Fr. Alan Neville MSC talks with John Pridmore about his ongoing pilgrimage through life as an apostle of Christ who once lead a very different lifestyle as a gangster.
Mr Pridmore’s existence once revolved around fast cars, sex, drug deals and money, but he has since renounced worldly goods. After his conversion in 1992 he made his way to the Bronx in New York to join the Fransican Friars of the Renewal, a small group of men who adopt the lives of monks but live in some of the seediest urban districts around the world.
“The work they do is frontline stuff,” Mr Pridmore says, talking of the difficulty of adjusting to the strict regime of prayers and charity. “You’re working with pimps and prostitutes, bathing homeless guys, helping out in the crack dens, you name it.” He has founded his own Catholic group in Co Leitrim, Ireland. When asked who has joined him there, he laughs. “It’s a mixed bunch of people who have signed up to five years’ service. One of them is a nurse; she’s never done anything bad in her life.”
Mr Pridmore, born and brought up in Walthamstow, east London, remembers a perfectly ordinary childhood until, at the age of 10, he was asked to choose between his policeman father and his mother during their acrimonious divorce.
“Some kids can deal with those sorts of situation well but I didn’t,” he says. “I fell apart and that day made a conscious decision not to love any more.”
His father and new step-mother beat him relentlessly, and his teenage years revolved around a series of burglaries and thefts that, by the age of 19, had landed him in a youth detention centre. Later, in prison, he spent most of his time in solitary confinement after frequent fights with fellow inmates.
“When they let me out I was like a caged animal that had suddenly been released. It wasn’t long before I found my natural calling.”
He gravitated towards London’s gangster-owned West End nightclubs, where he “bounced” for a time before moving up the ladder to start running errands for the crime lords he admired.
“I fell in with a crowd of guys who, in my eyes, had everything,” he says. “They ran huge drug-importing businesses, protection rackets and most of the West End nightclubs. My first job was to go down to Dover, pick up a Land Rover from a car park and take it back to London. They paid me five grand for that single job. I knew it wasn’t exactly Mars bars in the back of that trunk but what did I care?”
As the violence increased, Mr Pridmore never left home without his customised long coat containing special pockets for a machete and a can of mace. “It was a very weird life,” he recalls. “I’d be sitting on my sofa, watching Little House on the Prairie with tears streaming down my cheeks. Later that afternoon I might have been practically beating someone to death. It was like the two sides of me never met.”
The doubts set in only after the near-fatal assault. “I drove away from that beating and I realised that I felt nothing, no emotion whatsoever. That, in turn, made me start asking myself what exactly I had become.
“On the outside it looked like a glamorous way to live. I had the penthouse flat, the girls, the sex and the sports car. All the things kids today long for. But I was utterly empty inside.”
Leaving the gangland fraternity was not easy. Deeply involved in major drug deals and intimately acquainted with the inner workings of London’s criminal underworld, Mr Pridmore was afraid he would never be allowed to quit. The only safe way to do so would be to get one of London’s crime lords to offer protection and, much to his own surprise, his boss did exactly that.
“He had no need to do it but he believed me,” he recalls. “I suspect letting me go was something of an insurance policy, a way of having something to show for himself just in case he needed to explain himself to The Man upstairs.”
If and when Mr Pridmore meets his God, he can at least now testify to spending as many years spreading His word as he spent living in sin.
Excerpt from Independent.co.uk.