The Grass Arena – now a Penguin Classic

by ChessBase
9/26/2008 – As a child John Healy discovered that drink offered a release from his violent and unpredictable father. For fifteen years he dossed, drank and fought in the grass arena – the parks and open spaces of London. And spent time in prison. On one occasion he learnt chess – and became hooked. After a decade out of print Healy's gripping tale is now published as a Penguin Classic.

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The Grass Arena

John Healy

<img title="" height="373" data-cke-saved-src="" src="" style="float: right; margin-left: 10px; margin-bottom: 5px; width=" 260"="">Published in paperback by Penguin Modern Classics, 31st July 2008 at £8.99. The Grass Arena is published in Penguin Classics for the first time.

John Healy’s devastating autobiography was first published in 1988 to great critical acclaim. It won the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, and was made into a multi-award-winning film. It gained many fans, and some establishment sceptics, all astonished that a man who had left school at 14 and spent fifteen brutal, alcoholic years living rough on the streets of London, could write such a fine and compelling work. Twenty years on it has lost none of its power to grip, or its elegance and verve. After a decade out of print, Penguin is delighted to be publishing it as a Modern Classic for the first time.

John Healy, brought up in a poor Irish immigrant family in Kentish Town, was a child when he discovered that drink offered a release from his violent and unpredictable father. Stints in the army, the boxing ring and military prison couldn’t save him from spiralling into alcoholism and homelessness. For fifteen years he dossed, drank and fought in the grass arena – the parks and open spaces of London – with beggars, thieves, prostitutes and killers. Healy tells of darkly funny schemes to purloin the next drink with his fellows – The Dipper or The Sham – which turn in an instant into desperate accounts of murder over prostitutes or a bottle, or the begging of money. The only respite comes from the police cells and prison, where he is treated with casual brutality and contempt and kicked back onto London’s streets. Here, racked by meths, homelessness and dog-end cigarettes, the premature and ugly death of the vagrant looks inevitable.

On one occasion in prison, though, something remarkable happens. Healy learns chess... and becomes hooked. He gives up alcohol, plays obsessively and becomes a tournament champion. He finds himself in a new arena where the conflicts are subject to unfamiliar, middle-class rules, but where the old school tie cannot hide the seething aggression and mania of competitive chess players. He realises that he has given up one addiction for another, and his search for peace of mind, and friendship, has to continue.

Notes and quotes

The Grass Arena was first published in 1988. It won the J.R. Ackerley Prize for The Best Literary Autobiography of 1988. It was made into a film directed by Gillies MacKinnon and starring Mark Rylance. It won Best British Feature Film, Edinburgh Film Festival, 1991; Golden Globe Award for Best TV Film, 1992; and two BAFTA Nominations, 1992.

Critical acclaim for the book on first publication

  • ‘Sober and precise, grotesque, violent, sad, charming and hilarious all at once ... The Grass Arena deviates neither into sensation nor sentiment. It is bleak but full of resilient humanity, even in its darkest moments. It is also incredibly funny and packed with memorable figures and stories’ – John Kemp, Literary Review

  • ‘Beside it, a book like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London seems a rather inaccurate tourist guide’ – Colin MacCabe ‘

  • A unique and compelling picture of structured degradation on city streets, made all the more frighteningly readable by a vivid, though understated style’ – William Hartson, Independent

  • ‘Devastating … these painfully retrieved highlights stun the reader like blows’ – Iain Sinclair

Penguin Books: John Healy – The Grass Arena

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