“A sound atheist cannot be too careful of the books that he reads.” So said C. S. Lewis in his autobiographical apologia, Surprised by Joy. These words continue to resonate across the years that separate me from the bitterness of my past.
What is true of the atheist is as true of the racist, which is what I was. A hell of hatred consumed my youth. Eventually I stumbled out into the brilliance of Christian day, but, looking back along that path, I can see in my mind’s eye the literary candles that lit the way. There are dozens of candles bearing the name of G. K. Chesterton, of which Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, The Well and the Shallows, and The Outline of Sanity shine forth with particular brightness. Almost as many candles bear the name of Chesterton’s great friend, Hilaire Belloc, and several bear the name of John Henry Newman. And, of course, there is the flickering presence of Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. These and countless others light the path by which I’ve traveled.
I grew up in a relatively poor neighborhood in London’s East End at a time when large-scale immigration was causing major demographic changes. The influx of large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis was quite literally changing the face of England, darkening the complexion and adding to the complexity of English life. Perhaps inevitably, the arrival of these immigrants caused a great deal of resentment amongst the indigenous population. Racial tensions were high, and violence between white and Asian youths was becoming commonplace. It was in this highly charged atmosphere that I emerged into angry adolescence.
At the age of 15, I joined the National Front, an emerging force then in British politics that demanded the compulsory repatriation of all nonwhite immigrants. As a political activist, I found my life revolving around street demonstrations, many of which became violent. I filled my head and inflamed my heart with racist ideology and elitist philosophy.
It was at this time that I made what I consider to be my Faustian pact—not that I had heard of Faust nor, as an agnostic, did I have any particular belief in the devil. Nonetheless, I recall making a conscious wish that I would give everything if I could work full-time for the National Front. My wish was granted, and I abandoned my education to devote myself wholeheartedly to becoming a full-time “racial revolutionary.”
I never looked back. At the age of 16 I became editor of Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, and, three years later, became editor of Nationalism Today, a “higher-brow” ideological journal. At 18 I became the youngest member of the party’s governing body. Whether I believed in him or not, the devil had certainly been diligent in answering my wish.
Apart from racism, the sphere of my bitterness included disdain for Roman Catholicism, partly because the terrorists of the Irish Republic Army were Catholics and partly because I had imbibed the anti-Catholic prejudice of many Englishmen that Catholicism is a “foreign” religion.
Such prejudice is deeply rooted in the national psyche, stretching back to the anti-Catholicism of Henry VIII and his English Reformation, to Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada, to James I and the Gunpowder Plot, and to William of Orange and the so-called “Glorious” Revolution. I knew enough of English history—or at least enough of the prejudiced Protestant view of it that I had embraced in my ignorance—to see Catholicism as an enemy to the Nationhood that, as a racial nationalist, I then espoused with a quasi-religious fervor.
It was in the context of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland that my anti-Catholicism would reveal its full ugliness. The IRA’s bombing campaign was at its height during the 1970s, and my hatred of Republican terrorism led to my becoming involved in the volatile politics of Ulster.
I joined the Orange Order, a pseudo-Masonic secret society whose sole purpose is to oppose “popery.” Technically, although only Protestants were allowed to join the Orange Order, any actual belief in God did not appear necessary. As a Protestant agnostic, I was allowed to join; an avowed atheist friend of mine was also accepted without qualms. Ultimately the only qualification was not a love for Christ but a hatred of the Church.
In October 1978, still only 17, I flew to Derry in Northern Ireland to assist in the organization of a National Front march. Tensions were high in the city, and toward the end of the day riots broke out between the Protestant demonstrators and the police. For the duration of the evening and well into the night, petrol bombs were thrown at the police, Catholic homes were attacked, and Catholic-owned shops were looted and destroyed. I had experienced political violence on the streets of England but nothing on the sheer scale of the anger and violence that I experienced in Northern Ireland.
My appetite whetted, I became further embroiled in the politics of Ulster, forging friendships and political alliances with the leaders of Protestant paramilitary groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association. During a secret meeting with the army council of the UVF, it was suggested that I use my connections with extremist groups in other parts of the world to open channels for arms smuggling. On another occasion an “active service unit” of the UVF—i.e., a terrorist cell—offered their “services” to me, assuring me of their willingness to assassinate any “targets” that I would like “taken out” and expressing their eagerness to show me their arsenal of weaponry as a mark of their good faith.
I declined their offer as politely as possible—one does not wish to offend “friends” such as these! They were dangerous times. Within a few years, the IRA had murdered two of my friends in Northern Ireland.
Back in England, violence continued to erupt at National Front demonstrations. Outside an election meeting in an Indian area of London in 1979, at which I was one of the speakers, a riot ensued, and a demonstrator was killed. A few years later a friend of mine, an elderly man, was killed at another election meeting, though on that occasion I was not present.
Predictably perhaps, it was only a matter of time before my extremist politics brought me into conflict with the law. In 1982, as editor of Bulldog, I was convicted under the Race Relations Act for publishing material “likely to incite racial hatred.” The sentence was six months in prison. The trial made national headlines with the result that I spent much of my sentence in isolation and solitary confinement. The prison authorities were fearful that my presence might provoke trouble between black and white inmates.
Ironically, one of the other prisoners in the top security wing was an IRA sympathizer who had been imprisoned for slashing a portrait of Princess Diana with a knife. He and I saw ourselves as political prisoners, not as mere common criminals like the murderers serving life sentences who constituted the majority of the other prisoners on the top security wing.
Unrepentant, I continued to edit Bulldog following my release and was duly charged once again with offenses under the Race Relations Act. On the second occasion I was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. Thus I spent both my twenty-first and twenty-fifth birthdays behind bars.
During the first of my prison sentences, Auberon Waugh, a well-known writer and son of the great Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, referred to me as a “wretched youth.” How right he was! I was wretched and wrecked upon the rock of my own hardness of heart. Years later, when asked by the priest who was instructing me in the Catholic faith to write an essay on my conversion, I began it with the opening lines of John Newton’s famous hymn extolling the “amazing grace . . . that saved a wretch like me.”
Even today, when forced to look candidly into the blackness of my past, I am astonished at the truly amazing grace that somehow managed to take root in the desert of my soul. How was I freed from the prison of my sinful convictions? How was I brought from the locked door of my prison cell to the open arms of Mother Church?
With the benefit of hindsight, I perceive that the seeds of my future conversion were planted as early as 1980 when I was 19 years old. In what barren soil they were planted! At the time I was at the very height—or depth—of my political fanaticism and was indulging the worst excesses of my anti-Catholic prejudices in the dirty waters of Ulster Protestantism. Few could have been further from St. Peter’s gate than I.
The seeds were contained in my genuine desire to seek a political and economic alternative to the sins of communism and the cynicism of consumerism. During the confrontations on the streets with my Marxist opponents, I was incensed by their suggestion that, as an anti-communist, I was ipso facto a storm trooper of capitalism. I refused to believe that the only alternative to Mammon was Marx. I was convinced that communism was a red herring and that it was possible to have a socially just society without socialism. Knowing of my quest to discover such an alternative, someone suggested that I read more about the distributist ideas of Belloc and Chesterton.
At this juncture one hears echoes again of Lewis’s stricture that “a sound atheist cannot be too careful of the books that he reads”—not least because the book to which Lewis was referring specifically was Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. It was a book that would precipitate Lewis’s first tentative steps to conversion. In this at least I can claim a parallel between C. S. Lewis and myself. For me, as for him, a book by Chesterton would lead toward conversion.
In my case, the book that was destined to have such a profound influence was a lesser-known book of Chesterton’s. The friend who suggested that I study the distributist ideas of Chesterton informed me that I should buy The Outline of Sanity but also that I should read an invaluable essay on the subject entitled “Reflections on a Rotten Apple,” which was to be found in a collection of his essays entitled The Well and the Shallows. I purchased these two books and sat down expectantly to read the volume of essays. Imagine my surprise and consternation to discover that the book was, for the most part, a defense of the Catholic faith against various modern attacks upon it. And imagine my confusion when I discovered that I could not fault Chesterton’s logic.
The wit and wisdom of Chesterton had pulled the rug out from under my smug prejudices against the Catholic Church. From that moment I began to discover it as it is and not as it is alleged to be by its enemies. I began the journey from the rumor that it was the Whore of Babylon to the realization that it was in fact the Bride of Christ.
The Catholic Path
It was destined to be a long journey. I was lost in Dante’s dark wood, so deeply lost that I strayed perilously close to the Inferno. It is a long and arduous climb from there to the foot of Mount Purgatory. But I was in good company. If Dante had Virgil, I had Chesterton. He would accompany me faithfully every inch of the way, present always through the pages of his books. I began to devour everything by Chesterton that I could get my hands on, consuming his words with ravenous delight.
Through Chesterton I came to know Belloc, then Lewis, then Newman. During my second prison sentence I first read The Lord of the Rings and, though I did not fathom the full mystical depths of the Catholicism in Tolkien’s myth, I was aware of its goodness, its objective morality, and the well of virtue from which it drew. And of course I was aware of what Tolkien shared with Chesterton, Belloc, and Newman. Why was it that most of my favorite writers were Catholics?
It was during the second prison sentence that I started to consider myself a Catholic. When, as is standard procedure, at the beginning of my sentence I was asked my religion by the prison authorities, I announced that I was Catholic. I wasn’t of course, at least not technically—but it was my first affirmation of faith, even to myself.
Another landmark during the second prison sentence was my first fumbling efforts at prayer. I am not aware of ever having prayed prior to my arrival at Wormwood Scrubs prison in December 1985, at least not if one discounts the schoolboy prayers parroted to an unknown and unlooked-for God many years earlier during drab school services. Now, in the desolation of my cell, I fumbled my fingers over the beads of a rosary that someone had sent me. I had no idea how to say it. I did not know the Hail Mary or the Glory Be, and I could not remember the Lord’s Prayer. Nonetheless, I ad-libbed my way from bead to bead uttering prayers of my own devising, pleading from the depths of my piteous predicament for the faith, hope, and love that my mind and heart desired. It was a start, small but significant.
My release from prison in 1986 heralded the beginning of the end of my life as a political extremist. Increasingly disillusioned, I extricated myself from the organization that had been my life and had been my raison d’être for more than a decade. As a 15-year-old, I had wished to give my life to the cause; now, in my mid-twenties, I desired only to give my life to Christ. If the devil had taken my earlier wish and had granted it infernally, Christ would take my newfound desire and grant it purgatorially.
Having spent the decade of the 1980s in a spiritual arm-wrestle between the hell of hatred within myself and the well of love promised and poured out by Christ, I finally “came home” to the loving embrace of Holy Mother Church on the Feast of St. Joseph in 1989. Today, 14 years on, I still find myself utterly amazed at the grace that could save a wretch like me.