Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I rattled through another book today. John Healy’s The Grass Arena is, I’ll have you know, a Penguin Modern Classic. It’s one of those new-fangled autobiographies but is not for the fainthearted. Essentially, Healy tells a tale of his hugely violent and horrifying childhood which unsurprisingly leads to years and years of alcohol abuse, criminality, brutality and, interspersed with numerous spells in forbidding prisons, the unrelenting misery of living rough on the unforgiving streets of this nation’s capital. The ‘grass arena’ of the title refers to the parks where Healy and an ever-changing cast of vagrants, no-hopers and vicious felons meet, drink, pop pills and inflict mayhem on each other and society as a whole. It’s a wretched and miserable picture but Healy’s honest and fascinating prose renders the whole sorry tale compelling. There are glimpses of hope throughout the narrative. A successful fledging boxing career and a brief sojourn in the army provide glimmers of optimism but alcohol and an inability to conform utterly ruin the fellow’s chances. As it is, an unexpected addiction to the game of chess, learnt in prison, saves Healy. His dependence on the intricacies of the black and white squares replaces a reliance on liquor; remarkably Healy becomes a hugely successful and skilful player and, although never fully accepted in the rather middle class and traditional world of club chess, relishes the cut and thrust of match play. A discovery of yoga helps the author put his alcoholic past even further behind him and, although this is not implicitly mentioned in the book, a flair for writing completes the journey from complete desolation to something approaching peaceful and uneventful normality. Healy now lives frugally in a London council flat. He’s lucky to be alive, frankly. His story is principally bleak but, ultimately, one of courage and accomplishment.

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