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The Grass Arena: An Autobiography
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The Grass Arena: An Autobiography

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  211 ratings  ·  43 reviews
In this prize-winning autobiography, John Healy describes his transformation from homeless alcoholic to champion grand master tournament chess player. The Grass Arena was awarded Britain's highest honor for autobiography in 1988.
Paperback, 259 pages
Published December 1st 2008 by Penguin Books (first published 1988)
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Brilliant. Not a word wasted. I read it in two days. I will keep this as a talisman to ward off sentimentality and gush. 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 ...more
terrifying. Review coming (hopefully...)
OK I’ve changed the 4 stars to 5, mainly because I’ve been sat thinking about this again, and can’t get the voice, its insistence on truth and its brutal depiction of the world of the vagrant alcoholic out of my head. This is one of the milder episodes: ‘We could get no water to mix with it [surgical spirit], so we went in the church and filled a milk bottle out of the holy water font and started slowly to swallow it. But it’s hard to get down first thing
I think it's criminal that this book isn't more widely known and read. It's a no bullshit account of his life as an alcoholic vagrant. It's honest and true and what the fucking hell is wrong with this world that only 12 people on GR have read it????

Here're two articles on his life subsequent to the events in this autobiography: "What happened next?", and "Saved by the book.
Amy Flaherty
This was a book that I really came across by chance and its a rare, rough, gritty, carefully told autobiography of a life that is not usually told. Healy was born to Irish parents in London and traveled back and forth across the UK during his young life. His early life was brutal, with a father who was very abusive and who did not provide a solid upbringing for Healy. 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 i ...more
This book came highly recommended. You open the first page and you walk through a door into the mind and life of an alcoholic. His degradation is sickening to read. I really got sick to my stomach.

An alcoholic knows no line they cross them all until there is no where else to go. It is either death or salvation. John Healy had a noxious childhood. Isolated by his mother and abused by his father, he staggered into drug and alcohol abuse to alleviate the pain in his body and soul.

Redemption comes
An incredible book. This is an autobiography of a genuinely ex-homeless man. There is no mawkishness here, no sugar-coating, just Healy's raw amoral truth. 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. What I did get is insight, which, looking around the streets of London, is, in this case, a terrifying thing. It's worth noting too that Healy is a very good storyteller ...more
Katie Mcsweeney
Didn't realise that it was possible for me to not fall in love with the subject of a biography... John Healy I don't idolise or apologise for him. I respect him. An amazing man.
His biography has made me see my city with new eyes. It has made me see the homeless with new eyes, not the soppy, sorrowful middle class consciousness I previously saw them through. I am wondering much more practical things about the "texture of their lives" as Colin MacCabe puts it... how does their community work? Whe
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. Having said that, it was so powerful, this one gave me nightmares so couldn't read before bed. I had such difficulty reading about the brutal life that the author lived, a novelised account would have been easier to cope with for sure. I read it for book club and am glad we did it, as my self selection is inevitably base ...more
Michael D
A remarkable book. Many have written about addiction but none to my mind from a position so deeply rooted in the abyss as Healy, not even Bukowski and certainly not Burroughs. The story of the author, who lived as a complete alcoholic vagrant for years and had many brushes with death, then finds redemption in prison through chess and strides out of the gutter, is one of the most life-affirming things I think I have ever read.

The style of writing is perhaps naive at the beginning but after a whi
Fantastic book based on the author's own experience as life as a homeless alcoholic in London. It depicts a world that is so familiar to us as we pass by such people almost every day, but yet is a world thoroughly alien and one that we hardly even contemplate.

A complete absence of self-pity, moralising or an attempt to apportion blame gives it extra weight. The book is deadly effective at bringing the reader into the bowels of life in the underworld in an almost life changing way. From then on,
Richard Simpson
I like this novel most of all because it holds a certain 'nostalgia' for me. I remember when I was a child watching the film adaptation of this and seeing a pre-adolescent given a pint of beer in a pub bought by an older friend, and the child later became an alcoholic down the years. This was prescient, the experience mirrored my own, where drinking at the age of twelve/thirteen I drank in the company of older friends, and by the time I was nineteen was a fully-fledged alcoholic. Tragedy ensued, ...more
Christian Schwoerke
This is a profoundly, powerfully sad book, written by an extraordinary man.

It’s not clear how extraordinary John Healy is till the end of his autobiographical account, which ends presumably sometime before he chronicles his story. The only date that crops up in the book is 1960, when it seems Healy might be about 20 years old, then there is reference to his age of 28, when he’s many years into his alcoholic life. After the bulk of the book chronicles in its timeless fashion his episodic life as
Mark Delaney
One of my favourite books of all time. Healy - a very intelligent man and son of Irish immigrants, recalls a brutal period of his life as a down and out in London. Mingling with prostitutes, murderers and alcoholics, it's hard to see how anyone would see light at the end of the tunnel. 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.
Darran Mclaughlin
Very good. It's really interesting to read a memoir of a street drinker. Recommended if you like reading culty underground London books and low life tales. Makes Bukowski seem like a model of restraint and gentlemanly conduct. The ending is a bit sad.
Benjamin Portheault
The masterpiece that takes you by surprize to a world you did not knew about. Miles from the drunken tales of the American masters, John Healy has a very distinctive voice as he takes you from the Euston gardens to his chess redemption.
Chris Geoghegan
A thorough and precise account of what it means to be a true alcoholic straight from the horses mouth. Despair and repair told in an endearing fashion that will have you finishing the novel in one sitting.
This is one of those books when you complete the final page you ask yourself..."can i recommend this to anyone I really care about?" Its not that its not mesmerizing and a truly unbelievable true story but the cost of completion is so taxing on the spirit and psyche. Page after page after page of horrors of addiction, violence, and degradation of living on the streets of 1970's London is a challenge. Especially out of 190 pages (thankfully short book) only the final 10 pages are somewhat of a re ...more
"Perhaps like all all great books, it leaves you permanently altered." Colin MacCabe in the book's Afterword.

A unique insight into the world of the alcoholic vagrant. 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. He and his fellow vagrants get injured, maimed, die by accident, and get murdered, and all the while their only focus is on their next drink.

That John Healy was able to create the opport
Barry Cotter
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Derek Baldwin
I read this in a big hurry as a buyer had reserved it. For about 80% of the way this was enthralling stuff (it's about the chaotic life of a homeless man). But then, when it gets to the "chess saved my life" stuff, the vigour seems to leach out of the writing. In a funny way if the story had ended less "happily" it might make a better book. I just didn't find the latter part very convincing. If John Healy really loves chess how come he couldn't convey that? Perhaps deep down he loves chaos more? ...more
Heard this praised to the hilt on Radio 4's A Good Read, looked on here and loads of 5* reviews. However, I found it tedious and repetitive, written by a self-destructive and very unpleasant character who didn't show any remorse for any damage he'd done, and although he may have had some sort of reason for his alcoholism, that doesn't excuse him, and doesn't make it an interesting read. There's only so many drunken binges you can read about without becoming irritated by his behaviour. Not for me ...more
Andrew Mcq
Interest in this book has hopefully been reignited by the broadcast of a documentary on the extraordinary life of the author, John Healy, and the reissue by Penguin Modern Classics. It is an important read from the margins of society, frightening in its honesty. John's redemption is never fully realised, as this is real life rather than easily-digested entertainment, but the fine-line balance between empathy and revulsion is what makes this book, and this life, most revelatory and rewarding.
David Bamford
Just the most gripping and searingly honest autobiography I have ever read.

"Simply Superb"
Lisa O
One of our bookclub reads.... I can understand why people recommend this book as its story is so relevant to many people around us and its amazing how he turns himself round through chess but I found reading this book was depressing maybe reading during the winter months wasn't a good idea, bleak days and long nights, but no tater how much I tried I just couldn't come to even like picking it up and struggled to finish it... In saying that I'm sure lots of people will enjoy it...
Brilliant,harrowing & indispensable....
Although the prose can be a bit halting and its written without any sugar coating or flowery words, as a book and an autobiography it was a powerful read as it showed me a side of life that is hidden beneath the veneer of our society, the streets and sidewalks and the random violence visited on those who are unfortunate enough to call these places a home.
John Healy was born into violent inner-city poverty and eventually drifted into alcoholic vagrancy before being introduced to chess at the age of thirty.

In this autobiography he writes with unflinching and unsentimental clarity, carving out an incredible and important social portrait.

I saw a documentory on this guy on TV in Jan '11 and thought it was brilliant, really good story about his life, so I bought the book. It's great, all about his life up to then. The TV programme told more about his life since, unbelievable.
Homeless boozedemon John Healy slums it about london getting shitfaced, getting beaten up, and getting thrown in jail, in a whirligig binge of violence, alcohol, and destitution. See how the have-nots eke out an existence. Savage.
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