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John Healy and The Grass Arena

John Healy and The Grass Arena – Craig O Reilly tells us about the new book “The Grass Arena” a biography about author and chess master John Healy

The last time he was in prison, John Healy met a man named “the fox”, who spoke to him at length  on the joys of chess. Hoping to entice him to play, he put the game in perspective of something he thought Healy might understand, in this case burglary:

“What else is it but breaking and entering when you force your way into your opponents castled position, hijack his pieces, steal his pawns and abduct his Queen in broad daylight?” 

Agreeing that he had nothing better to do, Healy gave the game a try, and the experience would change his life. His cell-mates analogy was certainly an unusual one; that of stealing and taking scraps. But it seems to have made a strong impression on Healy. In chess he found something that consumed him even more than alcohol. He played so much chess that in his own words “the drink gave me up”. 

He was thirty when he became a chess champion, and though Healy admits he was too old to attain the level of Grand-master, many of his unusual and unorthodox strategies made their way into a book which became chess book of the year; “Coffee House Chess Tactics.” In its pages the reader finds many anecdotes not just about chess but about the author’s life.

The child of Irish immigrants in London, Healy’s early years had been a constant struggle. In his book which went on to become something of a modern classic, it’s made clear very early on that he had a homesickness for Ireland:

There’s a sort of calmness that seems to come out of the grass and the ditches and the mossy banks. Lonely mists that suddenly spread over the fields give an old feeling, cosy and warm.”

His home in London however, is described as a pile of decrepit bricks. He was in constant fights as a child, and he suffered from restlessness and only found an outlet in boxing. His greatest battle  seems to have been with alcohol. Healy describes a descent lower and lower with alcohol that took him from the saloon bars to the streets and eventually to what he calls “The Grass Arena”; a violent existence he spent living in parks for many years. 

Even after having given up his pursuit of becoming a Chess grand-master, memories of John Healy’s earlier life came back to him in vivid, almost cinematic quality. He started to write scenes from his earlier life out in long-hand. At that time in London, begging was illegal. It carried a prison sentence of anything up to three years for repeat offenders. Many homeless men and women at the time resorted to committing other felonies like mugging and burglary. The constant drinking and day to day struggle for survival took its toll on Healy:

“I began getting memory blackouts. It started to worry me-waking up not knowing what I’d done the day before, who I was with, where I’d been, whether I’d committed a crime. I usually had. But had it been a big or a little one? I also began wetting the bed.”

When Healy describes all of this in his memoir, The Grass Arena, it’s a tough read, not because of the words he uses which are without any sugar-coating affectation, but rather the honesty with which he describes his experiences. 

There are very few books which capture living rough in such detail. George Orwell’s ‘Down and out in Paris and London’ has often been hailed as a useful book about poverty, but George Orwell came from quite a well-off background, and throughout that book it is clear that Orwell’s project is investigative, someone deciding to experience poverty. 

By contrast, Healy’s memoir is far more genuine because it’s an existence that was essentially forced on him. No one ever gave him any encouragement, and its clear from the talent he displayed in writing books on chess and his prose work, that he had a sharp, almost over-active mind. Many who fall into the depths of despair in life do so not because they are dull or stupid, but often because they are actually intelligent, yet their talents have never been encouraged. This seems to have been the case for Healy. Anyone who reads his work can see that mind laboring to remember things with clarity that most of us would forget in a day or two. He describes everything in detail and he also speaks of how he and those around him became desensitised to violence:

“One thing that impressed me was that they did not care what anyone had done in drink or otherwise the day before. They were immune to shock”

Though his memoir went out of print for a time, it was republished by Penguin in 2008 with a new forward by Daniel Day Lewis who praised Healy’s writing; “There is no perceptible distance between the words, which seem to have chosen themselves, and the experience from which they blossomed like a Garden of Wildflowers. Armed to the teeth with his wit and self-knowledge he takes us to that other place, his grass arena, the one which we pass how many times in any given day, averting our eyes.”

John Healy has somewhat dropped off the radar in recent times after a frenzy of media interest in the late nineties, but his story is as current today as ever, with people living in disparity in Ireland and abroad. Those who fall through the cracks rarely get to write about things from their own point of view. In that respect, John Healy’s story is a triumph.

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