Gavin Matthews interviewed Paul Cowley for Solas.
Gavin: Hi Paul. So you have a remarkable story and it starts off in Manchester, I believe?
Paul: Hi Gavin, yes – I was born in Salford. Raised as an only child, my parents were dysfunctional alcoholics. As a result, we moved around quite a lot because as they were both quite volatile, they often fell out with neighbours.
Gavin: And what effect did that have on you?
Paul: Well, we lived in a cycle of drinking and arguments, which got worse as the week went on, and at the age of 16 two things happened. First, I was expelled from Egerton Park Secondary School as I played truant due to being bullied. Second, was that I had an argument with my father. One night, he got back late from the pub and had an argument with my mum. As he went to hit her, I got in the gap and took the clout that was meant for her. He then shouted at me to get out of the house. Running upstairs, I grabbed a bag of stuff left, but after a few hundred yards realised I had no money and nowhere to go.
For a few nights I was homeless and then I got picked up by a gang and moved into their squat. It’s there that I learnt how to thieve from shops, factories and warehouses; but I wasn’t very good at it so I ended up developing a ‘relationship’ with the police! I got arrested and fined – but I couldn’t pay the fines, so I ended up in front of the magistrate’s court in Manchester, got a prison sentence and was sent off to HMP Risley near Warrington. At that time, it was a Borstal, a young offender’s unit and had the nickname, “Grisly Risley”. Three months later my father met me at the gate and told me that he had left my mother for another woman.
I tried my hand at various jobs and tried to stay out of mischief. One day I was driving a furniture van through Manchester when I saw an advert for the Army. It was brilliant advertising. It had these soldiers in uniform standing in front of a backdrop of mountains and snow with the slogan, “Do you want a life of adventure?” So, I pulled up and went into Fountain Street recruiting centre. I said, ‘I’d like to do the stuff in that poster – the mountains, the skiing, and I’d quite like to see the world.’ It took six months to to convince them that I was serious about the Army, but eventually they signed me up. I was 21, and it was one of the happiest days of my life.
It led to 17 years in the military. I was taught many skills, including leadership. I developed physically as I was constantly running and training. I was able to look after myself and no one bullied me again. I excelled at being a good soldier and did two tours in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, and came out at the rank of Staff Sergeant. But those 17 years were also a nightmare because I went through two marriages and two divorces, and almost became an alcoholic. I abandoned my three-year-old son from my first marriage and was not a nice character. The Bible talks about someone of ‘bad character’ – and that’s what I was. My military career was going well but emotionally and relationally I was a complete disaster. When I was 29 years old, I finally went to my commanding officer and said, ‘I need help’. Because even though I was doing well professionally, I needed help because I was turning into my father – affairs, divorces, alcohol.
The Lieutenant Colonel, in his wisdom, really helped me. He sent me to an adventure training centre in Cyprus away from drink, women, and trouble. But – surprisingly, it was there that I met a young English art/dance student called Amanda. She had travelled with a friend to Troodos to do some painting but they had got stranded, so I helped her. I wasn’t looking for another relationship, and I was aware she was only only 21, whereas, I was nearly 30 – but there was something about her that I fell in love with. She taught me about literature and art and she was a little bit crazy like me. A year later we moved in together.
During my career in the Army, I was in five different regiments in the Royal Artillery, and then I transferred into the Army Physical Training Corps, which was an elite Corps of about 300 men. The course to get in there lasted a year and was gruelling. 118 men started the course, but only 18 got through it. During that year, I trained under the direction of Staff Sergeant Eric Martin. He was a kind of psychopath in uniform and I hated him. He was so bad that several of us wanted to do him some harm. Eventually, I finished the course and was posted to the 3rd Battalion Royal Green Jackets as their adventure training instructor, serving with them in Colchester, Gibraltar and Dover. It was a fantastic career.
After I left the Army, I got a house with my girlfriend in Nuneaton. One morning, I picked up the mail which contained a very strange postcard. It was of a biblical scene, with a shepherd and some sheep on the front. There were two circles of pen around the two sheep and written above one was “ME” and above the other one “YOU”. I thought what the heck is this? Turning it over, written on the back was, ‘Paul, I’ve become a Christian. You need to marry the woman you are living with. Jesus loves you. I am praying for you. Come and see me when I get back to Aldershot.’
Gavin: Who was it from?
Paul: Well, when I saw it was signed by Eric Martin, I felt sick! It was from that mad senior instructor in the PT Corps. The worst thing about receiving a postcard from him was that he obviously had my address. Amanda said to me, ‘Are you going to go and see him?’ And I said, ‘No, he was a lunatic when I knew him. So, I’m definitely not going now he’s got this God stuff!’
But eventually I thought well he’s not in charge of me anymore, he has no authority over me – I’ll go and see him and give him a piece of mind about what he put me through. I went to see him in Aldershot and he told me how he had gone to work with the Gurkhas in Hong Kong and had this ‘God Experience’ and then for some reason, he thought of me and sent me the postcard. By the time it reached me, I had left the Army and he was back in the UK.
I spent three days with him in the Sergeants Mess in Aldershot. He told me that God loved me, and had a plan for me and that all this stuff from scripture was true. It was fun. We went for a run, we had a few beers together, and the night before I left, he walked me to my room and said, ‘See you in the morning, Paul.’ He then gave me a piece of paper. Shutting the door, I started to get ready for bed. I looked at the piece of paper which had a Bible verse on it, Matthew 22:13, ‘The King said to his servants, take this man and bind him hand and foot, and throw him out into the darkness where there will be a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth.’
I remember sitting down on my bunk-bed in the mess and thinking what is this? It frightened the life out of me and I didn’t know what to do. I decided to drop to me knees pray, ‘God – I don’t want the gnashing of teeth’. I didn’t sleep well for the rest of the night. In the morning, I went to meet Eric in the Sergeant’s Mess for breakfast. He didn’t even look up at me but said, ‘How did you sleep?’ I said, ‘Not well!’ And still without looking at me he said, ‘What happened?’ and I said, ‘Well, that scripture you gave me with the wailing and the gnashing of teeth, and the hands tied together and your feet, frightened the life out of me.’ He said, ‘What did you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I prayed, God take away the gnashing of teeth’. And that’s when Eric put his knife and fork down and looked at me, and said ‘That’s fantastic, welcome to the Kingdom of God, Paul, you’re now a Christian!’ And that was my introduction to the Christian faith!
Gavin: So he was still a bit of a hard-nut!?
Paul: Yeah, well, he was an army boxing champion! I left him, went home to my girlfriend and tried to forget about what he said. I then went to a Sunday service at Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge (HTB). They invited me to an Alpha Course. I thought I’ve been in the Army 17 years and done courses all my life, why not do one on God? And it was on the Alpha course at HTB that I learnt that there were some nice scriptures, not just the one that Eric had given me. And it was on the Alpha weekend when someone prayed for me that I surrendered and admitted that I needed help in my life and then from then on things really started to change. I married Amanda and my son came to live with us.
Soon after that I went on a prison visit with Emmy Wilson from HTB and it was there that I had a bit of an epiphany. I shared my story and prayed with some men whose life backgrounds were worse than mine. When I came out of there, I felt God say to me, ‘Your past is a mess, and it’s not all your fault. If you let me, I can use it for good, and I’ve got a plan for you.’
In 1997, I joined the staff at HTB to develop the Alpha course in prisons. I pioneered Alpha Prisons throughout the UK, but I realised that I needed to do something more for these men. It was good to lead them to Christ while they were inside, but we needed to do something for them when they came out; so I founded the charity “Caring for Ex-Offenders” which utilises church volunteers to meet them at the prison gate and help them on the outside. I also established a night shelter at HTB and a course for men and women with addiction. I am now the Ambassador for Social-Transformation HTB and Alpha International.
In 1998 we had a daughter and I was able to be a better father to her than I was to my son. In 2002 I was ordained a priest in the church of England and in 2016 I was awarded an MBE by the Queen for work with ex-offenders, which was amazing.
Since June 2018, Amanda and I have been involved with St Francis – HTB’s 5th site. It is set on a deprived estate (5,000 people) near the Grenfell Tower. Before the lockdown we had grown it from 15 to 80 people. During the lockdown, although the church is closed for services, we have been able to run a foodbank each Thursday and we are really getting to know the local community.
But it all started with someone giving me a crazy piece of scripture!
Gavin: And now you’ve put all this together in the book – what are you hoping will be achieved through that?
Paul: Well the book has taken 5-years to write with my wife, Amanda. She’s a writer, but she’s been extraordinary as there was a lot of my history she had to process and write about before I met her.
The idea of the book is to give people hope. I have always imagined a young man in a prison cell, who’s had a really bad upbringing, feeling like he’s lost everything and has no hope, reading the book. It says in Proverbs, ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick.’ – and I know there are a lot of people like that in prison. I imagine that person reading this book and thinking if this kid from Salford, who had a bit of a rough upbringing, can achieve so much, once he surrendered to God, maybe there’s hope for me.
I hope people will explore God, and give Him a chance – like I did. Even though I was given a scary scripture by a mad staff sergeant, it was the best scripture for me, because it made me realise that there was a God who I might have to answer to.
Some of the skirmishes I got into are quite comical but the book has got a thread of God all the way through it. At the beginning of the book I say, ‘It is not the tale of a gangster or a violent man. I didn’t do a life sentence or commit a horrendous crime and I wasn’t a military hero either. In that respect it is not a dramatic story, but for that very reason there may be many readers who can identify with my experiences, especially from my early years.’ If the book does that for one person, it will have been worth it! And although it’s not a preachy book – it’s that thread of God that I want people to find.
Gavin: So what would you say to someone reading this blog who feels hopeless, whether it’s Corona virus, life circumstances or addiction, loss of job?
Paul: A boxer, when his opponent is too strong, throws in the towel. That’s what I did. I needed God’s help. I am very resourceful, and I’m a strong character and I’ve been around the block a bit, but I got to the point where I needed help. What I would say is, ‘Don’t Give Up’. You know that old saying, ‘It starts to get light at the darkest hour?’ Give God a chance, explore God. Have a look at the Bible, read some of the words, maybe try to pray – ask God to help you, like I did. You have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.
Gavin: That’s quite a story, Paul, thanks for sharing it with us.
Paul: It’s a pleasure!
Paul Cowley’s remarkable autobiography Thief, Prisoner, Soldier, Priest is in bookshops now, priced £14.94 https://www.eden.co.uk/thief-prisoner-soldier-priest/
Paul on BBC News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcDuCAJYIsQ