* John Papworth: an introduction *


Richard Moore

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John Papworth: This Turbulent Priest

    Nobody meets John Papworth and forgets about it in a hurry.
    Paul Kingsnorth reports on a man who can inspire people ­ or
    get right up their noses


Author:Paul Kingsnorth

Pinned to the wall in the kitchen of John Papworth¹s large, sprawling house in 
rural Wiltshire is a black and white photograph. A lanky, white-haired priest 
sits cross-legged in the middle of the Abbey Road zebra crossing, made famous by
the Beatles¹ LP cover. The priest holds a hand-scrawled banner that reads ŒSTOP 
CAR MADNESS USE BUSSES AND TRAINS¹. Buses is spelt wrong. To the left of him, a 
car drives unconcernedly by. It¹s not clear that the protest is working.

ŒI¹m making coffee,¹ says the guilty party. ŒWould you like coffee? You look 
like you would. Yes, well, this was when I lived in London, you see. 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 I¹m going to stage a protest about traffic. And they
said, oh please don¹t 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, that¹s me.¹ He chuckles and
clatters about by the Aga with a coffee pot.

ŒAnyway, 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 
I¹ve done nothing wrong, so I don¹t see how you can let me off with a caution. 
I¹d prefer to be charged. And he glared at me and he said, ³Look mate, we¹re not
here to give crazy people like you free publicity. Just bugger off.² So that was
the end of it. Do you take milk?¹

The Reverend John Papworth is not an ordinary man. In his 85 years he has been a
communist, a cook, a beggar, an editor, a presidential adviser, an orphan, a 
runaway, a prisoner and a priest. He has founded two magazines and several 
journals, been offered a parliamentary seat by the Labour Party, sheltered an 
escaped spy and taken tea with HG Wells.

He has led protests, founded organisations, written books and starred in TV 
documentaries. He was talking about localisation, community power and organic 
farming 30 years before anybody else. He has inspired people as diverse as EF 
Schumacher and Kenneth Kaunda, and got right up the noses of thousands of 
others. He has an unerring ability to cause trouble, and an open, unashamed 
delight in doing so. Nobody meets John Papworth and forgets it in a hurry.

Today, I am hoping he will tell me his life story, or at least the best bits of 
it. It¹s a story worth hearing on any terms. By turns, fantastically 
entertaining and bleakly sad, instructional and cautionary, it is the tale not 
only of one man¹s progress through a turbulent century, but of the birth and 
growth of a political movement. John Papworth is one of the unsung inspirations,
founders and driving forces behind the green movement in Britain. If he didn¹t 
take such delight in making enemies, he would probably be better known for it, 
but I suspect he would not have it any other way.

John Papworth¹s journey began in an orphanage in Essex in the 1920s. Though he 
describes his time there as Œvery miserable¹, he nevertheless looks back on the 
orphanage as a success story. It was, he tells me, 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, according to Papworth, were successful in solving 
that problem for years, until the orphanage was taken over by people he clearly 
sees as middle class do-gooders. He still remembers the tears of the head of the
Board of Governors as she gave away her life¹s work. These days the orphanage 
and the parish have gone. It¹s clear he is affected by the memory. As he tells 
it, this was his first experience of a successful local initiative being stifled
by bureaucracy.

Papworth is full of stories like this, and they exhibit the curious paradoxes 
that inform his thinking. A working-class orphan, he could now pass as a 
well-off Anglican vicar. He is full of talk about the virtues of small 
communities, and yet he lived in London for much of his life. Now that he lives 
in a village he hates it. He sees civilisation as in rapid decline and human 
beings as Œfallen¹, yet remains optimistic and, even at 85, insistent on trying 
to put things right. For Papworth, there is always something that can be done ­ 
and something that must be done.

Perhaps this eagerness to change the world for the better comes from that early 
childhood misery. When Papworth left the orphanage he became a baker¹s boy. He 
also became Œpsychotically depressed¹. Failing to see any reason to keep living,
he attempted suicide three times. First he tried to give himself pneumonia by 
standing in front of an open window in winter for hours. Instead he ended up 
feeling Œfitter than ever¹. So he threw himself onto the live rail at a London 
underground station ­ except that he got the wrong rail, and simply cracked his 
chin open. When he got back home he turned the oven on and gassed himself ­ but 
the meter ran out of money and he woke up in an ambulance.

It reads like something out of Dickens, but this wasn¹t the end of it. On 
leaving hospital he was taken to a Salvation Army shelter, from which he fled. 
He lived as a beggar for several days until the police picked him up and sent 
him to a Christian hostel. There he recovered the will to live, and took a job 
as a school chef. He was working there when the Second World War broke out.

It¹s hard to imagine a worse start in life. Many people would be floored 
permanently by this sort of existence, but Papworth not only picked himself up, 
he decided things needed to change. Tellingly, throughout our conversation, he 
keeps coming back to children ­ his worries about today¹s schools, about the 
effect of video games and advertising on the young, about the kind of society 
today¹s kids are forced to grow up in.

It¹s not hard to see the connection, and he¹s not shy in admitting it. ŒLook at 
the bloody world we¹ve created for these kids!¹ he says. ŒThey¹re caught between
the mighty wheels of a totally immoral commercialism, and grossly 
overcentralised governmental power, so that everything significant about their 
lives ­ their relationships, their feelings and their awareness of things like 
beauty and truth ­ is steadily being crushed.¹

This, it seems to me, is the foundation of John Papworth¹s politics. ŒSomething 
has died in the soul of man,¹ he says. It has been killed by Œthe mass society¹.
Independence, individualism, community life, real human freedom ­ these are 
struggling to survive, like children in an adult¹s world. John Papworth 
struggled to survive, and succeeded. Now he seems to be paying something back.

After the British retreat from Dunkirk, John Papworth joined the Home Guard, 
where he realised precisely how much trouble the country was in. ŒWe were 
expecting invasion any minute,¹ he says. ŒAnd 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!¹ Fortunately, there was no invasion. He tried to join the 
RAF, but was too deaf to become a pilot. Instead he spent seven years as a 
military cook.

After the war, his thirst for change came back to the fore. He tried to take an 
economics degree at the LSE but was Œcompletely out of my depth¹, and was thrown
out. Before the war, searching for answers, he had joined the Communist Party, 
but it hadn¹t been a happy move. ŒIt 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 hadn¹t read Marx at the time. Not many 
communists have in my experience. They¹d be amazed to find how much he agreed 
with Adam Smith.¹

Communism, he quickly discovered, was too top-down for him. Far from wanting to 
liberate Œthe people¹, the communists wanted to control them too. ŒI was really 
taken with the Russian revolution, and the talk about ³all power to the 
Soviets²,¹ he explains. ŒThat 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 didn¹t like it. They kicked 
me out after six months. They said I was disrupting the working class, whatever 
that meant.¹

Communism having failed him, Papworth tried the Labour Party instead, then in 
its post-war heyday. They, too, let him down. ŒFirst of all I was secretary of 
the local constituency party,¹ he recalls. ŒIt 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 ³well, we think this², they would say ³we must inform the agent and see 
what he thinks². The agent would be a bridge to the powers that be in the 
centre, who would tell them what to think.

Indeed, it was an experience in the Labour Party, according to Papworth, which 
cemented an idea that had been brewing in his head for some time: an idea that 
would form the basis for all his later thinking. ŒMy total disillusionment came 
from a conversation I had in the tea room of the House of Commons,¹ he 
remembers. ŒI 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 don¹t know anybody up there, and nobody 
up there knows me. And she said very smoothly, ³well, these things can be 
arranged². And that just echoed in my head.¹

All Papworth¹s experiences up to this point, from the orphanage to the Communist
Party, had convinced him of one thing ­ the bigger an organisation, the more it 
disempowered ordinar y people. Whether it be an orphanage, a political party, a 
state or an army, mass organisations inevitably destroyed both individual will 
and the institution that, until the dawning of the industrial age and the rise 
of capitalism, had been the prominent form of social organisation all around the
world ­ the Œsmall community¹.

ŒThey were the oldest social unit in our history,¹ he says now, Œand they 
endured until about 100 years ago. 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 ³democracy², yet you can¹t have democracy 
in a mass society. Why? Because the forces that control the mass are at the 
centre. They¹re not in your hands or mine.¹

Eager to explore this idea, in the 1960s Papworth got together with a group of 
thinkers and doers who thought the same way, and founded a magazine. With writer
Leopold Khor, economist EF Schumacher and poet Herbert Reed, he founded 
Resurgence, a magazine dedicated to this new vision of society. It was in 
Resurgence, under Papworth¹s editorship, that Schumacher developed the ideas 
that were to become the basis for his enormously influential book Small is 
Beautiful; one of the keystones of modern green thought.

ŒI think we¹ve 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,¹ says 
Papworth now. ŒThis 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 ­ that¹s the vision.¹

Since founding Resurgence in 1966, Papworth has pursued this vision. He has been
an activist in the peace movement, and has been jailed several times for his 
anti-war activities. His long experience has given him a typically frank view of
this movement¹s weaknesses. ŒIf you want something, whether it be democracy or 
peace or any of the great virtues ­ well, if you think that you¹re going to get 
it by campaigning for it with no understanding of the power structure that¹s 
promoting the things you¹re trying to oppose ... you see it in so many 
organisations now. It¹s a waste of everybody¹s time. I¹ve said this to some 
people in the peace movement. I said, when I started out working for peace, only
one country in the world had nuclear weapons. Now there are 30. What does that 
tell you about how effective you¹re being? But they don¹t want to hear it. They 
prefer to hug their security blankets.¹

John Papworth is not shy about telling people what he thinks they need to hear. 
He seems, indeed, to have a remarkable ability to fall out with his erstwhile 
allies. First the Communist Party, then Labour, then the editorial team at 
Resurgence who took over from him, then the peace movement. Perhaps his most 
famous public falling-out was with the church.

Papworth trained to be a vicar after the war, and became an ordained minister. 
After causing trouble in various parishes he was caught bang to rights in 1997, 
apparently encouraging his parishioners to steal from supermarkets.

ŒI was on a neighbourhood watch committee in London,¹ he explains, Œand 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, that¹s illegal and it¹s immoral. If they take goods from giant 
supermarkets, it may be illegal but it¹s 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 the archdeacon of Charing 
Cross ­ why they have an archdeacon attached to a railway station I¹ll never 
know ­ told me they could no longer allow me to function.¹

Debarred from preaching, he turned his attention to his other interests, which 
for some time have focused around writing books and editing the Fourth World 
Review, the magazine he founded after leaving Resurgence. All his writings these
days propound that central idea of Œsmall nations, governed by small communities
­ the idea that, in the title of his latest book, he calls Œvillage democracy¹. 
When he fi rst started propounding such ideas in the 1960s, they were dismissed 
as archaic, antediluvian, reactionary and absurd. Today, they are at the 
forefront of a political and social movement that is trying to find answers to 
the problems thrown up by over-development and environmental degradation.

This is where Papworth¹s ability to make trouble; to annoy people; to alienate 
himself, must be put into context. For five decades, John Papworth has been 
telling people things they don¹t want to hear. He¹s been telling them that their
lifestyles are unsustainable, that the society they live in is heading for 
disaster, that their priorities are wrong and that things need to change. Much 
of the time he has been right. But people don¹t like this kind of message. They 
don¹t like it because it is challenging, uncomfortable and it threatens them. 
They prefer not to hear it; they prefer to curse the messenger. But John 
Papworth doesn¹t mind being cursed. If anything, he enjoys it. This, it seems to
me, is a great strength.

But it is something of a paradox ­ and not the only one. His focus on small 
communities and villages as the best form of social unit, for example, is 
complex too. He is full of praise for the virtues of the small community. 
Unfortunately, as he quite freely points out to me, he currently lives in one, 
and it¹s a disaster.

In the Wiltshire village he lives in, Papworth has, in three short years, 
managed to get himself debarred from preaching ­ again; thrown off the editorial
board of the village magazine; blackballed by the British Legion, and threatened
with a lawsuit by the village headmaster. The latter problem stemmed from an 
article he wrote in his alternative village magazine ­ founded, edited and 
written entirely by himself ­ attacking the school for its expansion plans. I 
put it to him that should his current home be granted the full powers of his 
desired village democracy, the first thing they might use it to do would be to 
expel him.

ŒI have no illusions about that,¹ he agrees. ŒThe people in this village can¹t 
stand the sight of me, and I imagine that the minute they had power they¹d drive
me out. That¹s life. But you know, the moment I start talking about an 
alternative, people start telling me I¹m looking for an ideal society. I¹m not 
looking for such a thing at all. I¹m fully aware of the downside of human 
nature, and I simply want a society that promotes the upside. I¹m fully aware 
that the downside will always be around as long as people are around, because 
we¹re fallen creatures.¹

Maybe this is the point. Papworth is not talking about how things are, but how 
they should ­ or could ­ be. In a genuine village community, things might be 
different. But his village, like so many in England now, is commuter-led, not 
land-based. There are few services and little of the traditional Œcommunity¹ one
might associate with rural life. It¹s dangerous to idealise village life, or 
rural life ­ but it¹s dangerous, too, not to consider alternatives to the 
current unhealthy social model.

And here, John Papworth can¹t be faulted. At 85, he has more energy than many 
people a third his age, and he refuses to stop working for change. He probably 
doesn¹t even know how to. Now, he has the immense privilege of having lived long
enough to witness ideas that he has promoted for decades ­ dismissed in his 
youth as naïve, unrealistic or downright idiotic ­ becoming mainstream thought.

ŒThere¹s a transformation of consciousness going on now that is absolutely 
beyond any measure,¹ he says. ŒIf you think back even five years, nobody talked 
about global warming, for instance. Things are changing fast, and much of what 
we have said is being proved right. I don¹t know if it will be in time or if it 
will be enough. It seems to me that people are addicted to this world. But if 
you ask me if I have any hope I¹m driven back to Nietzsche, who said ­ by all 
means have pessimism of the mind, but never lose optimism of the spirit.¹ He 
grins, and looks decades younger than eighty five.

ŒI think it might be time for some lunch,¹ he says. ŒI¹m going to give you an 
omelette. Would that be alright?¹

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