John Healy (author)

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John Healy is an Irish writer and former tournament chess player.

He was born in London in 1943[1] to Irish immigrant parents in London's Kentish Town. Leaving school at the age of 14, he spent his formative years in the army, where he had a successful boxing career. Dishonourably discharged for drunkenness and going absent without leave, Healy began a downward spiral that brought him into the subculture of London's homeless street drinkers. He spent fifteen years as a homeless alcoholic and was convicted of many petty crimes during this time.[1]


During one of his prison stretches he learned the game of chess from a fellow cellmate, Harry 'the Fox'. Finding that he had a special aptitude for the game, he decided to give up drinking and with the help of his Probation Officer, Clive Soley (now Clive Soley, Baron Soley), he made his first moves back into normal life. He has remained sober since.

His chess career continued for ten years and despite the ravages of his years spent on the streets he became a highly rated player, capable of conducting several games concurrently.

In 2010, his booklet "Coffeehouse chess tactics" was published by the well-known chess publishing house New in Chess.

The Grass Arena[edit]

Having given up his ambition of becoming a Grandmaster, Healy retired from tournament chess and began to write his life story, which was published in 1988 by Faber and Faber. The Grass Arena was instantly recognised as a classic of the memoir genre, and won many awards including the J. R. Ackerley Award for Literary Autobiography.

His second book, the novel Streets Above Us, fared less well and is currently out of print.


In 1990 The Grass Arena was filmed, and the film, also titled The Grass Arena, won many awards, principally the inaugural Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival .

A documentary about Healy's life and work, titled Barbaric Genius, directed by Paul Duane and produced by Screenworks Film and TV premiered at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in 2011.


Following a dispute with Faber and Faber in 1991, the book went out of print in the UK, and remained so until 2008. It remained in print, however, in France, where it is published by Gallimard.

The Grass Arena was republished in 2008 with a new introduction by actor Daniel Day-Lewis.


  1. ^ a b Saved by the book. The Guardian, 5 August 2008.


  • The Grass Arena: An Autobiography by John Healy Published by Penguin Classics ISBN 0-14-118959-2
  • Streets Above Us by John Healy Published by Paladin Books ISBN 978-0-586-09085-5

External links[edit]