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BY Joseph Pearce
In his teens and 20s he was a member of a quasi-fascist party in Britain and was even jailed for race hatred.
Through reading G.K. Chesterton, he eventually became a Catholic and ditched his extremist beliefs.
He was written 12 books on such figures as Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and E.F. Schumacher, as well as a volume on literary converts.
The 40-year-old writer-in-residence at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., spoke recently with Register correspondent Paul Burnell.
Can you tell us about your family background?
My parents were working class from the East End of London. My father was a carpenter and my mother did various unskilled jobs at various times. I left school at 16 and got waylaid in dubious politics.
What kind of politics do you mean?
I actually enrolled on an engineering degree course but I got involved in extreme right-wing politics and I dropped out in order to pursue a political career and I ended up editing The National Front newspaper.
How did you come to be involved in that kind of politics?
In the mid-1970s in working-class housing estates it wasn't unknown for people to be involved — we had more than 30 paid-up members of the Young National Front in our housing estate. I got involved when I was 14 or 15. In the England of the 1970s, a lot of people were persuaded that there was a problem with immigration.
Did you get involved in any of the more notorious activities of the Front?
There was always violence, it was part of the backdrop. We used to have running fights with the Socialist Worker Party. I was arrested and convicted under the Race Relations Act for inciting racial hatred with the magazine called Bulldog, which I edited for the Young National Front. I served two separate prison sentences.
Did you actually hate black people and Jews?
It is very difficult to understand the emotions behind my behavior, especially after a quarter of a century. Now, I don't think I ever hated anybody as a person — they were in abstract. I had views about blacks and Jews which were far from Christian.
How did you begin to change?
The Trotskyites used to taunt us that we were the foot soldiers of capitalism. Being an East End boy, I didn't like the idea of that. I wasn't prepared to let it pass.
I tried some research when someone suggested I try to read the distributism of Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. I bought one book on Chesterton's distributism and one led to another. I am an enthusiastic bibliophile and I started reading more of his works, I began to read his defence against attacks on Catholicism.
At this stage I was a member of the Orange Order in London, opposing the Pope's visit to Britain.
We had very strong links with the UDF and the UDA [Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland]. There were three Orange Lodges in London. I was a member not because I was Protestant — it was merely a political thing because of the National Front's connection with these groups.
I read [Chesterton's] Orthodoxy and I actually felt is arguments were reasonable. I found myself sympathising with the Catholic position. In 1986 some Jehovah's Witnesses called at the door and I though it would be fun if I would pretend to them I was a Catholic. I was convinced I could win the argument. That was in 1986. In 1989, I was received into the Catholic Church.
You partially discovered your faith in prison, right?
From 1982 to 1986, I had done a lot of reading in prison. At one stage, I was in solitary confinement. Unfortunately, members of the party protested so much I got moved out of solitary — I had been enjoying it!
I had started off reading mainly political stuff but had found myself regretting not having a faith. Then I had the problem of squaring it with my politics.
I first started going to Mass in 1986. I don't think I really understood it. I went to see a priest. I was going to Mass every Sunday. He was younger than I was. I think he was out of his depth, to be honest. It was a difficult time, anyway, as I was trying to extricate myself from politics and cutting my ties with certain friends and acquaintances.
I moved to Norfolk (in Southeast England) in 1988 and started attending Mass again and undergoing regular instruction. When people asked me questions about my background, I told them.
How did the people react?
They were very positive. When I was received in the parish, I just felt like I had come home.
What did your parents make of this change?
They were very supportive. My father has since become a Catholic.
How did you get into writing?
I am not sure how I managed. I got a job in a book wholesalers where I worked from 1988 to 1996. I had read books on different aspects of Chesterton but I never felt there was one book that covered all areas of his life. I would be researching and writing when I got home from doing a full day's work. I had to take the plunge and go full time. I realised that I would not get an advance unless I already had a manuscript to show a publisher.
God really blessed me. I got a big publisher for the book. The book got some very good reviews. I have been very blessed to be a fulltime writer.
I was prompted to write to Ave Maria because I thought, with getting married and hoping to start a family, freelance writing is very precarious. God has been very, very good to me, His timing has been impeccable. We are now expecting our first child.
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England