From pawn to king and back again
John Healy overcame a deprived youth to find fame in both chess and literature, but success was ultimately fleeting, asks EOIN BUTLER
THE COUNCIL FLAT is a modest affair. There’s a yoga poster on the wall and a laptop computer sitting on a desk. The living space otherwise is frugal almost to the point of ostentatiousness. The old man who answers the door still has the rolling gait of a boxer, which he was in his youth, several lifetimes ago now.
In the early 1990s, he was dubbed a “smiling psychopath” in the press and shunned by polite society. But at 67, whatever menace he once exuded has long since faded. As he fills the kettle to make tea, he seems like any other unremarkable London-Irish pensioner.
But he isn’t. He is John Healy: erstwhile alcoholic vagrant; repeat violent offender; unlikely chess sensation; bestselling memoirist; and now the subject of a fascinating documentary, You Have Been Warned, which airs tomorrow night on RTÉ 1.
Violence permeates every chapter of Healy’s extraordinary story, from the physical abuse endured at the hands of his father as a child, through 15 years living rough on the streets of London.
“We lived in derelict buildings with lice and filth and rats,” he says. “We robbed our own kind and when there was nothing left to rob we went out and robbed others on the street.”
Frequent stints in prison meant the horrors of alcohol withdrawal, alleviated only by a £2 discharge grant and another bottle. When Healy was introduced to the game of chess in prison, the rudiments of street crime were the handle by which he came to understand it.
“Chess is a jealous lover,” he would write years later. “It would tolerate no other, especially in the form of too much drink. I gave myself to her completely, body and soul, and for the first time in my life I began to live without the constant nagging for drink.”
Healy was to become the unlikeliest of chess sensations in the 1970s, winning 10 major British championships, on one occasion forcing a draw from the then second best player in the world. But having taken up the game in his 30s, his most burning ambition was to prove elusive. “I wanted to be a grandmaster more than anything else,” he sighs. “But I started too late.”
In 1988, Healy’s autobiography, The Grass Arena, won the JR Ackerly prize for literary non-fiction. Its mesmerising and unflinching depiction of life among London’s vagrant underclass earned the author comparisons to Charles Bukowski. He was hailed by Harold Pinter and feted on television by Jonathan Ross. But just as sudden as his meteoric rise was his dramatic fall from grace.
In 1991, a front page story in the Guardiannewspaper reported that the police had to be called to the offices of publishers Faber Faber after an incident involving Healy. Management there ordered all remaining copies of The Grass Arenapulped and the book answered “out of print”.
“When soldiers get back from Vietnam, they get debriefed. Well, my head was like a warzone. But I’m just lowlife, so who was going to debrief me?” he says. “There were Chinese whispers going around. I still had ideas. I still had stuff I wanted to write. But no one would publish me.”
Healy would not find another publisher for two decades. “It was like something from one of those oppressive regimes,” he says. “If a writer from someplace else had been put out of print in his own country, they’d have invited him here. But because I’m from here, because I’m working class, they just silenced me. I had no voice.”
So what exactly happened that fateful afternoon? The full answer will be revealed in tomorrow night’s documentary. But the incident in question seems to have been poorly handled on both sides. Healy was undoubtedly a highly strung character who expressed his frustrations in the bluntest of terms. Having traded on his notoriety to sell the book, Healy feels, Faber could have been more sensitive to his personal situation. The most striking detail that emerges is how casually Healy was discarded.
“They came from their world,” he says now. “I come from mine. They didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them. But they could have tried.”
Today John Healy lives a quiet life. Having cared for his mother through the last years of her life, he now lives alone. He still plays chess occasionally, but only exhibition matches. He hopes the documentary will revive interest in his work and draw attention to his remaining unpublished works.
Looking back on his life, is there anything he’d do differently? There is a long sigh.
“There is and there isn’t. Would I have preferred an easier life? Obviously. I’d have loved to have grown up in a nice house, with nice family, gotten married and had kids. I’d have liked to have had a normal life. But it didn’t just turn out like that. So I don’t dwell on it now.”
You Have Been Warnedis on RTÉ 1 tomorrow at 10.15pm