Tuesday, October 15, 2013

John Healy - "redemption in prison through chess"

Here is a brief insight into the life of John Healy from an article in the Guardian:

"Healy's life was broken almost before it had a chance to begin. Born in London in 1943 to poor Irish immigrants, he had a childhood that was blighted by violence and rejection, first from his rabidly religious father and later from bigger children on their bombsite playgrounds, who subjected him to beatings "at least once a week". His drinking began in earnest to relieve his "tension" even before he left school aged 14 ... After a taste of military prison and a dishonourable discharge he went back into the spiral that led ultimately to the Grass Arena, the park where Healy led the wildest existence alongside other degenerates, beggars, conmen, thieves and killers - all dependent on alcohol sourced by any means possible."

 Not your typical chess player then. 

I bought a chess book that he wrote and reviewed it below. I now intend to buy his autobiography "The Grass Arena" which is referred to in the following fascinating synopsis for a film that has been made of his life called "Barbaric Genius", thus:

Chess "became his new addiction. Alcohol was left behind. He became a rated chess player and a famous writer, for a time the darling of the British media. Then John Healy disappeared.

Stories emerged to fill the vacuum, dark stories; he’d made threats of awful violence towards his publishers – he was mentally ill – a psychopath. Filmmaker Paul Duane avidly followed these rumours. Healy’s book had made an enormous impression on him when it was originally published. It seemed extraordinary that its author could disappear. What happened to silence this man so soon after he discovered his literary voice?

In 2006, Paul Duane found John Healy. Far from the feral, potentially violent savant he’d been lead to expect, Healy turned out to be an articulate, angry, often hilarious raconteur, but also a man whose intense paranoia seemed always on the verge of devouring everything around him. Healy claimed he’d been silenced by a whispering campaign led by his own publishers. His books had been purposely allowed to go out of print, some of them pulped. He said there was a conspiracy to portray him as a street psycho, a drunk with a grudge against those more successful than him.

How true could this be? Surely a successful author, no matter how complicated his personal life, would never suffer this kind of persecution? The truth turned out to be a fascinating mesh of class, money, art and fiction, a clash of cultures, defining the Irish immigrant experience in Britain as something that the country’s ruling classes still haven’t quite managed to absorb.

During the years that Duane filmed with John Healy, his life started to change. This forgotten man was rediscovered. The Grass Arena came back into print, rescued by an American editor who knew nothing of and cared less about the insidious way the system conspired to pretend the book had never existed. A new generation got a chance to discover John’s dark narrative and experience his ambiguous redemption through chess and meditation.

Barbaric Genius is the first film to tell the story of a man whose journey has dragged him down to the greatest depths imaginable. A man whose strength of will enabled him to escape the fate his poverty and his class had prepared for him. A man who still struggles to understand his own extraordinary life, whose daily practice of Buddhist meditation is sometimes all that protects him from a crushing despair at the way his promising literary career was stolen from him.

With access to John’s archive, we have pieced together the evidence that shows his paranoia is based on something very real – a subtle conspiracy of class and education against a man whose aura of danger made him briefly fashionable. But in the end, John Healy just wasn’t ‘one of us’, and his fate was to be shrugged off – thrown back into the oblivion he’d struggled so hard to escape.

And here is the review that I promised you ...

Coffeehouse Chess TacticsCoffeehouse Chess Tactics by John Healy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A set of interesting positions from Healy's own games for you to solve. Each position has an accompanying short piece of text eg how the game came to be played or, oftentimes, an interesting anecdote. The positions illustrate a wide variety of strategies.

If you are wondering about whether the book stands as a chess book in its own right, it probably depends whether you like the sort of chess book which provides a chess position to be solved on every page (along with a solution which can easily be covered up so you don't see the answer in advance).

Chess books are hard work anyway, methinks! This one is capable of rejuvenating your interest if you have got a little disheartened at your lack of enjoyment (not to mention lack of progress!) in the 'Royal Game'.

View all my reviews

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