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The barbaric genius

June 15 2012
Sort of extreme... Sort of extreme...
John Healy was going nowhere fast until he was introduced to chess


On 25 May, Barbaric Genius, a documentary about the rise and fall (and rise?) of John Healy opened. It’s an odd film, as Healy seems pained by talking about himself. He explained that he had “a technique for not committing” as a result of being questioned so any times in police custody.

Healy was born into a working-class London-Irish family. He left school at 14, got chucked out of the army, developed a taste for violence and alcohol, skippered in Kentish Town for 15 years and was eventually sent to prison, where “Brighton Fox” told him chess was B&E and ABH by other means... Healy went at it with the same intensity he had given to drinking. He became known in tournament chess circles for his “incredible talent” - and for being very belligerent.

He started writing his memoir The Grass Arena after the death of his mother. It made him a fashionably edgy celebrity when it came out in 1989. A Hollywood movie - described as “Rocky with chess” - followed. But Faber, his publisher, dropped him like a hot coal two years later after he threatened to kill its managing director for some now-forgotten reason. His books were removed from sale, he was poison as far as the publishing industry went, and rumours floated round that he was a psychopath. One person interviewed in the documentary says it was a class problem, with a middle-class literary establishment scared by the freakishly talented alien in their midst. The book is now back in print as a Penguin Modern Classic, and a film of it is being planned.

Having given up drink and almost given up chess, he now focuses on yoga and meditation. As Healy says of himself: “Some people might say the life I’ve lived has been sort of extreme.”