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The Grass Arena: An Autobiography (Penguin Modern Classics)

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This is a tremendously violent world, bleak beyond respectable imaginings, a world that is kept hidden largely by the routinely violent institutions of court, prison, healthcare. He found something else, another addiction without harmful side effects and which brought him money and prizes and respect.

When I was a young boy, there was a chess tournament in our hometown and my eldest brother got the first prize while the second got the second place. I don't think I have more sympathy for the homeless - some of their crimes are appalling - but I don't have less sympathy - their lives are more hideous than I had imagined. It's reminiscent of some of Charles Bukowski's work, although - unlike Bukowski - John Healy had no safety net, no rented room, and no employment. Healy tells us enough about his childhood in a London Irish family with a brutal father and little money to understand how drink became both solace and security, but it’s his vivid description of complete alcohol dependency and life on the streets, told entirely without self-pity, that will stay long in the mind of anyone who reads The Grass Arena, together with the surprising development that leads to a most unlikely route away from the streets. Wow, what a book, feeling guilty for the one star rating already, but it was such a painful read that the only honest review for me would be 'didn't like it' hence the one star.

He ends up in the grass arena- the parks and streets of the inner city, where beggars, thieves, prostitutes and killers fight for survival and each day brings the question of where to find the next drink. He was abused by his religious parents for most of his childhood and became an alcoholic early on in life. The book is deadly effective at bringing the reader into the bowels of life in the underworld in an almost life changing way. I found Healy's early childhood, the time when he went to rural Ireland to visit relatives, and even his army days a good start.

To start at the end of it, I will add this book as a resource to keep away from me, “…middle-class men and women, clean and fresh, whom it didn’t seem possible life had touched, discussing in posh, educated voices the hardships that had been handed to them until, on the point of suicide, they had found…” X,Y,Z: whatever self-indulgent claptrap filled in for them the life that was missing.They gave him the opportunity to maybe feel he was fighting back against his abusive father and allowed him to draw the veil of alcoholism to one side; though one senses he stepped through it with all the limitations he’d always had. Healy manages to bring the characters out from the pages, and holds no punches on his accounts of the savage experiences of life on the streets.

According to sources online he is still sober although once he realized he would not make it to grandmaster he put his chess days behind him. John Healy’s gripping and visceral memoir of his life as a street alcoholic in London in the 1960s pulls no punches and immerses the reader in the filth, degradation, violence and crime of a down and out subculture that few of us can begin to imagine. He was a boxing champion by the time he was 16, was dishonorably discharged from the military and then lived the life of a wino in London. It bubbled up into his mouth, nothing could muffle the sound of the blood gurgling out between his fingers. This is a used book in good condition, meaning that it shows signs of wear but has no major defects.

Interesting story, if a bit repetitive with interesting thoughts regarding the role of chess and meditation. Armed to the teeth with his wit and self-knowledge he takes us to that other place, his grass arena, the one which we pass how many times in any given day, averting our eyes? It overlooked the grassy area that would undoubtedly have been like an arena for the winos, who are now evicted and unseen from those sipping cappuccinos with biscotti. As in Knut Hamsun's mighty book `Hunger', we are utterly compelled both by the power of Healy's story and his great power in the telling of it, no matter how bleak the outlook, to stay by his side until the last word is writ. Blood splashed and exhausted, stumbling and jerking around, he was saved from toppling over by being bounced from car to car.

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