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
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.
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 righta skinhead and a
bulldog anxious for the fight.
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
involvementat the age of 15with 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.
work with the National Front eventually led to membership in the Protestant
counterpart of the IRA in Northern Irelandwhich 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.
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.
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 ageMadness, 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 80smuch 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?
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.
the subtitle of his book suggests, Pearce did not have a dramatic conversion
experience involving being knocked off any horsethough 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 paradoxesparadoxes that easily exist in lives of all of us sinners
without an abundance of sacramental grace.
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.
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.
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.
with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love
Benedict’s Press, 2013
Hardcover; 264 pages