Radicalised? Me too.

Some thoughts on why ‘being radicalised’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Though what happens before or afterwards may very well be.

I had a very conservative religious upbringing and attended single faith primary and secondary schools. In my secondary school I was given special instructions, along with a small group of other boys, in how to help the holy teachers who ran the school in the ceremonies they would run for the faithful on holy days and, as it happens, every Friday.

On Sundays I would attend the same spiritual ceremony with the rest of my family and would also regularly take part in another where I would ask one of the holy men to forgive me for my youthful sins, such as they were.

Over time this small group of boys would be taken to visit other schools of the same faith to see if we too wanted to become particular kinds of holy men as we grew up. Two of us, me and my friend Paul, were also selected to represent our school as altar servers during the opening ceremonies for Liverpool’s new Cathedral in 1967.

May 1967. I have no photographs of the event.
May 1967. I have no photographs of the event.

Yes, I was brought up as a Catholic, like at least half the other people in Liverpool when I was growing up.

And as I became an adolescent I was also radicalised. Some of this I managed all by myself in the public library near where we lived. I’d become gradually aware that life was really still an unfair experience for a lot of people, even in Liverpool. So I’d begun to read about this poverty and think about how it might be changed. But I was also radicalised by others.

mao01Though Britain had had a Labour government for most of my time at my Bootle secondary school, some of the more politically aware boys were keen to tell me that it wasn’t really socialist. And wasn’t really all that different from the current Conservative government.

And one in particular began to bring in leaflets and magazines, given to him by his older brother, about China. Where they had a real socialist government and where the people were struggling towards genuine equality. I was very interested and very pleased one day to be given my own copy of the Chinese ‘Little Red Book’. Full of talk about ‘paper tigers’ which I didn’t understand. But I was happy to wait. Even happier when I saw the effects my Little Red Book was having on the elders who I had always, so far, obeyed without question.

Yes, I was having an archetypal teenage rebellion. Going around ‘being a communist’ and believing only my generation, the new generation, could change the world into a fairer and more equal place where poverty and injustice would be ended forever.Madame Mao

It seemed like my life was exploding. Full of hormones I didn’t understand but very much welcomed I quickly dropped from a good boy at the top of the class to a very public problem.

The older boys from outside the school supplied us with some more Little Red Books and one day a few of us sneaked into the holy men’s chapel and put a copy in each one’s kneeling place. I also began avoiding the Friday ceremonies, hiding in the cloakroom. And refusing to go to church on Sundays too. So home and school both became battle places.

All of it coming literally to a head over my hair.

In this exploding life I’d also discovered Free and Hawkwind and Led Zeppelin. And wanted to grow my hair like them. Which is what finally got me expelled. Expelled from the single faith school and, as far as I was concerned, from their religion. Somewhere in all the rows and suspensions and punishments of my adolescence religion had simply left me.

Communism hadn’t though and I suppose during those few weeks of notoriety as an expelled boy I must have been prime pickings for the group of shadowy older boys and men who’d been supplying us with reading materials. These were in fact the local branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist Leninist) and I think it’s those brackets that kept them away from me. They always made me laugh. Amused at the implication that there was a sort of Communism that wasn’t Marxist Leninist.

As time passed I never did become a member of anything Communist, but I did identify myself as radical, as radicalised. It’s what got me into housing, into being a Trade Union rep and spending my whole life still working and writing on changing the world into a fairer and more equal place where poverty and injustice might be ended forever.

The Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool today.
The Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool today.

And my point? In recent years and particularly in recent days being ‘radicalised’ is being talked of in the media like it’s some form of Ebola. An infection that can be caught in the air from certain people. Certain Muslim people at the moment. Like it’s a very bad thing indeed, leading directly to all the deaths we’ve seen in Paris this last week.

Well the way I see it it’s a lot more complex than that.

Returning to my own radicalisation for a minute, the only one I truly know about. How come it never led me into harm’s way? Into armed struggle? Opportunities were no doubt around me. Through the Troops Out movement to the I.R.A. would not have been impossible to imagine in those early 70s days.

But in truth that was never going to happen because, though enraged on behalf of others I was never desperate enough in myself. I’d grown up in a family and a time and a place where life was always getting better. My Dad was never out of work and though never well off, we were definitely comfortable compared to every generation of my family before us. And when I went to University it was for free.

And of course I was and am white. So part of the majority in this country and never even vaguely discriminated against, let alone in danger of being demonised for the colour of my skin or how my name looks on an application form.

So my own radicalisation, even if it caused anger and bewilderment at the time, was eventually tolerated to the point where I think it’s helped me to do some good here and there over many years.

But I never lived in desperation, in a situation of deliberate exploitation and exclusion on the far outside edge of a city and society that permanently views me and my kind as outsiders. And so my youthful rage was never such that it led me into harm’s way.

So while I don’t for a second condone the crimes committed this past week and the vicious attack on free speech used as an excuse, I do feel for the killers themselves and those still young and likely to follow them. They are being very badly and cynically led in the most impressionable years of their greatest weakness. And their weakness and vulnerability are only being exacerbated by the hopelessness and exploitation so many of the peoples of our countries are growing up in. On one side of austerity politics and global capitalism are the closed down libraries and Sure Start Centres. On the other are the Banlieues of Paris and so many more of our cities.

More thoughts on radicalisation from philosopher Julian Baggini in The Guardian.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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  1. Very honest account of your ‘radicalisation’, Ronnie. There was a little red book in our household too, brought to us from a Chinese seaman friend of the family, though I couldn’t read it because it was in Chinese. We also went to the Everyman Theatre on Sundays (late sixties, early seventies) to watch these Chinese propaganda films, with stirring music, extolling the virtues of communism showing people happily growing bumper crops in the fields and they always seem be building new sewers for some reason. Anyway, I preferred the occasional martial art movie which was also shown. I must have been about 10, just saw the films as family entertainment and a day out, never converted me in any way.

    Though, I of course condemn the recent killings in France, the march for equality, freedom, etc seems a bit hypocritical to me. The French don’t allow its citizens to wear the niqab and where is the equality they preach when it comes to employment for Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

    1. Thanks Pak, yes I’d noticed that even at the time some of the marchers in Paris on Sunday recognised the hypocrisy in what was taking place.

      And thanks for your own memories of Chinese propaganda. Had never heard about the Everyman showing those films!

      1. The films shows(on Sunday afternoons) were organised by the Wah Sing Community Centre(Duke Street), their 50th anniversary this year, for the local Chinese community.

  2. Hi Ronnie . I was amused by your assertion that our mutual education by the Salesian Fathers comprised a component of a “very conservative religious upbringing”. What, precisely, if anything, could they be said to have conserved? You may not be aware that the Companion of Youth that was issued to us was sanitised in comparison to earlier editions. This was to align it to the sentimental twaddle and mindless optimism of the Second Vatican Council which had then recently been concluded and to airbrush out “uncomfortable” doctrines that they considered embarrassing. Our priest-teachers became amongst the most full-throated promoters of “modernism” and “progressivism”. They could hardly wait to ditch their cassocks and get into the civvies they wear now. Not one of them stood up for the Mass of Tradition, the true charism of their founder St John Bosco, or the immutable faith of 2000 years or even so much as put their pensions at risk for the Gospel as other truly heroic priests did. Little wonder that the Salesians went into terminal decline and are close to extinction, at least in the UK.

    1. Hi Nick, well I suppose it depends on how you define ‘conservative’. I saw the whole Catholic faith in those days as a conservative force, both at home and school. And though I remember a few of the priests giving up – Fathers Baguely, Hughes and Keogh – the rest always struck me as immoveable bastions. So, surprised to hear their order has almost disappeared.

      A few years ago, by the way, Sarah and I ran an event for one of our customers at Shrigley, their former seminary. It’s been largely remodelled, but I did find it very evocative to come across occasional places that still looked and felt as they had to me as an impressionable 12 year old visitor.

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