It looks like Nick Griffin’s political journey may be coming to a close after the BNP ousted their leader of 15 years. Griffin’s career has been a strange one, some of it chronicled in a book I recently read, Race with the Devil by the Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn biographer Joseph Pearce.
Pearce is now an academic in the United States but in a previous incarnation was youth leader of the National Front, and I first stumbled across him five years ago while looking for someone to write about Shakespeare and Catholicism. His face on Google Images seemed strangely familiar, and when I read more about Pearce I remembered why; I had seen him in a documentary about his past as a rather frightening, fierce and intelligent young Fascist involved in exposing Left-wing teachers (not exactly a needle in a haystack, you might think, but there was a menacing implication of what Pearce’s young comrades might do to these “reds”). This was from back in the late 1970s when Pearce was running Bulldog, the NF’s youth magazine, which was sort of a cross between the Beano and Der Sturmer.
Joe Pearce fell out with the far Right after turning to Catholicism during two spells in prison, this despite an ingrained sectarianism inherited from his father. The man who brought him around was GK Chesterton, who emerges as Pearce’s great friend, as he describes him; Chesterton’s logic, his humour, kept the young man sane during his prison sentences for inciting racial hatred, the second of which involved a period in solitary confinement.
Pearce’s memoir is very Catholic and painfully honest, lacking the excuse-ism that marks so many memoirs; there’s plenty of Mea culpa here. He records verbally abusing an Asian teacher in a way that makes him wince with shame and guilt; he recalls his early, failed first marriage, which was motivated by a lust that harms the innocent; he remembers his flirtation with Ulster Loyalism; and the despair of his youthful ideology, which was a sort of perversion of patriotism and Darwinism. (Among the works that was twisted as justification was Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which I had no idea was such an influential book among members of the NF. It had a formative influence on me around the same time but I never interpreted its notions of selective altruism in racial terms – it just seemed to explain how the world was.)
The main theme running through the book, however, is love, and with all the street fights and hatred what really stands out in his memory is the kindness of strangers. At the time of Rock Against Racism, when most of his opponents were trying to kick his face in, Jake Burns, lead singer of the Stiff Little Fingers, took him for a drink and treated him as a human after a radio debate, despite objecting to everything he stood for. (Stiff Little Fingers, being from Belfast, had grown up in the atmosphere of hatred that the young Pearce revelled in.)
Despite being regularly thrown out of football matches for his political activity he recalls the policeman who lent him the money to get into Loftus Road to watch QPR v Chelsea without knowing his identity but who must have assumed Pearce would never pay him. (Pearce took the money to the officer’s station afterwards). Then there was the principled Jewish-American from the National Council for Civil Liberties (whose name Pearce forgets) who principally agreed to speak up for the rights of NF supporters who had been detained on coaches for hours without toilets. He ended up losing his job for it too.
These small mercies Pearce remembers on his journey from racial hatred to love. He left politics after his second spell ended in 1986 and became a Catholic four years later. Aged 25 upon his release, he knew no one from outside of the extreme Right and had to rebuild his life, and although former comrades tried dragging him back into the movement he felt disillusioned; at one moment he found himself getting a taxi to meet his old friend, Skrewdriver singer Ian Stuart Donaldson. The taxi driver was an Asian who had also recently converted to Christianity and Pearce contrasted his love, and humanity, and hope, with the despair inside the gloomy pub where Donaldson and his friends jumped around to skinhead music.
Among his best friends as a young man was another leading youth member of the NF, Nick Griffin, who put him onto the distributist economist EF Schumacher and his seminal Small is Beautiful, which had a big influence on Pearce as he exited from the extreme-Right and towards Catholic Social Teaching.
The two were close before they went their separate ways; Pearce was Griffin’s best man and stayed with Nick in his family’s home in Suffolk, where the Griffins baked their own bread and grew organic food, singing English folk songs around the fire. Such was the eccentric milieu of the extreme Right that Griffin was something of a foodie long before the liberal-lefties of north London cottoned onto the idea, and among his many eccentric YouTube videos is this cookery class (although it is like as strange as his telling of the nativity story). Now that Nick Griffin’s looking for work, maybe he could find a niche market as a TV Chef.