Stand-up comedy, books and a newspaper
Stand-up comedy, books and a newspaper
Joanna Bogle talks to Greg Watts
Greg Watts is a Catholic writer whose books include Labourer in the Vineyard, a biography of Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI, the first to be produced following the 2005 papal election. He is currently editor of The Pilgrim, the Southwark diocesan newspaper.
Appointed in 2011, he recalls telling Archbishop Peter Smith that he didn’t want a paper with “photos of people eating sausage rolls in a parish hall” or too many pictures of bishops and priests. “We both agreed that we wanted articles on education, family life, spirituality, Church history and so on.”
The title The Pilgrim was chosen to reflect the importance of Southwark’s pilgrimage sites, including the great pilgrimages to Canterbury made famous by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which begin in Southwark. “You could say that the most famous pilgrimage in English history began in what is now the Borough High Street and ended at Canterbury Cathedral.”
Watts grew up in rural Derbyshire and after holding various jobs, including chimney sweep and bingo caller, felt a call to serve the Church and went to study at the Jesuit centre, Campion House, in Osterley, Middlesex.
“I had two fantastic years there, where I met a great bunch of guys and had some inspirational teachers, most notably Jim
Smith, a layman, who really got me excited about literature and writing. Eventually I realised that writing, not priesthood, was my vocation. I think editing the college magazine helped me to come to this conclusion.
“After leaving Campion, I moved to London’s bedsit-land, working in an office for a national company while doing stand-up comedy and writing in the evenings. I was useless as a stand-up and got booed off the stage at a couple of pubs I performed at. Newsdesk
“Anyway, I eventually got accepted on to a degree course in English and history at what is now the University of Roehampton. While there, I wrote and produced some plays and began sending off articles to Catholic newspapers, including The Universe, which, to my surprise, offered me some shifts on the news desk. It was a steep learning experience! Just before I graduated in 1989, the editor offered me a full-time position as a reporter. And that was the beginning of my career in journalism.”
His first book was Catholic Lives, a collection of interviews with people from different backgrounds who had become Catholics. He has since completed a total of seventeen books, including the best-seller From Gangland to Promised Land, which he ghosted for ex-gangster John Pridmore. He is now working on a novel “satire about a prosperity gospel preacher, set against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
Along with many writers and broadcasters, Watts is concerned about freedom: “We live in weird, and increasingly angry, times in Britain. Beliefs that most of us accepted as normal, for example that God created male and female, are now being aggressively questioned. Freedom of speech is under attack, even in universities, of all places. If someone says the wrong thing on Twitter, or refuses to toe the line on gay issues, there are calls for him or her to be sacked or even prosecuted.
“I often find myself thinking about Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which was about a witch hunt in Salem, but also about McCarthyism in the 195os in the US when all sorts of people were being accused of being Communists and hauled before a hearing.”
“And then you have the eco fundamentalists with their preaching of the ecological apocalypse. They want to take us back to pre-industrial times. If they had their way, we’d all be living in caves, eating plants, and creating energy with a piece of wood and a stick.
Need to communicate
“I’m not going to say anything about what I think about how the Church should be responding to this bonkers and worrying society that is emerging. But I will say something I’ve been repeating for years: priests need to be taught how to preach, how to communicate with a congregation. All too often, what Catholics hear in a church on Sunday fails to enlighten or inspire them.
He is emphatic about the need to communicate well and believes that seminaries must train men specifically in doing this: “There’s no excuse for mediocre or lazy preaching nowadays. There so much material out there – books, You Tube, podcasts, and so on – that show you ways of communicating effectively to an audience.”
Joanna Bogle is editor of Faith magazine.