"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche



3 Apr 2021

Review of 'Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey with my Grandfather', Robert Nurden



In this moving account of the trials and tribulations of this extraordinary and complex character, the title of the book exactly sums up Stanley James’ spiritual journey. Robert Nurden’s book is an honest, unsentimental and meticulously researched labour of love, driven by his care and fascination, not just for Stanley, but his entire extended family going back for several generations.

Although born in Bristol and spending most of his childhood in London, Stanley was fascinated by, ‘the mystical and poetic spirit’ of his Welsh heritage, which included Nonconformist religious traditions and agricultural life, from Pembrokeshire in the west to Monmouthshire in South East Wales. Stanley’s father, Daniel Bloomfield James, served as minister of several Nonconformist churches but—as Stanley would do after he had exhausted his wanderlust and returned to the church after a period of agnosticism and rebellion—was continually falling out with church deacons for what he regarded as their conservative and obstructive approach, and their objection to his unconventional and radical brand of Christianity.


From an early age the Nonconformist church failed to satisfy Stanley’s spiritual and intellectual needs and, even after he returned to religion, Stanley flirted with, among other causes and beliefs, Epicureanism, pacifism, women’s suffrage, socialism, even Marxism.


One of the earlier influences on the young Stanley, and one that would lure him away from his family and country of birth, was Walt Whitman whose writing seduced him with, ‘cosmic vision of, large spaces, a faith in and charity towards the universal man … To be a man, then, was the goal, not compliance with puritan taboos but growth in normality.’


Stanley around the time of his emigration to Canada

In March 1893, at the age of 23 and together with his brother Norman, Stanley travelled to Canada and become, in turn, ‘cowboy, shepherd, navvy, hobo, journalist and soldier—a kind of 1890s hippy.’ Those who wish to know of Stanley’s adventures in the Americas are urged to read not only Nurden's book but also Stanley’s two autobiographies, The Adventures of a Spiritual Tramp (1925) and Becoming a Man (1944). From the former, below is a brief extract of Stanley’s time as a hobo, even if this consisted in a single series of tramps he undertook with a vagabond adventurer he met in Lethbridge, Alberta. Nonetheless, the trip involved some of the most dangerous aspects encountered by hobos ‘beating’ trains.


Riding the rods involved perching on a narrow metal structure running parallel with the axles while holding on to the gearing overhead. At first, Stanley had the sensation of being hurled, bound and helpless, through space. The mens’ feet were so low down that if they’d been dislodged by the movement, their legs could have slipped on to the track and been dragged along at 50mph. […] They broke the journey at Winnipeg and took advantage of the Salvation Army shelter. The final leg was in a hay box of a truck carrying horses where they were forced to lie on the brake beam again. Eventually they reached Toronto after a journey of two weeks, evading the prying eyes of a detective in the freight yards and headed, coal-stained, hungry and tired, for the warmth and comfort of Harry’s home.


The potential fate of beating trains befell Welsh tramp writer W.H. Davies when he lost a foot jumping a train on his way to the Klondike gold fields. Stanley would later become a close friend of Davies who continued both writing and tramping on his return to Britain, now equipped with a wooden leg on which he walked from London to Swansea and back to his home town of Newport, South Wales. But back to Stanley, who after failing to find paid work in Toronto, headed south into America where, after more tramping adventures and sleeping in parks and Salvation Army hostels, he signed up with the 13th US Infantry and ended up in the absurd mission of chasing the Spanish across Puerto Rico:


‘… in the course of the night the soldier next to him fired at what he swore was the enemy advancing under cover of darkness. Panic spread, and soon the whole line of outposts was spitting fire into the night. … However, no enemy followed up the retreat and, in the morning, an old white cow was found riddled with bullets, mistaken in the night for an attacking formation of white-uniformed Spaniards.


A further paradox was Stanley’s confirmed pacifism, and when called upon to engage in mortal combat, deliberately fired over the enemy’s heads. He also became impressed with the way that Catholicism affected the everyday lives of the local population, something he would later rely on to extricate himself from a tricky love affair. On going down to a river near where his troop where stationed to wash his laundry, a young woman, concerned at his amateurish attempts at the task, offered to do his laundry for him, following which she took it away to dry while Stanley waited. This became a regular encounter which later involved regular visits to the house of the girl’s brother-in-law. One day the brother-in-law proposed they get married but, writes Stanley, “I lost my nerve. Being unprepared for … for a matrimonial adventure, yet desiring to save the lady’s feelings, I pleaded a wife in America … bigamy was out of the question.’ This is the first time we get a sense of Stanley’s misguided sense of chivalry.


Stanley became seriously ill while in Puerto Rico and, due to inferior food supplied to the forces, nearly did not make it back alive having to spend the winter in various military hospitals in New York from a combination of dysentery and possible yellow fever. His pay on being invalided out of the army was just sufficient to allow for his return passage to the UK in 1899 at the age of twenty-nine.


Stanley the cowboy, foreground, centre (courtesy Glenbow Museum, Calgary) 1893


With no other means of support—his American adventures hardly provided him with a useful CV—after returning to the family home he eventually followed his father into the Nonconformist ministry. His shyness and awkwardness in regular company did not extend to the role of the preacher at which he clearly displayed an exceptional charisma: ‘The egotism of the pulpit was in my veins.’ Having stood in as a preacher when his father became ill the following year, he was formally given the ministry following his father’s death, aged 59, on 28th June 1900. Stanley was already in a serious relationship by this time with Jessica Heley, whom he married on 1st October 1901.


Stanley would follow in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. Over the following years there was a series of break-ups with church deacons that led, even in the Nonconformist ministry, the revolutionary Stanley to leave a church—often with half the congregation in tow—to set up another, even more radical ministry. But Stanley’s was not the only radical ministry during this period and several others are mentioned in Nurden’s book that Stanley, and certain of his congregation, attended. These included the Brotherhood Church in Hackney described as a ‘Christian Socialist, Tolstoyan-anarchist church in Southgate Road’. In 1907 the Church had hosted the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, whose delegates included Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. The Church also had links to the suffragette movement and heard speeches by Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie and Bertrand Russell, among others. At the time Stanley was a leading speaker on both pacifism and women’s suffrage and may well have addressed audiences at the Brotherhood Church. Nurden informs us that the Church, demolished in 1934, is now the site of a Tesco store.


At the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Fenner Brockway and others established the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) to oppose compulsory conscription into the armed forces. Stanley, minister at the time of Trinity Non-conformist Church in Walthamstow, joined the NCF in 1917 at the time that Bertrand Russell became its Chairman and, as Nurden informs us, was leading parallel lives both as a church minister and a social activist for more than one campaign up until around 1923. Stanley shared a room at the NCF offices with Bertrand Russell and even, on occasions, deputised for him. A coincidence related by Nurden, is that Russell and Stanley, unbeknown to them, were distantly related to each other through Stanley’s wife Jess to the Dukes of Bedford—the Russells. In 1917 also, Stanley published his book about conscientious objectors, The Men Who Dared. During this period between seven hundred to a thousand conscientious objectors were imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs—a focus of the NCF’s activities. Restless as ever, Stanley, always seeking the perfect home for his personal brand of religion and philosophy, next joined the Christian, non-resistance organisation, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and started writing a regular weekly column for the independent New Crusader (later The Crusader) plus hundreds of other articles—under various pseudonyms—again, up until 1923. 


So unorthodox was Stanley’s approach to religion, that he even acknowledges to getting ‘fed up’ with Christianity. He admits to being an admirer of Nietzsche, the philosopher who wrote a polemic against Christianity in his work The Antichrist. But as with Nietzsche, it was not Jesus—the ultimate tramp philosopher—that Stanley had a problem with, it was the corruption that others had made of Jesus’ original philosophy. Nietzsche describes St Paul’s dogma as follows, something Stanley would almost certainly have identified with: ‘a levelling, suffocating, hypocritical morality, they say is contrary to life, to the creative impulse, to the heroism of culture, protecting the weakness and mediocrity of the throng at the expense of the individual


Stanley’s good looks, radical views (including his support of women’s suffrage) and charismatic sermonising, inevitably attracted the attention of certain women from among his congregation. But too much, I feel, is made in Nurden's book of reported sexual liaisons with these woman. Searches on the internet for information about his grandfather threw up a book, The Match Girl and the Heiress by Seth Koven (2014), and what Nurden read he describes as taking his breath away. The allegation was that Stanley had, ‘grotesquely abused his ministerial authority to seduce idealistic vulnerable female congregants.’ Koven continues to allege that in between preaching his own brand of love and unity, Stanley was, ‘using a small private room in the church to have sex with some of them.’ Koven had been influenced by an earlier book edited by Tierl Thompson titled, Dear Girl: The Diaries and Letters of Two Working Women, 1897-1917 (1987). The letters and diary entries certainly identify a close and intimate relationship between Stanley and three women of his congregation, all the more forthright and colourful as the women could not have possibly guessed that they would ever be read by anyone else. 


Dear Girl was principally focussed on the relationship between these relatively liberated and outspoken women of the time, with Stanley’s role being somewhat secondary. Nurden would eventually meet both Koven and Thompson as part of his research and gained access to ten boxes of letters, diaries and other material, written by and between the three women. This provided an alternative insight into his grandfather than that provided by Stanley’s autobiographies and accounts of other family members.


There is no question that Stanley neglected his wife and children for the greater glory of his ego and his ministry, nor that on occasions he spent more time with the aforementioned women than he did with his wife. But suggestions by Koven and Thompson that he used his position in the Church to seduce vulnerable young women are unfounded to fit a contemporary and patronising narrative of feminism where women are necessarily the victims of men’s predatory sexual behaviour and unable to make choices for themselves—even where that choice is to commit adultery. There is only evidence of one sexual liaison with one of these women, and on one occasion. And that with a widow with four children in her own house and not a private room in the church—if her own account can indeed be relied on. 


Koven later admitted that his claims were unfounded but Thomson maintained that, ‘in the context of today’s feminism and the #MeToo movement there is much of resonance here about abuse of trust and manipulation of women by a powerful figure, albeit 104 years ago.’ So why then try to draw any parallel between the #MeToo movement and the behaviour of a certain Edwardian man one hundred years ago. As the vagabond writer Louis L’Amour says in his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man—possibly as an insurance against his own future critics—‘A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.’


Stanley was forty-two around the time he met Ruth and Eva, they were in their late twenties. Both were educated working women who shared Stanley’s interest in socialist politics, pacifism and women’s suffrage, as well as a version of Christianity that rejected orthodoxy for a practical religion grounded in scientific rationality and social justice. The backdrop to the period in which these liaisons took place included several experimental and alternative lifestyles, including ‘free love’, that would have been a topic of conversation between Stanley and both male and female members of his congregation. The admiration Stanley shared with certain of his closest women parishioners was clearly mutual. Certainly they exchanged intimate letters. But to characterise Stanley as an abusive sexual predator on the basis of this correspondence is absurd.


Stanley’s main reason for visiting Minna’s house seems to have been to spend time with Eva who by that time had been a member of his congregation for around six years. Eva had moved in to live with Minna after the latter’s husband had died of consumption. Thompson was convinced that the relationship between Eva and Minna was a sexual one. Minna shared the same bed with Eva and in their writings expressed their love for each other. It should be further noted that Minna had her own relationship with Stanley’s wife and seven children of the time and so, if she did have sex with Stanley on the aforementioned occasion, she was likely as much to blame as he was.


For whatever reasons, by 1919 Jess had decided to move with the children to the Mendip village of Rodney Stoke in Somerset where she rented a small farm cottage to which Stanley, totally immersed in his London life of preaching, campaigning and writing, only visited occasionally. In the meantime Jess, threw herself into a tough rural life of self-sufficiency to support herself and her children—who by all accounts enjoyed something of a free and adventurous existence of which Nurden relates several amusing anecdotes. 


Around this time, Stanley’s ongoing carefully researched quest for his natural religious and philosophical home, while still a confirmed socialist, led him in the direction of Free Catholicism. He writes:


Gradually, however, the lessons of the past, the study of medieval society and, especially the story of the guilds, drew my attention in another direction… One does not reach Rome by one road, but my many converging paths. … My mind was steadily moving towards the conception of a dogmatic and organic Faith.’


But, as Nurden observes, Stanley still craved the unambiguous certainty of authority and started to focus more on theological matters than the material poverty of those who had been the concerns of his socialist ethic: 


I told myself that it might be necessary that [social activities] should die out altogether. My lack of interest in the social life was construed as due to the absence of human sympathy… I could not “come down to the level” of the folk among whom we were placed.


Nurden expresses not a little confusion about the intellectual processes by which his grandfather arrives at his beliefs: mixing the organic realisation of ‘welding his ideas’ to the established institutions he was engaged with, to arming himself with a set of a priori truths. In the end, the latter won out and Stanley broke with his former revolutionary convictions to, as Nurden puts it, ‘surrender himself completely to a higher authority’. He became ordained in the orthodox Catholic ministry in 1923. Now in his fifties, he was to experience a new sense of liberty: 


I learned from Catholic truth how narrow and warped had been my tastes and how terribly they misrepresented my true self. It has been and is a great joy discovering these lost continents beneath the ocean of one’s being’.


In a complete reversal of his former beliefs, Stanley now turns Nietzsche’s concepts of Übermenschen (drawn from the superior intellects of ancient Greece and Rome as opposed to what Nietzsche regarded as the brain numbing effects of Christianity) on its head. He would explore in his article ‘The New Race’, the idea that democracy should give way to an authoritarian style of governance; one in which the Catholic Church was ideally placed to provide the kind of benevolent dictatorship that would regulate society to function according to a system defined by its natural laws. As he wrote in an article for the Catholic Herald titled, ‘The New Chivalry’:


We [Catholics] are different. We constitute a new, superior race… Living and working in a non-Catholic community, we are in danger of losing our identity. The more we mix with others… the more must be the fact that we are a Chosen People be stressed’.


Paradoxically, such views demonstrate not only the extent to which Stanley had parted from his earlier humanitarian concerns but from the very essence of Christianity itself. How un-Christian indeed to dismiss not only other religious and non-religious beliefs, but even other branches of the same religion. But Stanley’s return to fundamentalist orthodoxy at least drew him closer to his wife and children with whom he now started spending the majority of his time:


As one grows older, family ties come to mean more. I suppose that we are better able, as we near the end, to get down to the physical roots of our being; the more superficial kinds of relationships mean less while those based on kinship reassert themselves.


Not that this new found family commitment always brought comfort to either Stanley, his long suffering wife, or his grown up children. As Nurden’s aunt Patricia once confided to him, ‘He could be a cruel man. His Catholicism and his attempts to make everyone follow him tore the family apart.


Such then is Stanley’s spiritual journey from the earthly preoccupations of the tramp philosopher to the heavenly achievements of an established freelance Catholic journalist, though Stanley maintained a fierce independence even in that role. Nurden describes in the Epilogue of his book, the ‘turbulent life’ of a restless soul and has praise for his grandfather’s relentless search for ‘the truth’ and prolific output of writing throughout that process. 


It’s certainly not for any of us to judge Stanley the man but accept his contribution to the history of ideas. In that regard Stanley is no different to many other notable characters from history who, misguidedly or not, put what they regarded as their public mission before their private responsibilities. Nurden even suggests that, ‘Maybe the private held terrors into which he dared not stray’. But one needs to read Nurden’s Epilogue, indeed the whole book, to fully appreciate the complexity that was Stanley James and his life. Nurden concludes that his grandfather claimed to have found the peace he’d been looking for at the end of his life but comments, ‘If so, I would argue, it seems a distinctly uneasy peace. There is even a loneliness, or a kind of awkward emptiness, there.’


Books by Stanley B. James:

Poverty Gulch (novella) (1917)

The Men Who Dared (on pacifism) (1917)

The Adventures of a Spiritual Tramp (first autobiography) (1925)

The Evangelical Approach to Rome (1933)

Back to Langland (1935)

Franciscan Fables (1937)

Christ and the Workers (1938)

Becoming a Man (second autobiography) (1944)

In the Light of Day (1946)


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