Thomas Healy: An appreciation

I MET Thomas Healy, who died on November 11, aged 78, some 20 years ago at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He was a tall man in his fifties, quietly spoken, and there was a strong mutual attraction. I could never have guessed what an unusual, adventurous life he had led.

Born in the Gorbals, he had a happy childhood. He was captain of the school football team and was delighted to be chosen for a trial with the Scottish youth team. But on returning home with the news he learned that his father had died, aged 46, of a heart attack. Thomas never played football again and the direction of his life was changed by his father’s death.

His main interest was boxing. He went from frequenting boxing gyms in the Gorbals as a youth to going to New York and watching the great heavyweights train in Brooklyn – Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier amongst them – and in later life he wrote many boxing articles and reported on boxing matches for the Glasgow Herald.

Once, on a visit to New York, he tried to enlist for US military service in Vietnam but, luckily, was ineligible as he was not an American citizen. On one of his travels he ended up living with gypsies in Spain; and on a break to Amsterdam he joined a group of rich Americans who were driving to India. This ended badly, as they got lost and ended up in Afghanistan, penniless.

His new friends were able to return home but Thomas was left behind. A village farmer gave him a bed in return for helping out with heavy manual tasks. He received a small wage but after a few months he sneaked away during the night as the farmer was loath to let him go. It took him three months to hitchhike back to Scotland.

He got a lucky break in his twenties when he sent a short story to the Glasgow Herald. The editor took a liking to him, printing many of his stories and giving him a few freelance assignments. His involvement with the Herald gradually ended.

Thomas’s thirties went by in a blur as he was in and out of work and romances. His life changed for the better, however, when a film producer paid to use one of his short stories. With his payment, and on a drunken whim, he bought a Doberman pup, which he named Martin. Thomas up to then had no sense of responsibility but Martin needed to be fed, walked and trained.

He took up the challenge, so cut back on his drinking and holidayed in caravans so that man and dog were always together. He even took Martin to his weekly novenas; nobody batted an eye as they sat quietly at the back of the church.

Then he started writing again. His memoir, I Have Heard You Calling in the Night, about the redeeming power of the love between man and dog, allowed him, even after Martin, to move on and become a better, stronger man. The book was quite successful and printed in the United States and translated into Italian. He received a Waterstone book award and the Royal Literary Fund gave him annual bursaries as a writer of merit.

He also wrote a book about boxing, The Hurting Business, and two novels, It Might Have Been Jerusalem, and Rolling. The former wove the story of Healy’s own colourful life with accounts of the great heavyweight boxing matches of the last 50 years.

Again, however, life changed dramatically for Thomas. When he was in his 50s his mother had a stroke and, against doctor’s advice, Thomas brought her home from a dismal care home. For a year, with the help of daily nursing visits and his sister, he made sure his mother never ended her days in a care home. She died after a year and he also lost his dog, Martin, at the same time.

He was drinking himself into oblivion and his sister, in desperation, asked him to join the total abstinence group, the Pioneers. To encourage him, she and his good friend Davie Jackson joined as well. He never touched alcohol again.

He often said if he could start his life again he would never touch a drop of alcohol and be a better son, as in his younger days

he had given his mother a lot of heartbreak, though he more than made up for this in later life.

Throughout it all she was always proud of her big son. Her death three years ago was a devastating blow for Thomas and he took it very hard. Since then he still loved travelling but became disillusioned with writing and trying to get his work published. But I have to say that he changed my life.