John Healy, ex-street drinker turned chess enthusiast, was the guest writer at Blackwell’s “Author Event” last Friday.
His story is extraordinary - growing up as the son of Irish immigrants in 1950s London, Healy had to contend with an abusive father at home and anti-Irish racism at school. A promising boxing career collapsed under an early and increasing addiction to alcohol, leading to a rapid descent into the chaotic life of the street drinker. Later, during a routine spell in prison, a cell-mate (a Brighton burglar with the improbable name of ‘Harry the Fox’) taught him how to play chess. Healy found an alternative addiction (“chess took over my mind”) and a means of redemption.
Friday’s event began with Healy reading a passage from his autobiography, The Grass Arena, recently republished as a Penguin Classic. The matter-of-fact monotone delivery belied the unfolding drama which began with a drink, moved imperceptibly through arrest on suspicion of murder and, almost as imperceptibly, back to the street and the search for the next drink. Although I haven't yet read the book, this excerpt suggested a rare gift for storytelling with a strong sense of authenticity which captured the voices, sounds, smells and casual brutality of this largely hidden world.
Healy came to life during the question and answer session, telling sharp-humoured anecdotes, including one about the probation officer who had become a lord (and who turned out to be in the back row) and who had encouraged him to write. Answering a question from the audience, he said that he had been inspired by reading Camus' The Outsider - “I never knew that you could write like that”.
Someone asked Healy whether he was aware of how inspirational he was - how his life showed that there's “always a way back”. He wasn’t sure that there is always a way back, although he thought that younger people might have a better chance: a reality check and a reminder that there are no simple solutions.
This was a gem of an event - better than many of the pretentious and lacklustre contributions that have littered recent Oxford Literary Festivals.