan would be more my level.

    I notice that I follow on from comment 23.

    Reading over my comment 24 puts me in mind of the work of Stewart Home. But where I am we copy his novels out longhand as part of our rehabilitation and therapy. As I said, life is good – sometimes but not the 23rd time…

  25. mistertrippy says:

    That nails it for me – I had thought of explaining that autobiography and memoir are problematic when treated as something other than fiction but this comment shows us that rather than says it. If you actually think The Grass Arena is a good piece of writing it is hardly necessary to defend the author when he is described as walking like a working class Londoner (and let’s face it he is a working class Londoner). It is only those who think the writing on its own is not enough and needs to be ‘authenticated’ through a ‘defence’ of its author against descriptions of him being working class who would make this ‘classic’ mistake.

    Talking of ‘classics’ we all ought to know that putting this label on a book is just a marketing ploy – and also tends to freeze the work in the past rather than letting its influence grow in the present and future. We ought to be confident enough of our own judgements to be able to recognise good writing ourselves; and not rely on the marketing departments of publishers to con us into believing a work is a ‘classic’. The communities from which cultures emerge are way more important than cultural objects – and likewise influence is of far more significance than recognition. As for privilege – well that’s a product of the class system that has held John Healy and so many others like him back!

  26. Lucy Johnson says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McCrum

    We are talking about this geezer I assume. Your points are interesting as I went to school (comprehensive) with a number of these characters-not wanting to name names at this point-their parents would describe themselves as ‘socialists’-but they are loaded (not that it is necessarily a contradiction in terms). The bunch of them are feather bedded and now churning out middle of the road best selling novels, biographies of War Poets, crummy movies (I won’t name) and so on. Hmmmm. Thank God for Mr Trippy is all I can say.

  27. mistertrippy says:

    Yes that’s the Robert McCrum we’re talking about. Strangely the Wikipedia entries for his wife and father seem more critical than the one of him. The entry for his wife Sarah Lyall is very short and aside from identifying her as a journalist the main information it contains is this:

    “In March 2011, the New York Times and Lyall were embarrassed, when an article said that the new Irish Prime Minister was female. The Article which was attributed to Lyall said “The only thing that makes this highly embarrassing mistake (slightly) less embarrassing, at least from my perspective, is that it was not in fact committed by me. I sent Mr Kenny to New York as a ‘Mr’; an editor there seems to have randomly and unilaterally assigned him a new gender. We’ve now fixed it. I really apologise”. The incident received widespread publicity.”

    As for Bob’s father Michael William McCrum – it appears to me someone who has contributed to his Wikipedia entry really doesn’t like him:

    “McCrum left Cambridge in 1962 to become headmaster of Tonbridge School, where he made a good reputation and transformed the school, emphasising academic standards and implementing sweeping reforms, including the abolition of the old traditions of fagging and caning (corporal punishment) of junior boys by praeposters (senior boys). However, he did not abolish caning by masters, and made considerable use of it himself….”

    “….In 1970 he became Head Master of Eton College, a post arguably more prestigious but curiously one that allowed less initiative or authority than at Tonbridge, though it did still allow him to cane boys…”

    The citation for the info on caning is footnoted to McCrum senior’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2009) and an article by Richard Bourne entitled “Eton’s topper” (The Observer 2 December 1969). Odd that there should be so much emphasis on McCrum senior’s use of corporal punishment in his Wikipedia entry (and if this entry is to be believed other biographical sketches of him – I haven’t checked these ‘original’ sources myself). Someone is either trying to tell readers something or else is making trouble. I knew little about Robert McCrum’s family before checking Wikipedia just now so I don’t know what to make of this. Presumably there are people around in a position to make informed comment about it.

  28. Lucy Johnson says:

    How strange. I shall have a look. I suppose any one can post on Wikipedia from any motivation and that is the beauty of it…

  29. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    Now I know why I can’t stand Robert McCrum’s mush: he looks like a Cane Toad. I wonder what the wife looks like? I never saw him stepping out with a woman on St Peter’s St. But that could be because I was too busy looking out for Marianne Wiggins. I still wonder about her legs. Could they be better than those of Bradley Wiggins the cyclist?

  30. mistertrippy says:

    There’s nothing like a strong pair of legs – that’s why I make sure I lunge around with a barbell on my shoulders once a week or so, aside from also being a dedicated cyclist….

    For the record I thought all the editors featured in Barbaric Genius came over very badly…. It is just that Duane clearly frames McCrum as the major villain of the piece. But none of the editors look good. As a director Duane does a really good job of spiralling out from Healy – as the thread running through his documentary – to other matters and issues.

    @ Lucy Johnson – yes anyone can edit Wikipedia and this has up and down sides but despite the downs overall I think it is a good thing!

  31. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    Healy’s editor at Faber lives in a fantasy world where there’s a ‘sturdy beggar’ around every corner and the ‘dangerous classes’, at the drop of a bonnet rouge, will take over the world. In the Faber mindset a bit of proletarian banter from Healy becomes a death threat.

  32. mistertrippy says:

    Colin McCabe looks like a right plank in Barbaric Genius too!

  33. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    McCabe is as much wind as wood – talk about hot-air. I once had the misfortune to talk to him over the phone – and what a brusque self-important manner he had. He didn’t know me from Adam Ant and was in fact ringing the office to talk to my then boss Antoine Le Mur. I took a message but played the fool asking him to spell his name. In a different context I once did the same to Elton John when I pretended to hear his name as ‘Eton’. Some days later the little tub got hold of the person he really wanted to talk to and said: There’s a psychopath in your house answering the phone. Too true.

  34. mistertrippy says:

    But Deborah Orr didn’t come across too badly in Barbaric Genius…..

  35. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    It must have been the make-up talking.

  36. mistertrippy says:

    To misquote Dylan on money (and why would I want to quote him correctly?): “Make-up doesn’t talk it smears!”

  37. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    Did Orr have a smears test after the interview?

  38. mistertrippy says:

    Although I can’t answer your question with a yes or no, Paul Duane told me most of the Orr interview metaphorically ended up on the cutting room floor. So it could be seen as manicured….

  39. The Man in the Iron Mask says:

    A Cub Boy Scout once offered to manicure Orr’s lawn but she misunderstood him and hit him over the head with a bottle. He never did any more bob-a-jobs,

  40. Richard Kovitch says:

    So where does the ‘truth’ lie? Well where do you want it to lie? Barbaric Genius’s great strength is it proposes satisfying explanations for what drives Healy whilst sparing him the indignities of the full media autopsy that is de rigueur in tabloid culture. As David Shields observed when discussing the rise of the memoir as a dominant literary form in the late 00s: “Memory is a dream machine. Nonfiction isn’t ‘true’. It’s a framing device to foreground contemplation.”

    Barbaric Genius is a brilliant re-framing of Healy’s ‘history’; whether we really know him now who can say, but we are certainly wiser. And so we’re left to revisit The Grass Arena with renewed urgency. Healy may yet again return to the shadows, but the portrait Duane has presented in Barbaric Genius feels nothing less than definitive.