Joseph Pearce subtitles this honest account of his conversion as “My journey from racial hatred to rational love.” It is indeed an extraordinary journey: from a youth in which he was twice imprisoned in the UK for publishing material “likely to incite racial hatred” (Pearce was a keen youthful member of the far-Right National Front party and editor of its newspaper, The Bulldog) and in which he had been an enthusiastic participant in race riots, into the Catholic Church in 1989. He dedicates his book to his father, Albert, “who accompanied me on the Journey”; indeed, Albert, whose influence over his son’s political extremism was significant, later followed him into the Church, a move which Pearce humorously comments, was “perhaps even more miraculous than my own.”
The seeds of Pearce’s narrow and bigoted nationalism were sown in childhood. A clever, argumentative and restless boy, his family moved from the peaceful Suffolk countryside to Barking in East London when he was eleven; the change from a secure primary school in which he shone to a tough comprehensive where he struggled to find his feet, was critical in his emotional and political development. The patriotism, imperialism and xenophobia which he had imbibed from his father coalesced in 1975 when he was 14, into an angry, neo-fascist, white supremacist outlook. A natural rebel, Pearce had found his cause, remarking of the violence that came with his extreme right-wing views, “There was no making of a racially pure Britain without the cracking of skulls.”
The irony was that his father, in the usual muddled way of most human beings, managed to combine anti-Semitic and anti-Irish sentiments in the abstract with a love of Shakespeare and traditions like Christmas, and the singing of Christian carols alongside the German national anthem. Pearce, an autodidact like his father, writes that “few men loved their fellow men more fully and more truly and with such Dickensian and Chestertonian exuberance” as his father. The young man started to work full-time for the National Front in 1978 when a teenager. He became friends with Nick Griffin, current leader of the British National Party (which took over the National Front) and first went to prison for his racist writings in 1982.
In solitary confinement and removed from the unhealthy proximity of like-minded associates, Pearce started to read seriously. He had already encountered in his unsystematic fashion the writings of Richard Dawkins on evolution, Hans Eysenck on inherited intelligence, Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; now he discovered GK Chesterton’s The Outline of Sanity which he “devoured”, admitting “I agreed with almost everything Chesterton said”. Aged 19 and unconsciously at least, yearning for the guidance of wise mentors, the author was seized by Chesterton’s loveable personality which “seemed to leap from the page.”
Chesterton proved a providential discovery; the author disarmingly confesses that “even more unsettling to my own religious prejudice was the uncomfortable feeling that I wanted to like what Chesterton liked, even if I had always believed that I didn’t like it.” GKC’s writings on distributism, further cemented by reading Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful – and the discovery that both men were converts to the Catholic Church – slowly but surely led Pearce away from the “racial hatred” he had once espoused with such vigour to the possibility of “rational love” – a love that was reasonable as well as divinely inspired.
The writings of CS Lewis joined his bookshelves, yet the journey towards conversion was fitful and full of contradictions. During the 1980s, Pearce admits that he was living a double life “in which I wrote hate-filled propaganda during the day and read the love-filled pages of Chesterton and Lewis at night.” Yet in his “race with the Devil”, the latter was slowing starting to cede ground.
With his personal life in a mess and imprisoned again in 1985, the author was at a crossroads, both spiritually and emotionally. When asked his religion by the prison authorities he told them, untruthfully, that he was a Catholic. “I couldn’t believe what I had just said,” he relates, describing the moment as a “baptism of desire.” This time in prison solitary confinement was welcome, as it forced him finally to confront himself with all his confusions, disillusionment and yearnings. He read John Henry Newman, Tolkien and the Jesuit philosopher Coplestone; faith and reason were slowly coming together. He resolved to resign from extremist politics.
When freed from prison in 1986 Pierce resolutely moved away from his turbulent past life in the East End; he went to live in Norfolk and discovered the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. On being received into the Church in 1989 he resolved to use his writing gifts to atone for his past and to help others learn the beauty, truth and goodness implicit in his new-found faith. Biographies of Chesterton, Belloc and Tolkien swiftly followed, among other writings. Today Pearce is a faculty member of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in the US; happily married with a family he continues to write and lecture around the world, determined to bring Catholic culture and the Church’s social teachings to a wide audience.
His book, which goes into unnecessary detail in places, could have been shorter and more tightly edited; it is also perhaps, written more with an eye for his American and student readership than an English one; and it has a certain didactic flavour in places. Yet it provides fascinating insight into the strange rationale behind what is now the British National Party and why it was – and is – attractive to a minority of disaffected young white men. Above all, it is the story of a conversion brought about by the random kindness of strangers and the discovery of great Christian thinkers.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.