How a Pawn Became a King. John Healy has gone from homeless alcoholic, to chess champion, to prize-winning writer. INTERVIEW: BRITISH AUTHOR
(Page 2 of 2)
Clad in jeans and a casual pullover, Healy soon makes it clear, with a dry quip, that such places as the Waldorf are not among his usual haunts. Although championship chess and, more recently, literary success are opening the doors of places once firmly closed to him, he emphasizes that he considers himself very much a denizen of London's working-class world. Residing for the last 16 years with his widowed mother (``more a best friend these days,'' he says) in subsidized public housing, he does acknowledge, however, that his newly found talents are transforming his life in ways he once viewed as inconceivable.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
``I thought that living as a drunk in the parks was my natural allocation in this life,'' he explains, ``that I had done something wrong to deserve to be there and that I just loved to drink and couldn't help it - and that there was no way I was ever going to get out of that existence.'' But ``The Grass Arena'' is not a didactic account of self-destruction. Rather, it is a gripping depiction of the human spirit at its worst. And, ultimately, at its finest.
HEALY grew up as the eldest son of the only Roman Catholic-Irish immigrant family in a Cockney, north London neighborhood where everyone was working-class; everyone was poor. But the Healys met with the prejudices that working-class Irish continue to face in some parts of England even to this day. He was taunted and beaten up by the older neighborhood boys, and frequently ridiculed by their parents. Home offered no refuge: his laborer father would kick or punch him until bloody for the slightest provocation, real or imagined.
Healy sneaked his first drink at age 14. It was then he discovered that the debilitating tension he had been carrying around all of his young life could be lifted, albeit temporarily.
OVER the next few years, alcohol came to rule his life, resulting in a dishonorable discharge from the army, dismissal from laboring jobs, and severance of all contact with his family, who had grown to regard him as a disgrace.
After one particularly horrific drinking binge, vividly described in his book, Healy awoke to find himself ``surrounded by a load of winos and alcoholics,'' in the dismal park where he was to spend most of the next decade of his life. ``It was a cold day,'' he writes, ``empty of laughter, empty of spirit, empty of everything.''
In his dramatic move from social pariah to burgeoning literary personality, Healy confides it is the interpersonal skills that have proved the hardest to master. Engaging in ``normal'' conversation, giving and receiving simple acts of kindness, allowing his face to show commonplace emotions, all still have to be consciously worked at.
``Before, I only had my aggression to relate with,'' he explains. ``In the parks we'd fight over nothing - to the death. And there's a lot of loneliness there. You haven't got any friends, really. Everyone is for himself; it's only a fa,cade of friendship. In the end, the bottle is the only friend. So you quickly have to learn not to display emotion, neither fear nor happiness, lest the one be prolonged, and the other snatched away.''
Clive Solely, now a leading Member of Parliament who first met Healy 20 years ago as a probation officer, has kept in close contact with him ever since. He puts Healy's turnaround in even sharper focus. In Mr. Solely's professional experience, exceedingly few vagrant alcoholics ever make it out of such an existence. That Healy managed not only to break the cycle, but rise so spectacularly above it, he notes ``is unique, beyond question.''