I first saw Jonathan Bowden speak in 2009. It was the most rousing speech I had ever heard. I was sitting at table with a number of like-minded friends, and by the end of the speech we were all ready to follow Jonathan over the barricades. Some scornful words of Ayn Rand keep coming back to me when I think about our reaction: “Theirs is the mentality ready for a Führer.”
It was quite simply the most inspiring, spell-binding performance I had ever witnessed. Not even Jean-Marie Le Pen, whom I had heard some years earlier, could surpass it. (This might be due, in part, to the fact that I don’t understand a word of French.) I realized I was in the presence of a rather remarkable human being.
Tentatively I approached him afterwards and chatted for a minute or two (getting his autograph in the process). But I didn’t linger. There was something disturbing about his gaze, which seemed to go right through me. I had the feeling I was being carefully assessed, and it was none too comfortable.
I didn’t see Jonathan again until February of this year, when I flew out to San Francisco for a Counter-Currents event. Jonathan hit town the day after I did, having been invited by Greg Johnson to be special guest speaker. He arrived wearing a black suit and tie, which he wore during the entirety of his visit. (I never saw him without his tie.) And he carried a large, blue art portfolio which contained a rather grim and ghastly painting he had brought for Greg. I have to confess I don’t care too much for Jonathan’s art, but it certainly is original, and it certainly is “him.”
We went out to eat that first night at a restaurant on Washington Square. Then we took Jonathan to the famous City Lights Books. He was of course familiar with its place in the history of the Beatnik movement. Eventually, jet lag got the better of him and he simply disappeared into his room and was not seen again until the next morning.
I spent a good deal of time with Jonathan over the next several days. He was guarded at first, and now and then that piercing gaze would return – so much so that sometimes I just had to look away from him. There were awkward silences in our conversations during which he seemed to be taking the measure of me. But gradually he began warming up.
We talked of many things.
I have a soft spot for the British Royal Family (and for the institution of monarchy; see my essay “In Defense of Royalty”), and when I meet an Englishman I always bring up the topic, just to see what the reaction will be. I’m usually disappointed. Jonathan, unsurprisingly, was keen on monarchy. But he saw the Queen as basically a kind of limousine liberal, probably genuinely committed to “diversity” (and quite possibly on Christian grounds).
We also had a lively conversation about some of my favorite British spy series from the 60s: Danger Man, The Avengers, and The Prisoner, all of which Jonathan remembered fondly.
I tried to get to know him, but much of the man’s life seemed shrouded in mystery. For some time he had been writing short essays for Counter-Currents, always using a computer in the public library somewhere in the U.K. On this particular visit (only his second to the U.S.), Greg Johnson and Mike Polignano gave him a rather spiffy laptop as a gift, so that he could more easily write for the website. (Jonathan couldn’t have gotten much use out of the machine, as he died just a month later.)
I asked him whether he was married. He said that he was, and that his wife had been a schoolteacher. I inquired further, but received only very short, monosyllabic responses and a lot of awkward silence. Oddly, I can’t find any mention of his having been married in any of the sources I’ve looked at.
During lunch one day I asked him where he had gone to school. Smiling awkwardly, he pointed to the design on his dark tie, which featured a number of small red crests. I assumed I was supposed to recognize the design, but confessed that I did not. “Cambridge,” he said. “Ah,” I replied, suitably impressed (and unsurprised, given that the man was obviously fantastically well educated). But again, I can’t find any reference to Jonathan attending Cambridge (one source notes that he completed just one year of a B.A. history course at London University’s Birkbeck College, then left). If it was a lie, I couldn’t care less. I’ve always found people who tell tall tales to be rather endearing. Jonathan was a thoroughly outrageous, and outrageously gifted man. Absurd self-aggrandizement in a man like that is easily forgiven.
The speech Jonathan gave at the event wasn’t as funny or as inspiring as the one I heard in 2009. But it was still quintessential Jonathan. He told me beforehand that he had no idea what he was going to talk about. He called his style of speaking “mediumistic.” It involved getting up in front of an audience and gauging its mood and feeding off of it. As a result, his speaking style had a kind of incantatory quality, as if he were conjuring up spirits. He had a truly remarkable ability to achieve rapport with an audience. And a remarkable ability to speak off the cuff (which I truly envy). Just as before, everyone (well, almost everyone) loved his speech – and Jonathan loved giving it. He promised to come back in the summer and speak at another event. Alas, it was not to be.
After a couple of days, Jonathan relaxed considerably, and a warmer, and even funnier side of him began to show itself. Over one memorable dinner he regaled us with his impressions of various Right Wing figures, and with his repertoire of accents. (He liked to imitate American accents, though he always went a bit over the top, exaggerating their worst features.)
After dinner, we wound up at a friend’s house, who decided to show Jonathan his gun collection. Having been starved of any contact with guns in the U.K., Jonathan was delighted. After their owner made sure they were all unloaded, Jonathan began examining them, tentatively at first. But then the child in him took over. I got out my camera and began snapping pictures as Jonathan struck various poses with the pistols, taking goofy delight in playing James Bond and Dirty Harry. Those images are what come to mind now when I think of Jonathan.
I flew out the next day, hours before Jonathan was to return to London, fully expecting to see him again in a few months. Mentally, I now added him to my list of “unusual and exceptional friends” (of which I’m quite proud). When I heard the news of his death a little more than a month later, I didn’t believe it. And in a way I still don’t want to.
Jonathan had a brilliant command of intellectual history, and it is a pity he did not produce more disciplined books. But perhaps he wasn’t capable of that. Jonathan was exceptionally strange, irascible, protean, and very loud. One never quite got to the bottom of him, and I am convinced he was also slightly mad. But his was a divine madness. I suppose one could describe him as a British eccentric — except that there was nothing harmless about Jonathan Bowden.
What a tremendous loss! I will miss him.