Saturday, 1 August 2020

Britain is no longer a country for its old and troublesome priest, John Papworth, a 1920s orphan who spent a lifetime looking for the home he never had

Page views : 436

Despite the fact that John, who died at the beginning of July, at the age of 98, is a churchman who has had his life grace the obituary pages of both the 'Times' and 'Telegraph', both made no attempt to assess of the effect on him of having spent the first 14 years of his life, in an early twentieth century orphanage, may have had on him. Here he grew up without the love and affection of parents and the security of family life and was desperate enough, when he left it, at the age of 14, to attempt to take his own life. For this he received no counselling and over the next 70 years and ever restless, proceeded to join and leave a series of other families : the Air Force, the Communist Party, the Labour Party, CND's Committee of 100, the Editorial staff of the publications 'Resurgence' and 'Fourth World Review', the Zambian Government and finally, the Anglican Church. 

John was born in the winter of 1921 and with his mother, Jane Amelia Papworth, a housemaid, unable to support him, was quickly placed in the Essex orphanage, St Leonard's Cottage Homes in Hornchurch, where he was visited by his mother once or twice a year. He never knew his father. Though he described his time in the orphanage as "very miserable". John revisited its buildings in 1997 when the London Film School made a short film about his life entitled 'John Papworth : The Turbulent Priest' and he recalled : "I was raised in an orphanage and I saw very little sign in my own life of the love and goodwill which are the sort of passwords of religion. I think I would have called myself an atheist."
He also recalled, with another orphan, Richard Allen, being caned on the backside by the Superintendent. John stayed in one of the six cottages with 31 other children. The home had its own infirmary, bakery, laundry and workshops and the buildings were designed along a roadway emulating a village street. The boys at the school were given a wide variety of industrial training including engineering, carpentry, painting, tailoring and shoemaking and John worked in the bakery.

Later in life he looked back on the orphanage itself as a success story. It was, he said, set up by a group of working class people, with no guidance or aid from church, state or corporation, with the aim of solving a problem that existed in their parish. The Board of Guardians of the orphanage was, in his opinion, successful in solving that problem for years, until the orphanage was taken over by people he saw as middle-class do-gooders. This happened in 1930 when he was 9 years old and County and County Borough Councils took over responsibility for the administration of children’s homes across Britain. He still remembered the tears shed by the Head of the Board of Governors as she gave away her life’s work. When he looked back, he saw it as his first experience of a successful local initiative being stifled by bureaucracy. John recalled the orphanage at a public talk in 2009.

He left the orphanage, probably at the age of 14 in 1935, to be taken on as a 'baker's boy' in London and in all likelihood was housed by the baker's family. At any rate, he was a sad and lonely teenager who, in his own words, was ‘psychotically depressed’ and failing to see any reason to keep living, he attempted suicide three times. On the first occasion he tried to give himself pneumonia by standing in front of an open window in winter for hours on end, but instead he ended up feeling ‘fitter than ever’. Next he threw himself onto what he considered to be the live rail at a London underground station, but in the event, got the wrong rail and simply cracked his chin open. Lastly, when he got back home, he turned the oven on and tried to gas himself, but the meter ran out of money, was discovered and woke up in an ambulance. His mother visited him in hospital in what was to the last time he saw her and on leaving he was taken to a Salvation Army shelter, from which he fled and lived on the streets as a beggar for several days until the police picked him up and sent him to a Christian hostel, where, with help he recovered and took a job as a school chef.

In 1940, after the outbreak of the Second World War, following the British Army's retreat from Dunkirk, he joined the Home Guard, and later reflected : "We were expecting invasion any minute and do you know how I was armed? A broom stick! Nothing could convey more vividly how powerless our situation was. To think that the safety of the country was dependent on a 17-year-old bloke with a broomstick!" At the age of 18 he tried to join the RAF, but failed the fitness test because of his hearing disability and spent the next seven years in its Catering Department, working as a cook, before his decision to leave two years after the end of the War.

Like many working class lads, he had been politicised in the War, read the writings of Fabian socialist, George Bernard Shaw, saw himself as an “ardent socialist”. He joined the Communist Party because, as he said : "It seemed to me that we needed a revolution to get rid of all these rich bastards who were oppressing us. I swallowed the Communist Party line wholesale. I hadn’t read Marx at the time. Not many communists have in my experience. They’d be amazed to find how much he agreed with Adam Smith." "‘I was really taken with the Russian Revolution, and the talk about “all power to the Soviets”, that seemed to me a wonderful thing. The tragedy is that it was a wonderful slogan, but they never followed it. It was all power to the state. Just like the bosses. I said so and they didn’t like it. They kicked me out after six months. They said I was disrupting the working class, whatever that meant."  

John was 26 when he left the Air Force in 1947. He had impressed officers by his obvious intellectual ability and the RAF sponsored him financially when gained entrance to study as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics. It was at the LSE that he came into contact with and was influenced by the Christian socialist, R.H.Tawney, who had been Professor of Economic History. Tawney warned of the danger of over centralization of power and through his friendship, John met other radical thinkers. Setting up his periodical,'Resurgence' some years later he later said : "I was encouraged to write by R.H. Tawney whose own book 'Religion and The rise of Capitalism' had a big influence." John, however, failed to graduate from the School and on his own admission, was : "Completely out of my depth" and was asked to leave.

His interest in politics was unabated and in the 1950s he joined the Labour Party. He recalled : "First of all I was secretary of the local constituency party. It was all very Fabian and top-down. They thought they were meaningfully determining the direction of the Party, but in fact they were just so much voting fodder for the people at the centre. I became adopted as a candidate in Salisbury in the general election of 1955. It was a hopeless Tory seat. But that disillusioned me because I could see that the ordinary people in the Party, whenever any policy questions came up, instead of saying “well, we think this”, they would say “we must inform the agent and see what he thinks”. The agent would be a bridge to the powers that be in the centre, who would tell them what to think." In fact, John received 12,632 votes and 33.3% of the total vote in the election.

His decision to leave the Labour Party followed. He said : "My total disillusionment came from a conversation I had in the tea room of the House of Commons. I was having a conversation with an MP, Anne Kerr. She asked if I was interested in getting adopted as a candidate for a by-election seat somewhere in the north. I said : "Well I don’t know anybody up there and nobody up there knows me. And she said very smoothly : “Well, these things can be arranged”. And that just echoed in my head."

The first Aldermaston March in protest against nuclear weaponry in 1958, was organised by the Direct Action Committee and supported by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and launched the new movement into the public eye and onto the political agenda. Two years later a number of British public figures set up a group for like-minded people : The Committee of 100. The initiators were active campaigners : members of Direct Action and CND activists whose aim was to be the public front, the face of civil disobedience and anti-war campaigns. They asked the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to be their Chairperson and John took his place on the Committee alongside a galaxy of talent from the Arts : Lindsey Anderson, John Berger, John Braine, Alex Comfort, Shelagh Delaney, Augustus John, Christopher Logue, George Melly, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker.

Their success with symbolic, non-violent, sit-down demonstrations. In September 1961, the Committee took part in a sit-down in Trafalgar Square where Bertrand Russell was arrested along with John and 34 other members. Summoned to appear in Court they were charged under the Public Order Act and found guilty of a breach of the peace. Before he was sentenced to a week inside, Russell made a short speech which was received with rapturous applause.
Like John, he was sentenced to a month in Brixton Prison, but his sentence was reduced to one week due to his age, he was 98, and health. When the magistrate told Russell he would be exempt from the short sentence if he pledged himself to "good behaviour", he replied : "No, I won't". John compared his incarceration with some of the country's most renowned radical thinkers to a “Butlins for intellectuals”. The following year the Committee were in debt, half of the original signatories had resigned and they had no option but to disband.

At the age of 42 in 1962, he became convinced that Britain needed a political revolution and  took himself off to Cuba in with the idea of asking Fidel Castro how to start one. John was in a Havana taxi when the driver picked up a young woman, Marcelle Fouquet, who was a cultural attaché at the French embassy in the USA and was on her way to a meeting with Castro. She agreed to John accompanying her to the meeting and was glad of the his presence when it became clear that the Cuban leader’s intentions towards her were not entirely honourable. John proposed to her later that day and they married the following year.

In 1963 John flew out to the Canada to join the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), a racially integrated group of social activists which left Quebec City, Canada on their Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace to protest the United States' policy toward Cuba. It was only upon reaching Georgia in October 1963, that John and his fellow walkers encountered their first incidents of violence and arrests as they remained steadfast in their commitment to nonviolent discipline and began to emphasize the struggle for racial equality as a main goal.

The city of Albany, south of Atlanta, had long practised a policy of racial discrimination despite the fact that its population was 42% black and Police Chief Pritchett took a hard-line stance against integration. On January 27th 1964 the police arrested 17 walkers in Albany and John was probably one of the seven arrested at a disarmament demonstration at the nearby Turner Air Force base.

In Albany Jail, along with the other walkers, he went on huger strike and was denied soap, towels and writing material when news broke that he had been beaten by drunks in his cell, his treatment and the Albany conflict was raised in the House of Commons. In addition, the Committee of 100 protested at the US embassy in London and wired protests over John's treatment to both Mayor of Albany Jimmy Davis and US President Lyndon B. Johnson and the 'Times' inquired about the incident. John himself was released from Jail with the other walkers at the end of February.

By the 1960s John was convinced by his own experience of the institutions of the orphanage, the Communist Party and Labour Party, that the bigger an organisation, the more it disempowered ordinary people. He believed that until the dawning of the industrial age and the rise of capitalism, the 'small community' had been the prominent form of social organisation around the world. His thinking at this time said : "The destruction of the small, local community has given way to the most dangerous, destructive and degenerate social organisation ever to have existed in history, which is the mass society. The whole thing is based on this idea of 'Democracy', yet you can’t have democracy in a mass society. Why? Because the forces that control the mass are at the centre. They’re not in your hands or mine."

Eager to explore this idea, in 1966, John got together with the writer Leopold Kohr, economist EF Schumacher and poet Herbert Reed and founded the magazine 'Resurgence' which was dedicated to this new vision of the small community. It was under John's editorship, that Schumacher developed the ideas that were to become the basis for his influential book, 'Small is Beautiful', which became one of the keystones of 20th century green thought.

Looking back at this period John said : "I think we’ve got to introduce the idea of organic politics, organic economics, where each small cell is playing a vital part in the life of the entity. This means, it seems to me, the disintegration of centralised states and the integration, if you like, of small villages and communities that have full powers to elect representatives to run the practical things, like regional police, water, gas, sewage. Small nations, governed by small communities – that’s the vision."

He now founded the Fourth World Group  and stood as Parliamentary candidate in the 1970 St Marylebone by-election where he gained 163 votes and 0.97% of the total vote. Based on the Fourth World belief that centralised power must revert to the local level he had started to work on ideas which to which he would give expression ten years later in his Fourth World Review.

Through his activities in the 'Movement for Colonial Freedom', John met Kenneth Kaunda, who was was to become the first President of Zambia and who stayed with John in Earls Court in 1970 Kaunda invited him to Zambia as a personal assistant when he took over control of the country as President later that year.  John flew out with his wife and children and started a nine-year stint in Zambia as 'Rural Development Advisor' to the President of Zambia and founded the 'Village Industry Service'. For the first few years continued to edit 'Resurgence' from Lusaka until Satish Kumar agreed to undertake the Editorship. Kaunda's loss of power as President in 1973 forced John to take a new direction.

Before leaving for Africa, John had been had been influenced by the deep Anglican faith of Tawney and said that he had got to a point where “I came to understand that the modern attempt to live without God had failed.” He now trained to be ordained as a priest in the Zambian branch of the Anglican Church of the Province of Central Africa. His three year's training at St John's Seminary in Lusaka was followed by a fourth year in 'ministry formation'in Lusaka. He later reflected : “I used to be, if not an atheist, then an agnostic, but as I got older I came to see how important religion was. It was trying to answer questions that no-one else was asking.”

A journal article by Nadine Gordimer in 1982 entitled 'A Failure to Understand Zambian Society' made an intriguing reference to the activities of clergyman Oglethorpe and John Papworth in 'the only area in the Northern Province where there are cattle.' In fact John had returned to Britain in 1981 having been driven out of Uganda after threats from by anti-white thugs.

On his return to Britain in 1981, John gained the position of Assistant Curate of St Saviour’s, Paddington. From 1983-85 he was between appointments and in then gained a position at St Mark’s, St Marylebone. Here, he was almost certainly a deacon, since the minister during this period was Donald Aird. John stayed at St Marks for 12 years, which was to be the longest attachment he made to any organisation in his entire life. He left in at the age of 76 in 1997, but did not retire from the Church and applied for a 'licence to officiate' from the Bishop of Bishop of London, but as a cleric who had been ordained the Bishop in Lusaka, John first had to gain permission to officiate from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

John had continued for some years to edit 'Resurgence' from Lusaka until Satish Kumar had agreed to undertake the Editorship but when he returned to Britain he felt that "it had lost its hardcore political punch" and he "felt impelled to launch Fourth World Review". He defined its mission as : "To recover democratic control of the functioning of society which had been largely taken over by economic forces for private interests and to shift the emphasis of government so that it operates from the bottom up rather than the top down."

In March 1981, 'The Internationalist' published  an article entitled : 'Fighting for the Fourth World' and said : 'You've all heard of the Third World - but did you know about the Fourth World? Well, the Fourth World will soon become a household word - if Anglican priest John Papworth gets his way. Papworth is the convenor of the `First Assembly of the Fourth World' due to take place in London this summer. Organisers expect more than 1,000 representatives from the world's small nations, provinces, clans, tribes and races, to gather in July to `declare war on giantism'. 'Unfortunately the movement has been delving so deeply into the grass roots of development problems that there is as yet no sign of them surfacing with practical ideas. Their utopian vision will appeal to everyone who has read of the burgeoning power of multinational corporations or corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies. But can Fourth World supporters stomach the kind of global revolution which a real showdown would involve?'

In 1999, at the age of 78, John was under licence to officiate from the Bishop of London until his remarks about the non-sinfulness of shoplifting in giant stores attracted global media attention and caused him to be sacked from his non-stipendary post. He recalled : "I was on a neighbourhood watch committee in London and the area included the West End shops and at a meeting we were having, shoplifting came up. I said : "If somebody takes goods from their local store without paying for them, that’s illegal and it’s immoral. If they take goods from giant supermarkets, it may be illegal but it’s not immoral, because Jesus said love your neighbour – he said nothing about loving Marks and Spencer. Anyway, somehow or other the press got hold of this and for about five minutes I was internationally famous as 'the shoplifting vicar' and ( Bill Jacob) the Archdeacon of Charing Cross – why they have an archdeacon attached to a railway station I’ll never know – told me they could no longer allow me to function."
John recalled this episode in his life in 1997 :

With the Church of England distancing itself from him, others piled on the criticism. “Disgraceful,” said Home Secretary Michael Howard. “How can we inculcate in our children the difference between right and wrong, how can we hope to teach them moral principles when those in positions of authority in the Church make remarks of this kind?”  Tony Combes, spokesman for Safeway said : "We prosecute all who deliberately steal - it's the law of the land as well as the Eighth Commandment" and Tracey Nelson, for Marks and Spencer said : "Shoplifting is a crime, and we are doing everything in our power to try to prevent it happening". John's story went global with the Los Angeles Times, for example, reporting :  'LONDON —  A Church of England priest sparked a row Saturday by saying he approves of shoplifting from supermarkets.'

John featured national newspapers and interviewed on BBC Radio. he continued to draw a distinction between stealing from individuals or small merchants, which he said was wrong and stealing from giant retailing corporations. Those, he said, had run little stores out of business and harmed local communities. "With these institutions, all you are confronted with are these boardroom barons sitting round the boardroom plotting how to take the maximum amount of money out of people’s pockets for the minimum in return.” 

In 2002 at the age of 85, John made his lone protest about the volume of car traffic with a sit down protest on the zebra crossing in Abbey Road, made famous by the Beatles and with his misspelt hand written banner : ‘STOP CAR MADNESS USE BUSSES AND TRAINS’.
He recalled : "It was my idea. There was no-one else involved, I just thought it needed to be done. I rang up the police and said I’m going to stage a protest about traffic and they said :"Oh please don’t do that". So I did, and they arrested me and took me to Paddington Green and kept me in a cell for a couple of hours. Then they asked, did I want to see the local vicar? And I said : "Well, that’s me." Anyway, they took me into the charge room and the sergeant, a big burly bloke, said : "We can either charge you or we can let you off with a caution". And I said : "I’ve done nothing wrong, so I don’t see how you can let me off with a caution. I’d prefer to be charged". And he glared at me and he said : “Look mate, we’re not here to give crazy people like you free publicity. Just bugger off.” So that was the end of it."

In 2001, in his 80th year and living in retirement in the village of Purton in Wiltshire John refused to fulfil the legal requirement to fill in and return his census, form issued every 10 years by the government to gather  information useful for planning issues and for shaping social and economic policy. Summoned to appear before the Swindon magistrates Court he said : "I am not going to defend myself, I am going to attack them for what they are doing to our nationhood. I am defending our nationhood, our independence and our identity. Britain is not some sort of shopping mall that is just up for sale anywhere on the globe. We have a culture, a history, an identity, and a tradition of liberty and freedom." When he appeared, he tried to defend his actions by addressing the Court with a prepared 15-minute speech stating that details gathered in census forms could be used by politicians and bureaucrats to undermine British sovereignty, but the Clerk of the Court cut him short saying he could not mount a defence if he had pleaded guilty.

After he had been fine £120 he told the BBC : "We are having to tell our children and grandchildren that this England which was once a conqueror has made a shameful conquest of itself and is now bound in with inky plots and rotten treaties." Asked if he would fill in a census form in future he said: "I very much doubt it. We'll see, won't we."

When interviewed at the age of 90 in 2011 by Dele Ogun about his book 'Why Schools of Economics and Political Science should be closed down' when he was 90 in 2011 he said : "I remember when I went to the London School of Economics the first thing I was taught is that the factors of production were land labour and capital. You are saying human beings made in the image of God are a factor of production of no more or less account than a cabbage patch or a bag of money and this seems to me at the root of the immorality of our present economic system that we just cannot we dare not we ought not to dream as human beings as simply a factor of production."

John's census protest was the last time he appeared in the national media, but he remained to the last a controversial figure at the provincial level in the village of Purton in Wiltshire.  Having been barred from his place on the editorial board of the parish magazine he founded his own alternative village magazine, 'Purton Today', which he wrote and edited by himself and in which he attacked the local school for its expansion plans which saw he threatened with a lawsuit by the Headmaster. In addition, he clashed with the British Legion and not unsurprisingly said : "The people in this village can’t stand the sight of me, and I imagine that the minute they had power they’d drive me out."

When interviewed by 'The Ecologist' in 2006, John said :

"If you ask me if I have any hope, I’m driven back to Nietzsche who said : By all means have pessimism of the mind, but never lose optimism of the spirit."

No comments:

Post a Comment