Jon Ronson: ‘Right. Time to work up a good pulpit sweat’

Documentary maker and journalist Jon Ronson remembers a trip to Cameroon with Dr Ian Paisley in 1998

In January 1998 Ian Paisley announced that he was exiling himself from the Good Friday Agreement peace talks and would instead travel to Cameroon to preach to the sinners. I wrote to ask him if I could tag along and make a documentary — Dr Paisley, I Presume. He agreed, and so I flew to Belfast to introduce myself and do a bit of filming at his Martyr's Memorial church.

Within minutes of getting off the plane I was being peered at through the sights of a gun by a British soldier who was sitting in a tank in a shopping precinct and looked about 16. A few minutes later I stopped at a pub for lunch and two men came over and asked me what “part of Belfast” I lived in. I said I was Jewish and my war was in Palestine. It was like another world.

I headed to the Martyr’s Memorial, where I found Dr Paisley in his office greeting constituents. I stood in the corner of the room. He looked straight through me so I awkwardly began filming. Then he noticed me, exhaled noisily, shook his head from side to side, like a wild horse, and bellowed with irritation, “Can someone get this boy out of here?” I was led out of the room and I flew back to London. It was an inauspicious start.

Our difficult relationship continued a few days later on the plane to Cameroon. I smiled across the aisle at him but he just sat there, quietly reading the Bible. I could see that he’d made detailed notes in the margins, in tiny, neat handwriting. This was impressive to me — Bible-wise, he definitely walked the walk. He later told me he could recite the Old Testament in English and in Hebrew.

Feeling the urge to break the ice I cleared my throat and leaned across the aisle.

"I imagine the Cameroonian singing style must be very different to the Northern Ireland one," I said.

He looked at me. “In what way?” he boomed.

“Well,” I continued. “Take the vocal harmonies...I assume they’re”

I trailed off. Perplexed, I could see that he was now furious with me. A steely silence ensued that continued for the rest of the flight. It continued through disembarkation, customs and passport control and into the courtesy bus, where it finally and mercifully ended.

“We Ulstermen are outgoing people,” he suddenly announced as the bus bounced through the potholed suburbs of Yaounde. “We’re hospitable people. We’re good singers. These are characteristics that are sadly lacking in some Englishmen!” He turned to the Cameroonian churchmen who had met him at the airport. “I’m under police surveillance wherever I go. And now I have a journalist recording my words to use them against me.”

"Dr Livingstone had a journalist with him too," I said.

"And Stanley took all the glory!" he roared. "'Dr Livingstone I Presume!' As if Livingstone was lost! I'm not lost in Africa. I'm saved. It's you that's lost! The lost sheep of the house of Israel. "

The visit lasted eight days, during which time we travelled across country in two hire-jeeps, while Dr Paisley preached the gospel thrice daily to the locals. We had walkie-talkies to ensure nobody got lost on the long drives through the countryside. On our first trip my walkie-talkie crackled into life.

"Germany calling!" Dr Paisley hollered. "Germany calling! There's a good degree of racism in us all! Did you hear that? Racism in us all! Ha ha! Over!"

I was quite astonished. I wanted to make sure we’d captured the moment on camera. So I said, “I got a bit of a crackle there, Dr Paisley. Could you repeat that please?”

“You got no crackle at all,” he yelled. “You got the message loud and clear. Do not tell lies. Over and definitely out!”

Three hours later we pulled up at a small stone church in a forest clearing. Dr Paisley's travelling companion, The Rev David McIlveen, who was at the time the head of the Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign, approached me with a small smile on his face.

“We had a little bit of a laugh and a joke with you, didn’t we?” he said.

“Yes you did,” I said.

Dr Paisley wandered over. He looked like he felt a little guilty about the walkie-talkie incident.

“How are you?” he said.

“Fine,” I said.

“How’s your wife?” he said.

“Good,” I said.

“Very good,” he said. He clapped his hands together. “Right. Time to work up a good pulpit sweat.”

From then on, Dr Paisley had three nicknames for me: The Jew, My Jewish Friend, and My Circumcised Friend.

It was dusk. 50-or-so locals were gathered on the grass. The church lights weren’t working, so Dr Paisley retrieved from his pocket a torch he’d brought at Heathrow. He propped it on the ground and switched it on. It cast a giant Ian Paisley shadow across the church wall, like Godzilla. And he began to preach.

And it was mesmerizing. He stared out into the darkness, oblivious to the insects that were crashing into his face, attracted by the torchlight.

“The only way to face the sea is to have that right posture before God. A posture of SUBMISSION. Leaning down to God’s perfect and blessed will...”

This was how it began for him, preaching to the sinners at Barry Island during WW2, roaring the words to be heard above the hullabaloo of the funfair. "CHRIST STANDS AT YOUR HEART'S DOOR WITH A NAIL-PIERCED HAND. HE'S KNOCKING TO GET IN. LET HIM IN TONIGHT!"

It was pitch dark by the time he’d finished and we’d all packed up. We continued on the journey, through a red light district, and on towards the hotel, the Ranch, in Ebulowa. We passed posters advertising Guinness.

"Firewater," Dr Paisley muttered. "That's the curse of civilization. Guinness is good for you? It should be Guinness is very bad for you. This is a wild place at night. But nothing compared to Kenya. And Jerusalem. Jerusalem's much worse. Terrible. Too many Arabs. Haha!"

My hotel bedroom carpet teemed with insects. I stood rigid in the middle of the room, afraid to put my suitcase down onto the infested floor. Dr Paisley wandered past my open bedroom door. He looked at me. Then he said, gently, “It’s not so bad.”

He smiled at me.

A few minutes later I walked by his open bedroom door and I stopped. He didn’t know I was watching him. I saw him take down a painting from the wall. It was of a topless woman. He placed it in his wardrobe.

Later that night my phone rang. It was my wife, back in London. She was in a terrible state. She was pregnant and the doctor had just told her that we had something like a 250-1 chance that the baby would have Down’s Syndrome. After I put the phone down I sat on the bed, overwhelmed with anxiety. I decided I needed to talk to someone about it. I needed to seek out Dr Paisley for spiritual counseling. I left my room and found him in the hotel foyer.

“Dr Paisley?” I said.

“Not now! I’m busy!” he roared. I backed away. And that’s the end of that anecdote.

Years later people would ask me if I was surprised by his incredible transformation into Martin McGuinness’ friend and fellow ambassador for peace and compromise. Had I noticed anything about him in Cameroon that indicated such a conversion might some day occur? I wish I could say I had, but there was nothing. In fact on our last day together — at his mission house in the countryside outside Yaounde — he sat me down and said, “Somebody once said to me, ‘If it wasn’t for your religious views you’d have taken Northern Ireland by storm’. But I won’t give in. I am not sacrificing my religious views for anyone. I am a captive to the Bible. I am a prisoner to the Bible.”

I don’t know how Dr Paisley found a way through this fundamentalism to become the person he eventually became, but it’s wonderful that he did.

I think my best memory of him — the thing that stays with me the most — happened after we’d returned from Cameroon. I spent six weeks editing together the documentary. There were moments I knew he’d like — the incredibly powerful torchlight preaching, the utter dedication to the Bible, the long, long hours travelling in arduous circumstances from backwater church to backwater church, revealing a tireless desire to preach the world of God. But there was stuff in there that I knew he’d hate — the bullying, the casual anti-Semitism, the startling and — I thought — quite manipulative mood-swings. He was forever chiding me and also his local translator, Joseph. Joseph adored Dr Paisley. On one occasion he was late to meet us, so we were running behind schedule. When we made it to the church Dr Paisley announced to the congregation, “I would have been here on time but Joseph slept in! Translate, Joseph!” Joseph had to translate his own humiliation.

I didn't realize it but the documentary's producer David Malone had offered to show Dr Paisley a cut of the film before it aired, to check it for factual accuracy. This kind of thing always worries me, especially with someone as volatile as Dr Paisley, because 'checking for factual accuracy' can easily turn into a scuffle for editorial control.

“Do you want to be there for the viewing?” David asked me.

“No I bloody well do not,” I replied.

So instead I waited in London, staring anxiously at the telephone. For hours. Finally, it rang.

“Okay,” David Malone said. “Let me tell you what happened.”

David told me he had laid on a big buffet. Dr Paisley, his son and David McIlveen all showed up, looking very somber and suspicious and silent.

“Dr Paisley,” David said. “Before we watch would you like to have some food?”

“Very well,” Dr Paisley said. “Let us first pray.”

They all bowed their heads. “Oh Lord,” said Dr Paisley. “Let us pray that the journalists have made a good film, an honest film, let us pray that they have not ruined my reputation, defamed me....Now. Let us watch.”

David pressed play. And for the next hour Dr Paisley roared with laughter, slapping his knees, elbowing David McIlveen in the ribs. When it was over, he said, “Marvelous.”

“But dad,” Ian Paisley Jr said. “What about, um, ‘Germany Calling’?”

“Nobody will watch if it’s all preaching!” Dr Paisley said. “There has to be humour! Or else nobody will watch!”

“But...” David McIlveen said.

But Dr Paisley wouldn’t listen. There was no hubris to him then, no self consciousness. That admirable lack of vanity has stayed with me ever since. Whenever I’ve tried to interview someone who wants to manipulate the story, a victim of their own narcissism, or maybe I’ve succumbed to narcissism myself, I’ve remembered Dr Paisley’s admirably egoless attitude, and I’ve learned from it.

“Don’t change a thing!” he roared.