Irish Post
    Cameras roll on the vagrant turned genius


                                             Chess Exhibition

 Standing beneath a sparkling chandelier, John Healy politely acknowledged his opponents. Another small chapter of his life was about to unfold. The remarkable story of a boxing champion turned street drinker, turned chess champion, turned literary genius. Healy was in London's Simpsons in The Strand to play 14 simultaneous games of chess as part of a film about his life.It's hard to believe that he once lived a life blurred by drink, violence and homelessness - the life of a wino-vagrant, which is now being documented by Irish film director Paul Duane.
  "It's a long way from the skippers I used to sleep in," said Healy with a smile, before entering the room and facing down the players and the rolling cameras. The story behind the feature documentary originally began 20 years ago when  Paul Duane first read Healy's book the Grass Arena. "I have wanted to do this story for nearly two decades" he said, "ever since I read his book-John is unbeatable and he's not had an easy life. But I've never known anyone to achieve so much."
 When Healy eventually appeared on Duane's radar it was at the Cuirt International Literary Festival in Galway. John was later invited to read by director Moira Kennedy. And it was there that the project began, when the cameras began filming a production which is now supported by the Irish Film Board.For those who have read The Grass Arena, Healy's story is a familiar and captivating one. The book was re-released last year and as a piece of literature it has long been acclaimed by critics and endorsed by names like Daniel Day Lewis.
  Healy hopes this latest project will act as a stepping stone to greater literary regcognition."The chess match was interesting, yeah sure they had an ex-wino and mugger taking on all these people. It's part of the documentary and part of my life because chess got me off drink. But I'd rather be recognised for my literary skills and get my books out there."
 For the record, John Healy played 14 simultaneous games over a three-hour period, winning 13 and drawing one against the computer." I beat the humans and drew one," he joked afterwards. "And it's deinitely tough playing 14 different games like that - the last time I did it was about 12 years ago."Paul Duane added: "This is a great project and it would be great for those who have declared an interest to come on board with funding and help us tell John's story."
 The feature documentary will go on release later in the year.

 
 
Robert Mulhern shoots the breeze with two charaters in the basement of Simpsons in The Strand who don't do life by numbers... but you couldn't say that their lot has not been interesting

The  late American writer and newspaperman Damon Runyon once said "I will read anything that captures the beauty of boxing or the brutality of chess."
 Perhaps if he were alive today he would be happy in the company of writer John Healy. His award-winning biography The Grass Arena tells a story of beauty and brutality, of boxing, chess and alcoholism. In his lifetime, Healy was both a chmpion boxer and a champion chess player. In between he was a wino and a vagrant, part of a subculture that existed on the fringes of society.
  Now he sits relaxed in the basement of Simpsons in The Strand,talking with his friend Erwin James. Both Healy and James are lovers of words (James is a columnist with the Guardian newspaper), but this night is about chess even though both would prefer it to be about literature. Erwin served a 20-year prison sentance for murder and was released in 2004.For the last nine years,he's penned a regular prison-issue column of critical acclaim for the Guardian called A Life Inside.Speaking beneath a peaked cap and sipping a glass of water, he is discussing the virtues of the internet. Healy half-heartedly agrees, but remains mildly indifferent.For him the internet is something to be conquered...at a later date. But the little you know of John Healy suggests it will probaly be mastered in a matter of time.
  Growing up in a working-class area of Kentish Town, Healy was a National Boxing Champion at 16, a vagrant alcoholic at 20 and a champion chess player by the age of 35. It's been a journey marked by achievment, violence and reinvention. There are similarities to the lfe of Erwin James - not only in experience but in attitude too. Both he and Healy have never been life by numbers' types - a three-bed semi, a dog and a steady job were never going to be their lot, but as Erwin says: "You can't say it hasn't been interesting."
  The sole reason Healey is here is to play chess, 14 games at once in fact, and while James marvels at the challenge Healy remains nonplussed by it all."I tried to learn chess in prison," admits James, "but I never really got the hang of it - not like John anyway." Healy's experience was the opposite. He once shared a prison cell with an inmate called the Brighton Fox, who taught him to play chess. The game instantly grabbed his mind. It usurped his desire to drink and laid the roots for a professional career on the checkered board. One desire overtook another and chess released him from the grass arena. "Which has given you the most satisfaction," asks James "Boxing, chess or writing?"  Healy thinks carefully while James anxiously awaits his answer."I think its possible to reach a great place through writing." You can occasionally trancend yourself through writing and I've only ever had that experience through meditation before, and only a couple of times."The emotions that follow the discipline of boxing are also a source of intrigue for James. The feelings of elation and euphoria which are attached to the sport are unfamiliar to him in that context - despite enduring the confines of the French Foreign Legion. James wonders why that emotion comes from something so visceral. He realises that the explanation is in the question. The release and the relief bring them out explains Healy, whose left and right hooks became very much a part of his life in The Grass Arena.
  He lived by an unspoken code then. If you were going to recieve it, you needed to be able to give it too. Healy had a reputation, but he said everyone who was there had one. If they didn't they wouldn't have been there - they would have been dead. And if there was robbery and violence then, there are only words and
literature now - and a game of chess to be played of course.
 The conversation has run late, and it's 7.05pm, Healy was due upstairs for the main event at 7pm. Erwin James scolds himself for forgetting the time. Healy casually makes for the door. Five minutes isn't worth getting stressed about, not after the life he's led.
 Keep watching. for I believe Healy plans to write a few more chapters yet.