September 06, 2013
Joseph Pearce, as many who have read his work or seen him speak might testify, can give one the impression of a soft-handed, tweed-sporting, Oxford don who has spent the better part of his life among the dusty pages of a library, with his remaining hours spent drinking afternoon tea and sipping scotch in the evening. Pearce, author of many literary biographies and other books including Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkien: Man and Myth, appears to be the consummate English gentleman. Perhaps those with the knack of identifying an Englishman’s town of birth by his accent would not be fooled, but for most of us on this side of the pond, his blood seems practically blue. It turns out, however, that his blood is really more…well, orange.
In his latest offering, an autobiography, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love (St. Benedict’s Press), the donnish impression of Pearce quickly goes up in smoke. The book dispels almost instantly any stuffy image one may have ever entertained of the prolific author. Who knew the young Joe Pearce was a skinhead bulldog? Yes, you read those words right—a skinhead and a bulldog anxious for the fight.
His life began merrily enough in the English countryside with his parents and a younger brother, but when he moved to London for middle school, things got rough. His father’s racism and high regard for the Nazis, the chaos of an inner-city school, and his own clever pen opened the door to his early involvement—at the age of 15—with the National Front, a British-nationalist, white supremacist group. Pearce became the editor of the party’s newspaper, Bulldog, which extolled the virtues of the white race while calling for the expulsion of non-whites from Britain, as well as Catholics and Jews.
His work with the National Front eventually led to membership in the Protestant counterpart of the IRA in Northern Ireland—which heightened his own anti-Catholicism. He describes the intense experience of being an “Orangeman”:
As a loyal Orangeman, the highlight of the year was the annual Twelfth of July parade when the Orange Order celebrates the victory of the Protestant William of Orange against the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Although I had attended the English Twelfth in Southport, just north of Liverpool, the experience was utterly eclipsed by my attendance at the mother of all Twelfth of July parades, held annually in Belfast, at which tens of thousands of Orangemen, accompanied by hundreds of flute and accordion bands, are cheered on by tens of thousands more who line the streets waving Union flags as the parade of Orange lodges passes by. There’s nothing like it and the memory still sends a primal, tribal thrill up my spine as I remember the beating of the drums and the sheer fervor and magnitude of the event. (p. 104-105)
As the book makes plain, it wasn’t just ink that was spilled during Pearce’s early days of rabble-rousing. The National Front demonstrations often became violent melees with counter demonstrators involving bricks, bottles, and any other handy projectile, and his own belligerence, fueled by alcohol, nearly got him killed on several occasions.
Pearce finally found himself in jail, although surprisingly not due directly to any violence, but on charges of publishing material in Bulldog likely to incite racial hatred. Not once, but twice. Under the unpopular Race Relations Act a jury found him guilty of “hate crimes,” which made Pearce something of a political martyr. During his incarceration, “Free Joe Pearce” was emblazoned in graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings, and overpasses around the country.
Pearce, while embroiled in the heated political battles of the 80s involving the IRA, terrorism, and racism, was also heavily engaged in the British music scene, much of which will be familiar to Americans of a certain age—Madness, The Clash, and Depeche Mode, all 80s chart toppers. His brother was the manager for the one-hit-wonder Soft Cell, known in the US mostly for “Tainted Love,” though Pearce’s own musical choices were punk and heavy metal. The book offers interesting insights into some of the politics associated with the British music scene in the 80s—much of which we Americas were oblivious to as we listened to our cassette tapes or watched videos on this new channel called MTV. Who knew there were such things as Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Communism?
I spoke with Pearce about the book a few months before reading it. My question was, why are we just hearing about his colorful past now? He explained that he wanted to wait until both of his parents had passed away out of respect for them. But he said he also needed the distance of years from the events of his youth in order to develop a mature perspective and to write truthfully and without saying simply, “See how bad I was.” People have, he explained, a balance of good in them, even when they are up to no good. He wanted that mixture to come through in the book. He is successfull, especially when he writes about his father and several friendships he developed along the way.
As the subtitle of his book suggests, Pearce did not have a dramatic conversion experience involving being knocked off any horse—though there was quite a lot of being knocked about; his was a long journey with small steps along the way. Many of the steps stand out, such as the moment he found himself in prison again at the age of 24, grasping a rosary someone had given him in court and trying to pray despite not knowing a single prayer. Or later, while making a sincere effort to be a church-goer and a good dad to his children, who lived in another village, he showed up drunk at the parish priest’s residence with nowhere to go after a long night of partying. (That must have been an awkward breakfast.) It seems he spent many years living these sorts of paradoxes—paradoxes that easily exist in lives of all of us sinners without an abundance of sacramental grace.
The spark to which Pearce gives credit for his conversion came from G.K. Chesterton. Pearce felt as though he had found a true friend in Chesterton’s writing, especially on economic issues, but simply dismissed the Catholic elements. Eventually, after having absorbed the goodness of Chesterton, Pearce began to wonder about that Catholic part, too. It didn’t take long before he was convinced of the truth of Catholicism, but living it proved to be much harder. It took years before he would finally enter the Church.
As Pearce made steps closer to the faith, he believed himself to be acting solely upon rational grounds. However, in hindsight, Pearce confesses that he can see the hand of Providence guiding him toward truth and goodness, as well as sparing his life on many occasions.
Like Pearce’s other books, Race with the Devil is a delight to read. It is also a source of great hope. Many small acts of great kindness that Pearce received during his journey left significant impressions upon the angry young man, which serves as a reminder that even the little things we do for others can have an impact beyond our wildest imaginings. As in Augustine’s Confessions, it was little moments of grace that made the difference in Pearce’s life: a generous police officer here, a thoughtful couple there. More than anything, however, Pearce’s autobiography is a testimony to the ever ancient, and yet so new, transforming power of grace.