John Healy

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

Life
1943- ; b. Kentish Town, N. London, of Irish parents; suffered violence from religious father; became paid sparring-partner at gym of George Francis; began drinking; joined the Army; became regimental boxing champion; served a term in a military prison; became an alcholic and lived as a down-and-out in London - an experience recounted in The Grass Arena; he was repeatedly sentenced to prison for petty crime incl. mugging, and occasionally framed at the convenience of the police (MET); met Harry the Fox at Pentonville and learned chess from him;
 
won tournaments on leaving prison, and played with Grand Masters; issued The Grass Arena, an account of his experience, ending in 1977; won the J. R. Ackerley autobiography prize; The Grass Arena was made into award-winning film dir. by Gillies Mackinnon, with Mark Rylance, Pete Postlethwaite and Lynsey Baxter (BBC 1991); publication by Faber stopped following a quarrel with the author; Healy ostracised by British publishers and remained unpub. in America, though publ. by Gallimard in France (as L’Arène) and in Germany (as Losgeslagen);
 

Healy discovered yoga and travelled to India; issued Streets Above Us (1990), a fictionalised sequel to The Grass Arena which follows the itinerary of the semi-autobiographical character Mo from addiction to literary success; Healy settled in Islington, caring for Alzheimer mother; read at Galway Festival, 2007; The Grass Arena repub. by Penguin Modern Classics series, July 2008; working on The Metal Mountain, an exploration of the Irish immigrant experience in the 1950s; also screen-plays incl. The Conqueror, set in the 11th century; a documentary, Barbaric Genius (Screenworks Films, 2010), dir. Paul Duane, was premiered at Dublin Film Festival, Feb., 2011, with the director and Healy in attendance.

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Works
Prose
  • The Glass Arena (London: Faber & Faber 1988, 1990), 208pp.; Do., as, The Grass Arena: An Autobiography (Oxford: Kingpin 2007), 194pp., ill. [Bibl. & Index).; and Do. intro. by Daniel Day-Lewis, with an afterword by Colin MacCabe [rev. & rep. in Penguin Modern Classics] (London: Penguin 2008), 259pp.
  • Streets Above Us (London: Macmillan 1990), 174pp.; Do. (London: Paladin 1991]), 200pp.
Also Coffee House Tactics (New in Chess 2010), 136pp.;
Video
  • The Grass Arena, dir. by Gillies Mackinnon, with Mark Rylance, Pete Postlethwaite and Lynsey Baxter (BBC 1991; off-air recording 95 mins.).
  • Barbaric Genius (dir. Paul Duane; [prod. Screenworks Films, 2010) [premiered at Jameson Dublin Film Festival, Feb. 2011].
The Grass Arena film awards:
  • Britain: Best British Feature Film, Edinburgh Film Festival, 1991
  • Britain: Golden Globe Award for Best TV Film, 1992
  • Britain: Two BAFTA Nominations, 1992
  • USA: Special Jury Prize, San Jose Festival, 1992
  • USA: Special Jury Award, San Francisco International Festival, 1992
  • France: First Prize and Special Jury Award, Dinard International Festival
  • Germany: Special Jury Award, Wurzburg International Festival
  • Spain: First Prize, San Sebastian International Festival
  • Czech Republic: Prague D’or and Special Jury Award, International Festival
—See The Grass Arena webpages - online; accessed 29.07.2011.

 

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Criticism
Erwin James, ‘Grass grows greener for John Healy’, in The Irish Times (18 Aug. 2008) [Guardian service]. There is an unofficial website at www.thegrassarena.net; last accessed 29.07.2011.

Grass Arena website includes links to articles & reviews ...
  • Robert Mulhern, ‘Cameras Rroll on the Vagrant Turned Genius’ [interview with Healy and Duane], in The Irish Post (2009);
  • Ronan Bennett & Daniel King on Chess: ‘Healy-Lee, Hammersmith Open 1974’, in The Guardian (10 July 2009) [a revisit to that game with an account of Healy - go to The Guardian direct];
  • Dee Connell, ‘What happened next?’ [interview], in The Observer (30 March 2003), Magazine Section - go to The Observer direct];
  • William Hartston, ‘The Beggar’s Gambit’, in unnamed source.
Other articles
  • The Fight, by John Healy [in association with Guinness];
  • John Kemp, ‘A Chequered Life’ [review];
  • California Film Feast Features The Grass Arena (1992);
  • Tim Sabel, ‘Wary Gladiator’, review;
  • review of Streets Above Us
  • Short notices - including Harold Pinter (ӝTerrific’) and Ken Loach (‘A wonderful book’)
—See The Grass Arena - online

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Quotations
The Grass Arena (1988): ‘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.’ (Given with other extracts on The Grass Arena website - online; see further extracts, attached.)

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The Grass Arena (1988): ‘Fear plays a large part and he who can produce the most fear gets the most drink for nothing. Everything and everyone is full of tension. There are no tomorrows; tomorrow can’t be relied upon to come in this vagrant society. Nothing can be taken for granted. Each day you have to prove yourself anew in toughness or lack of it, in stealing, fighting, begging and drinking.’ (Quoted in John Kemp, review of The Grass Arena, in Literary Review, Dec. 1988; see John Healy website - Articles [online].)

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References
Publisher’s note: John Healy, the son of poor Irish immigrants in London, grows up hardened by violence and soon finds himself overwhelmed by alcoholism. He ends up in the grass arena: the parks and streets of the inner city, where beggars, thieves, prostitutes and killers fight for survival and each day brings the question of where to find the next drink. In his searing autobiography Healy describes with unflinching honesty his experiences of addiction, his escape through learning to play chess in prison, and his ongoing search for peace of mind. / Healy was born into an impoverished, Irish immigrant family, in the slums of Kentish Town, North London. Out of school by 14, pressed into the army and intermittently in prison, Healy became an alocholic early on in life. Despite these obstacles Healy achieved remarkable, indeed phenomenal expertise in both writing and Chess, as outlined in the autobiographical The Grass Arena. (See COPAC online; publisher’s note.)

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Notes
Penguin Classic: Adam Freudenheim is the New Tork-based editor of the Penguin Classics series, to whom Healy sent The Grass Arena in early 2008, never previously issued in America; Irwin James apparently acted as an intermediary in securing the publishing contract.

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