How a Pawn Became a King. John Healy has gone from homeless alcoholic, to chess champion, to prize-winning writer. INTERVIEW: BRITISH AUTHOR
LONDON — `NO one is born in the gutter,'' John Healy states firmly. He ought to know. He's been there. For 15 years Healy, now 46, lived what he himself would describe as the lowest form of human existence. He was one of London's vagrant alcoholics. Home was a grim, muddy park where legions of the city's outcasts congregate. Bed was a littered doorway, or the damp floorboards of a building long abandoned by all but rats and tattered men.
He drank whatever he could get his hands on. Sometimes it was alcohol rub diluted with water taken from a toilet bowl in a public lavatory.
He remembers it as a living hell. Each day was a constant round of dodging fellow drunks wielding broken bottles, begging, stealing, and, above all, skirting the fate that befalls most of his ilk - a sudden, senseless death. The only respite from the alcoholic ``shakes,'' perpetual hunger, and the filth - he often went months without changing his clothes or taking a bath - was bouts in prison.
It was there, in fact, something happened that was little short of miraculous. While serving a year-long sentence for drunken violence, a fellow inmate taught Healy how to play chess. Their board was a pencil sketch on a bench; the pieces were bits of paper which he kept tucked away in his socks.
WITHIN a week, Healy had become ``besotted with chess,'' he recalls, ``ate it, drank it, dreamed about it. It had replaced everything in my mind ... and for the first time in my life I began to live without a constant, nagging desire for a drink.''
That was 16 years ago. He went on to become a British chess tournament champion, capable of simultaneously playing four games blindfolded - and winning them all.
With virtually no formal education and an impoverished background, Healy astounded the British chess elite. His success is ``outstanding,'' concludes William Hartston, one of Britain's top players, ``for someone who came to the game at the age of 30 - quite apart from his earlier history.''
But that isn't the end of the story. After a growing disenchantment with professional chess - the aggression of 12 grueling hours of match play every day began ``eating me alive,'' he says, not unlike alcohol once did - he decided to try his hand at writing. The result is a recently published autobiography, ``The Grass Arena'' (London: Faber & Faber, 9.95; also Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, $19.95).
Now it's the literary world's turn to be stunned by Healy. Earlier this month he was awarded Britain's highest award for autobiography, the J.R. Ackerley Prize.
Colin McCabe, an English literature professor and head of production at the prestigious British Film Institute, admits to being ``simply staggered'' by the book when he first read it.
``There is no equivalent to it in the English language that deals with such an extreme form of poverty, about people you regularly see on the streets, but don't really know exist, and written by someone from the very bottom social class of society,'' says McCabe, who praises the book's ``pared and powerful prose.''
``But what is perhaps even more astonishing,'' he adds, ``is [Healy's] honesty: That someone has gone through all of this physical and mental degradation of complete alcoholism and the privations of vagrancy, without any degree of self-promotion, is quite extraordinary.''
Upon completing this first work, Healy has gone on to write articles for national periodicals, a handful of plays (currently being considered for TV adaptation), plus a novel, soon to be published.
In an interview at London's elegant Waldorf Hotel, Healy greets a reporter with friendly informality. This is a man utterly devoid of airs. Quick to laugh, he reveals large gaps where teeth once were. Years of fighting - first as a promising boxer, then as a drunken down-and-out - left their mark.
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.
``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.''