Be careful what you read—it may change you, for better or worse.
In the case of Joseph Pearce, his early reading made him a violent white supremacist. It also landed him in jail. While there, he continued to read; only this time, he read the works of G.K. Chesterton. It was not so much that Chesterton’s words suddenly changed his politics or his propensity to violence, but they did initiate a change, one much more profound than his earlier one into a neo-Nazi and this change would, in due course, prove wholly reforming. A remarkable transformation followed: the angry young atheist became a devout Catholic; and, his anger turned to zeal as he set about popularizing Catholic writers and their works.
The fact that, post-conversion, Pearce managed, in 1996, to publish a biography of Chesterton is miraculous in itself given his background. That he did so via a mainstream publisher and went on to publish many more biographies and books on Catholic literary figures, was equally miraculous. His subsequent work on Tolkien proved equally timely, as did those on Shakespeare. His biography of Oscar Wilde, published in 2000, was the first to present the spiritual life of the Irishman, and it was a brave exposition for the times in which it appeared. To say the least, Pearce’s entry into the world of Catholic Letters was felicitous.
Joseph Pearce has just published Merrie England: A Journey Through the Shire (Tan Books). It is a travelogue of sorts. In it, he recounts a walk the length and breadth of the country, with a solitary incursion into Wales. The walk dates from the eve of the Millennium, and tells of a time just prior to when he made America his home. It is, therefore, a “farewell” to a land he loved dearly, and, no doubt, still loves. Inevitably, this book is as much about Pearce as it is about England.
The England he describes is a curious one though. He walks from one sacred historic site to another, thinking, delighting, philosophizing, and lamenting. The reader, to whom he addresses these thoughts, becomes a companion of sorts. We hear potted histories of places that have particular significance for Catholic England. He talks of long forgotten saints, of ruined monasteries, hidden histories of recusancy, in short, of the long, and at times bitter, betrayal of the faith inscribed in the battered monuments of this scepter’d isle.
Merrie England does not record the England that was, at the time of the walk, straining towards the fast approaching new Millennium. Then England was giving hardly a backwards glance to its history. Instead what is presented is Pearce’s idea of England, a lost Albion, one now gone, never to be retrieved. Like many a departing immigrant before, it is as if he is trying to remember what remains dear in his homeland so as to take its memory with him on his journey into exile.
As recorded in these pages, his trek is, therefore, an altogether personal one. All pubs are alehouses; all fields are shires. This is an England of rural simplicity, in tune with an ancient past that informs the present. A self-proclaimed pilgrim, it is as if he ventures forth with a walking stick in hand like a character from Middle Earth. There is not a motorway in sight, nor a petrol filling station, no littered inner city streets, no rubbish dumped in countryside lanes, or—the tribute to mindless vandalism and civic indifference—spray painted graffiti on desolate urban walls. Pearce’s England may have something unreal about it but, needless to say, it has a charm, and is infinitely preferable to many of the realities with which citizens of this country battle each day.
It is interesting to read Merrie England, his latest published work, alongside his 2013 autobiographical Race with the Devil: My Journey From Racial Hatred to Rational Love (St. Benedict Press). That book tells of his growing up in England and ends with his departure to America. The land described in those pages is as far removed from Merrie England as possible: one of poverty, far-right politics, racism and violence. That memoir’s pages are filled with the haze of alcohol-fueled fights, of bitterness and frustration, of odd, half-baked political philosophy, and even odder foot soldiers in the race war Pearce was then trying to ferment. Race with the Devil is as good as any at depicting that period of British social history. It feels more real, in one sense, than his latest work, but this may be to miss an altogether different reality present in Merrie England.
Race with the Devil is a conversion story as unique as it is compelling. It is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Pearce’s former political beliefs at the time also incorporated the anti-Catholic prejudices of Protestant Ulster. He was not only interested in fermenting a race-based conflict in Britain but also in attacking the Catholic communities then besieged in Belfast, Derry, Armagh and other cities across Ulster. At one point, he almost became an international gunrunner, sending weapons that would be pointed at and used on those entering Catholic churches or leaving Catholic schools. As I say, his conversion from the bigoted thug he had become to a first-rate documenter of all things literary and Catholic is altogether unique—or is it more correct simply to say miraculous?
What Race with the Devil is also good at revealing is that conversion is a process. His intellectual conversion to Catholicism proved quicker than the reformation of his morals and lifestyle. He had to deal with the emotional debris left from a former life lived far from God. Sometimes, in meeting those interested in becoming Catholic, it is easy to forget how hard that journey of faith can be, not for doctrinal reasons, but for all too human ones. In Pearce’s case, in becoming a Catholic, he was giving up a cause for which, throughout his adult life, he had lived, fought, and almost died. Some of the friendships he had made during that period were genuine. Baffled former comrades wondered what had become of their “storm-trooper.” The separation from his former life would take years. Nevertheless, Joseph Pearce was heading from the darkness he had inhabited for almost all his life towards the light of a bright new morning, if one that was still slowly dawning.
Read through this prism, Merrie England is, therefore, not so much the recounting of a journey as marking the end of one. It is wholly appropriate that much that “scars the shire” is removed from sight. It is right that there are no voices recorded here but the pilgrim’s on his very personal journey. It is a journey that is as much an inner one as one undertaken over hill and dale. In seeking out the lost beauty of an England older and truer than the one conceived by the boorish chauvinism of his earlier days, Pearce was finding a deeper reality. A reality that was, by then, beginning to shape him, and henceforth was to shape him even more. Now he was slowly being initiated into a secret. One that all believers sense, and that some glimpse daily as they make their way down the litter-strewn streets of modern England while their eyes are upon a transcendence beyond.
Pearce is joining an ongoing pilgrimage that has continued for centuries, and that will continue, despite persecution and contrary dictate. At last, freed from political dead ends, Pearce has become a lively pilgrim, one on his way, with his brothers and sisters not just of England but of every race and nation from across the Catholic world, accompanied, too, by those now departed from this earthly realm who journey with us still.
England today is less merry than it was. Its “merriness” came from being the Dowry of Mary; and until her ancient shrines are rebuilt, that attribute is unlikely to return. Nevertheless, there may well come a time when, in the distance, there shall appear a flickering light, perhaps from one of those re-established centers of Marian devotion, and, with it, hope will be given once more to many. In some ways, mysteriously, that was what happened to Joseph Pearce while in a prison cell reading the work of one of the greatest Englishmen that ever lived and prayed, and who understood what “merry” really meant.
Editor’s note: The image above is a picture of Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, taken circa 1890s.