In his 85 years, Papworth has been a communist, a cook, a beggar, an editor, a presidential adviser, an orphan, a runaway, a prisoner and a priest
Pinned to the wall in the kitchen of John Papworth’s 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 Beatles’ LP cover. The priest holds a hand-scrawled banner that reads ‘STOP CAR MADNESS USE BUSSES AND TRAINS’. Buses is spelt wrong. To the left of him, a car drives unconcernedly by. It’s not clear that the protest is working.
‘I’m making coffee,’ says the guilty party. ‘Would 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 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.’ He chuckles and clatters about by the Aga with a coffee pot.
‘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. Do you take milk?’
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. It’s 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 man’s 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 didn’t 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 Papworth’s journey began in an orphanage in Essex in the 1920s. Though he describes his time there as ‘very miserable’, 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 life’s work. These days the orphanage and the parish have gone. It’s 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 ‘fallen’, 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 baker’s boy. He also became ‘psychotically depressed’. 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 ‘fitter than ever’. 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 wasn’t 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.
It’s 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 today’s schools, about the effect of video games and advertising on the young, about the kind of society today’s kids are forced to grow up in.
It’s not hard to see the connection, and he’s not shy in admitting it. ‘Look at the bloody world we’ve created for these kids!’ he says. ‘They’re 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.’
This, it seems to me, is the foundation of John Papworth’s politics. ‘Something has died in the soul of man,’ he says. It has been killed by ‘the mass society’. Independence, individualism, community life, real human freedom – these are struggling to survive, like children in an adult’s 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. ‘We were expecting invasion any minute,’ he says. ‘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!’ 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 ‘completely out of my depth’, and was thrown out. Before the war, searching for answers, he had joined the Communist Party, but it hadn’t been a happy move. ‘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.’
Communism, he quickly discovered, was too top-down for him. Far from wanting to liberate ‘the people’, the communists wanted to control them too. ‘I was really taken with the Russian revolution, and the talk about “all power to the Soviets”,’ he explains. ‘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.’
Communism having failed him, Papworth tried the Labour Party instead, then in its post-war heyday. They, too, let him down. ‘First of all I was secretary of the local constituency party,’ he recalls. ‘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.
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. ‘My total disillusionment came from a conversation I had in the tea room of the House of Commons,’ he remembers. ‘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.’
All Papworth’s 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 ordinary 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 ‘small community’.
‘They were the oldest social unit in our history,’ he says now, ‘and 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 “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 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 Papworth’s 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.
‘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,’ says Papworth now. ‘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.’
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 movement’s weaknesses. ‘If you want something, whether it be democracy or peace or any of the great virtues – well, if you think that you’re going to get it by campaigning for it with no understanding of the power structure that’s promoting the things you’re trying to oppose ... you see it in so many organisations now. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. I’ve 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 you’re being? But they don’t want to hear it. They prefer to hug their security blankets.’
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.
‘I was on a neighbourhood watch committee in London,’ he explains, ‘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 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.’
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 ‘small nations, governed by small communities – the idea that, in the title of his latest book, he calls ‘village democracy’. When he first 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 Papworth’s 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 don’t want to hear. He’s 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 don’t like this kind of message. They don’t 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 doesn’t 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 it’s 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.
‘I have no illusions about that,’ he agrees. ‘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. That’s life. But you know, the moment I start talking about an alternative, people start telling me I’m looking for an ideal society. I’m not looking for such a thing at all. I’m fully aware of the downside of human nature, and I simply want a society that promotes the upside. I’m fully aware that the downside will always be around as long as people are around, because we’re fallen creatures.’
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 ‘community’ one might associate with rural life. It’s dangerous to idealise village life, or rural life – but it’s dangerous, too, not to consider alternatives to the current unhealthy social model.
And here, John Papworth can’t 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 doesn’t 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.
‘There’s a transformation of consciousness going on now that is absolutely beyond any measure,’ he says. ‘If 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 don’t 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 I’m driven back to Nietzsche, who said – by all means have pessimism of the mind, but never lose optimism of the spirit.’ He grins, and looks decades younger than eighty five.
‘I think it might be time for some lunch,’ he says. ‘I’m going to give you an omelette. Would that be alright?’
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2006