At 20 the National Front’s youth leader was sent to jail. Today Joseph Pearce is a leading Catholic writer. Ed West talks to him
Joseph Pearce is a happy man. He is one of the leading Catholic biographers in the English-speaking world, and his studies of Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn, C S Lewis, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, among others, have gained him an enviable reputation as a writer who knows his subjects inside out and understands their religious dimensions like few other writers.
Today this burly but rather boyish-looking Englishman is the image of the contented middle-aged Catholic family man, living with his wife and two young children in sunny South Carolina eight months of the year and spending the rest in even sunnier Florida, where he lectures at the Catholic Ava Maria University.
It is hard to square this man with the figure familiar to anti-racist campaigners of the Seventies and Eighties: the pugnacious and frightening leader of the Young National Front, pictured at extreme Right-wing rallies alongside the likes of his friend, Nick Griffin. That Pearce ran a racist magazine called Bulldog, a cross between the Beano and Der Stürmer, which spewed out hatred of Asians and blacks and encouraged readers to denounce Left-wing teachers. That Pearce ended up in ail .
But while most of his former comrades are still extremists, either active, retired or dead, Pearce has turned his back on racial hatred and, much to the bemusement or disgust of old allies, embraced Catholicism. For this grace he gives eternal thanks to G K Chesterton.
Born in 1961, Pearce grew up in Dagenham, a working-class suburb of east London that boasted the worst educational standards in England. He was an angry young man, as young men are prone to be. But while most teenagers angered by gross inequality turn to Leftist politics of various shades of red, a minority, like Pearce, go the other way.
“I was angry because I had this idea that the British Empire was something good that had been systematically destroyed,” he recalls, although now he has no time for any imperialism.
He was also angry, as many were at the time, about Commonwealth immigrants arriving in tightly knit working-class neighbourhoods, and so migrated to the one group that opposed it. Formed in 1967 by A K Chesterton, GK’s alcoholic cousin (whose views GK condemned and mocked), the National Front (NF) was originally dominated by old Empire Loyalists of a broadly racist inclination, but as its support surged the NF was taken over by the neo-Nazi followers of John Tyndall (who later formed the British National Party).
Pearce joined the NF at 15, lying about his age and giving up education to devote himself full-time to be a “racial revolutionary”, a decision he later described as a Faustian pact with the Devil, although at the time he was an agnostic.
This was in the long, hot summer of 1976 and the party was approaching the peak of its popularity, attracting 120,000 votes at the GLC elections the following year. With extreme politics came violence, and increasingly so, as both the NF and its enemies (the future Socialist Workers Party) used physical force to intimidate and hurt opponents. He has the scars to prove it.
“I was a radical,” he says, “and at the age of the 15 I was in favour of it, not the violence per se, but in needing to have a physical presence.” The street fighting between Left and Right culminated in the “Battle of Lewisham” in August 1977, after which the “middleaged, middle-class war veterans were replaced by skinheads and football hooligans, young bald men making Nazi salutes”, he recalls.
That year Pearce became leader of the youth wing, as well as founding Bulldog. Two years later he became editor of the more grownup, but equally virulent, political magazine Nationalism Today, and, at 18, became the youngest member of the party’s national committee.
The NF also flirted with Loyalism, and at 17 Pearce flew to Derry to organise an NF march, which degenerated into sectarian rioting on a scale a London street fighter could not imagine. He developed contacts with the Ulster Defence Association and also joined the Orange Order.
His anti-Catholicism, he says, was ingrained. Pearce’s father, a carpenter from the East End, was “very anti-Irish and antiCatholic”, and had, as his son recalls, the Whig history mindset which associated Catholicism with the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder plot. “My father passed on that English cultural heritage.” But while Pearce’s star was still rising, the party was becoming increasingly Monty Pythonesque, fractured by splits too numerous to list, but which eventually resulted in two National Fronts, exerting most of their energies fighting each other. Margaret Thatcher killed off the party with anti-immigration rhetoric that brought back the NF’s waverers and left only a core, lunatic fringe.
Pearce was among them, and in 1982 he was sentenced to six months in Chelmsford young offenders’ institute for soliciting material “likely to incite racial hatred”. The authorities, fearful that Pearce’s presence would stir up tension in a jail evenly split between white and black, put him in solitary. This decision changed his life.
“There are two types of conversion – the quick conversion of St Paul at Damascus, and the slow melting of Augustine, where the conversion is like an intellectual process and a healing. In my case it was the latter and took place over the entire Eighties.
“At that time I would have happily gone to my death, I was such a fanatic, and I considered myself a political prisoner. But it gave me time to write and read.” In solitary he read Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Ronald Knox’s A Spiritual Aeneid, but most of all it was G K Chesterton who brought him “into the light”, as he recalls, turning him away from what GK called “the solemn fools of Teutonism”.
Although Chesterton was a great critic of fascism and Nazism, and hated racism, his Catholic social ideas of distributism, which argues for the maximum spread of property between people, appeals to reformed fascists. His philosophy, with its focus on community and obligation, and its appeal to honour and faith, attracts many people unsettled by what they see as a vacuous, immoral and unjust world.
Pearce rejoined an increasingly irrelevant NF upon release and a second, longer prison term would follow in 1985. But he was already on the road. “When I went to prison for the second time I was asked during the process what my religion was. I wasn’t expecting it and I had to give an answer so I just said ‘Catholic’. And that was my first affirmation of Catholicism. Although technically I wouldn’t join the Church until 1989, I had read Belloc, Newman and C S Lewis, I had reached the stage of being a Catholic by conviction but I was still confused because I was full of this political nastiness. There was a battle in me.” In prison he began to pray, say the rosary, and go to Mass. This time he would not go back.
His first biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G K Chesterton, was published in 1996, and other subjects include C S Lewis, Solzhenitsyn, the underrated interwar poet Roy Campbell, and Oscar Wilde. Many of his books concern Catholic literary converts, while his biography of Shakespeare, which argues for the Bard’s Catholicism, inspired a television series on EWTN.
Since 2001 Pearce has also been writer in residence and professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and began lecturing on September 11 that year (a strange day to start).
“Before going I had an anti-American thing which was endemic to Europeans. Lots of the problems of western secularism I put down to Hollywood and MTV, but there are two faces – you go inside America and you realise family life is much stronger here, marriage is much stronger, traditional morality is much stronger.” He rarely visits England any more, and although he misses the aspects people always do – having a beer with friends, watching the football – much about home disturbs him.
“The last time I was in England was for my mother’s funeral, and I was at the wake in a local pub in Dagenham. I was wearing a crucifix lapel badge. One person saw it and took out a pentangle as if to ward off my crucifix with his pentangle. He said he had three books by his bed – one was the Bible, one was a Buddhist tome, and one was Mein Kampf. This could be a satire by Evelyn Waugh.
“Another came up and got very aggressive, almost foaming at the mouth and saying the Catholic Church is nothing but a conspiracy, the Church and the Illuminati are the same thing. I happen to know for a fact this person has never read a book in his life, this was purely the result of conversations in pubs with people who have half-digested The Da Vinci Code or watched similar rubbish on TV.” Such cultural malaise, the shedding of an entire culture, is further developed in Europe, he says, after a century of centralised control.
“I’m hopeful, because hope is a virtue and despair is a sin, but in England we’ve replaced all traditions of virtue and beauty with this sado-masochistic cynicism. William Shakespeare, Beowulf, Chaucer, they’ve thrown everything out. It is despair. Scratch beneath the surface of atheism, and you have despair.
“Over here there is diversity in the best sense of the word. Multiculturalists talk about diversity but they actually force a secularist fundamentalist monoculture.” In Pearce’s old home the vacuum has been filled by his old friend Nick Griffin, whose British National Party, a joke only a decade ago, are now the official opposition on the council. Although he hates the racism, Pearce understands the appeal.
“As so far as it [the BNP] is racist, I unequivocally distance myself from it. As far as it is opposing this multicultural monoculture and the centralising power of the European Union – if none of the major parties address these issues, why are we surprised that a party that does address them is getting support?” The depths of multiculturalism’s failure was illustrated during another visit. As a child he had one close Asian friend before he got involved in politics, “the first to show me pornography”, but spent years without knowing any black or Asian people.
“Many years later, after my conversion, I was in Mile End tube station, on my way to see my parents. These two Asian chaps came up to me and said: ‘Are you Joe Pearce?’ And I thought: ‘Hang on now. I’m going to be attacked.’ I said yes, rather cagily. He said: ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ Then he gave me his name.
“He knew nothing about my conversion, and said to me: ‘We’ve got a lot in common. You hate the Jews and Israel. So do we!’ This young man had gone from being a westernised son of a Pakistani immigrant to a radicalised Islamist. That serves to me to illustrate the dangerous turn of events in England.” He remains optimistic, however. “Generations can do an awful lot of damage in passing, but here the new generation are more solid, orthodox, willing to speak out outrageously against decisions. The logic of heterodoxy is ultimately apostasy. The theological liberals cease to be Catholic, anyone they touch ceases to be Catholic, and certainly their children don’t grow up to be Catholic. It’s what the Holy Father has said: the Catholic Church in the 21st century will be smaller but truer.” There is also one last heart-warming aspect to his story, about his father.
“Weirdly, though, he became a Catholic in the mid-1990s when he was in his 60s, and spent the last 10 years of his life as a Catholic. I love my father dearly. He was a great intellect and I certainly wouldn’t want to imply he did it just because I did.
“A lot of my anti-Catholicism was inherited from him, but like me he saw the error of his ways and converted. It was a supreme irony that he had the last rites from an Irish Catholic priest – that was a wonderful end.”