Prior to reacquainting ourselves, the last time I saw John Kevin Wilshaw was in 1992, on Brick Lane, deep in London’s East End.
By then I was working as a mole inside the far right, while Kevin was looking down the barrel of a two-year sentence (reduced to three months on appeal) for vandalising a mosque in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
A year later, I would be living in Australia caring and thinking not a whit about what had happened to the likes of John Kevin Wilshaw.
Those were dark and violent times. Brick Lane was a battleground fought over by fascists and anti-fascists for control of a small piece of ground at the top of the Sunday market.
Kevin and I had both witnessed and taken part in violence there. Thousands of far-right activists from across the world had done likewise over the decades, making a pilgrimage to the area.
After the market, we would all head off for drunken and volatile afternoon binges in a rabbit warren of dark and smoke-filled backstreet boozers where internecine squabbles between rival nazi factions and gangs were settled, alliances forged, reputations made and heads kicked in for even the smallest infraction.
Some would move away from it, grow up or grow tired of the boring and boorish individuals who shaped “the movement” with threats and violence, Nazi salutes, swastika badges, a constellation of dark self-loathing mired in bitterness, hatred and defeat.
For Kevin, since 1974 and even a little before, this has been his world: the violent underworld and underbelly of British fascism and nationalism.
Now, for the first time, he has spoken to us about the lie he held close over the past four decades of neo-nazi activism: that he was gay, and he was Jewish.
It began as his escape from the tedium and violence of a lonely 1960s childhood in rural Cumbria.
And even now, 25 years after our nazi lives first crossed in east London, Kevin once more has criminal convictions looming (over something he has written on social media).
The Prevent Programme fears the 58-year-old divorcee may be radicalising young people, marching as he has done on a number of occasions to his local Wetherspoons pub in a sinister-looking long leather coat and a variety of nazi-era headgear to drink alone in a dark corner.
It is in those dark corners Kevin has had to confront his loneliness and his fears.
“I’m not likely to radicalise anyone,” he moans. “Even my own son is embarrassed of me. To him I’m just a sad old nazi, but he doesn’t know the truth. Who does know the truth? You, you do I guess.”
Our meetings are punctuated by moments of dark melancholy. Perhaps, it was in such moments of darkness with only his fears and secrets that Kevin took to social media, tweeting at me in 2015.
His tweets were suggestive, curious and contained angry questions about why I had betrayed everything he had believed in since his childhood: “The Movement”.
The “movement” was symbolised by the sinister black shirts of the Mosleyites, the secret symbols and correspondence of the British Movement (BM), the unstoppable hate machine that was the National Front (NF). It had been Kevin’s bitter crutch of racial hatred, holding him up against memories of a cruel childhood punctuated by paternal violence.
The rural village bobby, Kevin’s father, had beaten everyone and everything he could. Daily. Once the whisky ran dry, out would come the fists. In their small police house there was nowhere to escape the drunken rampages of the brutal Wilshaw Senior. Kevin’s mother shielded her three terrified children the best she could but there was only so much she could do.
And Kevin’s father taunted Kevin’s mother Patricia too: he’d call her “Rachel”, sneering and shouting unimaginable insults at her.
Wilshaw Senior turned out to be not quite the charming man that had swept her off her feet when they met at the War Office in 1948. Wilshaw Senior had been the brash country lad from Cumbria and she the small town Jewish girl from Rotherham.
Hadn’t Kevin always known his mum was Jewish?
“Suspected?” he offers. But yes, he knew.
During one episode in the family home in the 1970s and as Kevin was immersing himself in far-right politics and Nazism, his mother had screamed at him that “those people” would have killed her, for being Jewish. He never responded.
Was it unpalatable having a Jewish Mother? “No, no” he splutters. “I loved my mum. I still think about her every day and our life with that man.
“But I joined the National Front (NF) in 1974 to escape so much, to belong to something different, to go places that seemed so far away like London, Birmingham and even Manchester. It was to be my escape…. I don’t know, I just don’t know…”
Back in 1974, Cumbria had fewer than a dozen NF members. The sheer size of the region made it difficult for them all to meet regularly unless they were leaving Cumbria to go south together on a march or to a rally.
“Thinking about life in Cumbria back then, I would say it was not very diverse. We talked a lot about the hidden Jews in society and how they dominated where we were travelling to, like London or Manchester. There was a massive Jewish conspiracy afoot. Immigration seemed to have very little to do with it.
“And we had all sorts of people. Ex-military types – officers and whatnot, civil servants, some seemingly sensible, decent people. But I don’t think any of them were not nazis. Like I said, immigration really had not come to Cumbria and I don’t even recall whether we had a television back then or not.”
Before the National Front won Kevin’s affections, there had been the ultimately subversive British Movement (BM), men in suits and uniforms, serious men, who wanted to turn Britain into some kind of pre-war Germany. Kevin was attracted to their secrecy, people who like him, had something to hide.
“I’d been exchanging correspondence with the British Movement since the late ’60s and most of the people in our branch had been or were still in the British Movement. It was before the skinheads took the BM over in later years and destroyed it.
“But then [John] Tyndall [leader of the NF and later BNP] took over the NF and it really, really began to go places. You would’ve had to live on the moon not to have heard about them.”
Tyndall and the fledgling NF were politically assisted by Ugandan President Idi Amin’s decision to expel all Asians from Uganda.
“Ugandan Asians were arriving by what we were told was the plane or truckload and were filling up cities and towns with foreign practices and stealing jobs…” his words and thoughts tail off.
By the late 1970s Kevin was fully plugged in to the NF and would eventually (much later) go on to be elected as its organiser in Cumbria.
Making the plunge into fascism was itself an introduction to violence, not that Kevin was any stranger to a bloody face:
“They were such violent times, as I recall. At home and out on the streets. Everywhere the NF went (and still does) there is violence.”
Despite Kevin and the thousands of others like him who began to believe the NF was on the verge of a major electoral breakthrough, the organisation actually went into near terminal decline after the 1979 General Election.
It was “robbed”, as its members felt, by the incoming prime minister Margaret Thatcher undermining them with her vocal concerns about Britain being “swamped” by immigrants.
Despite electoral disappointment and bloody noses for his troubles, Kevin had by now discovered another benefit of those long treks to big cities in support of a dwindling party and its unwanted ideology.
“I was gay, I am gay,” he says almost startling himself. You get the impression he has not said it aloud too often. “And now the only one who matters who does not know, is my son,” he says.
“I went to a lot of gay clubs on my own, but there has always been a thriving gay scene in the far right as long as you don’t get caught or talk about it. I never did. I never told anyone. In the early ’80s, the NF used to hold these little ‘parties’ for gay members, but I never went.
“My ex-wife knew I was gay. She came to some clubs with me after the marriage began to break down to try and help me deal with it, but obviously I found it very, very difficult to confront or admit it openly.”
Her patience ran out when, in 1996, after just three years of marriage, she cited Adolf Hitler as “the other man” in their relationship during their divorce.
In 1989, Kevin left Cumbria and his parents’ home to take a position as mental health nurse at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Even though, in 1992, he served a prison sentence for his attack on Aylesbury Mosque, the hospital kept his job open. Nor did they mind that in the same year, he had been selected as an NF parliamentary candidate.
Despite being married (“I loved her and fancied her”), Kevin continued secretly to visit gay clubs, combining his trips to London and other major cities to engage in NF activity with those secret visits.
Since joining the NF in 1974, Kevin also joined dozens of other little groups but, in the main, he stayed loyal to the party even as it crashed into near insignificance.
In 1986, he moved to the ‘Political Soldier’ wing of the NF after a violent split in the party. The ‘Political Soldiers’ were led by the future British National Party (BNP) leader and MEP Nick Griffin. His astonishing activism and his willingness to travel all over the country saw the faction earmark Kevin as having “great revolutionary potential” and dedication.
But in desperate decline, the group turned “weird”, embracing some aspects of Islam and a deeply fanatical Catholicism. It also began to take up the idea of tracing the family lines of members to prove unequivocally that their links were with the blood and soil of the United Kingdom.
Fearing his mother’s maiden name (and birth certificate) would expose him, Kevin switched to a different faction using the NF name – the so-called ‘Flag’ faction – that was as violent, antisemitic and homophobic as everybody else. There were strong rumours that their leader (Ian Anderson) was gay.
In 1990, at the NF’s St George’s Day Rally in south London, the same individual made a speech declaring that HIV and AIDS killing promiscuous gay men was “a bloody good thing.” Sat at the back of the room, Kevin clapped and cheered like everybody else. The night before he had been in London’s Soho enjoying drinks and a party with London’s gay community.
“A few stolen minutes of truth,” as he remembers it. “I’ve led a lie. A terrible lie. You can’t be a gay, Jewish Nazi. You can’t be either of those things, and yet I have been.”
“The more and more fixated I got with and about those things, the more extreme I became, the more I wanted to push myself to be more extreme. For all of those things, the more I have aged and the more I have become extreme, I have hated myself.”
Kevin of course, does not consider himself Jewish. Yet, all the time he was dressing like a Nazi and taking part in anti-Jewish protests, even travelling to Germany to spread Holocaust denial materials, for over 40 years he has mixed with the most extreme of gay and Jew-haters.
Throughout that time, at the very front of his mind has been that his beloved and treasured mother was herself Jewish… that the little Jewish woman, who had raised him under constant blows and barrages of criticism and violence in rural Cumbria, had suffered in protecting him and that he had brought swastikas and portraits and busts of Adolf Hitler into her home, all to make him feel normal, make him feel he belonged to something.
While he was attacking the mosque in Aylesbury he did not spare a thought for his sister who had married a Muslim man and converted to Islam in 1970. In spite of this, Kevin has remained close to her and her Muslim children throughout.
More than any other nazi I can think of, throughout my entire time following or being even involved the far right, I cannot think of anyone who has had so many challenges and hurdles to confront just so they can keep on hating.
We talk about exploring a Jewish identity and he seems keen. Would it make him feel closer to his mother who, under the weight of his father’s sneering, fists and boots, only ever expressed her Jewishness once and, then, in desperate rage and sadness?
“I think so,” he says. “There was no Jewish community where we lived in Cumbria.”
Everything Kevin knows about Judaism he has learned from Mein Kampf and the thousands upon thousands of booklets and leaflets that have been pumped-out through the years by Jew-haters.
Leaving prison in 1993, Kevin married and joined the BNP, led by the same John Tyndall who had, nearly 20 years earlier, persuaded him to embark on a political adventure with the hated NF.
Little had changed: the BNP was like the NF under Tyndall. It was violently antisemitic and involved in racist violence across the country, in particular in London’s East End.
Some of the BNP had made sly comments. Combat 18 leader Wilf Browning remembered bumping into Wilshaw a couple of years before as they were both visiting the violent and openly Nazi Nicky Crane, a notoriously violent and almost iconic skinhead who died of AIDS and repenting his past in 1993.
A year before Crane died, The Sun ran the outrageous headline “Nazi Nick is a Panzi”. It reaffirmed that gays were not just hated in the obscurity and seediness of the far right. You could take your life in your own hands just by being a gay man anywhere.
“Crane,” Kevin says, “was good to other gay Nazis. He kept your secrets. He could get you into clubs where he worked on the doors. Deep down I think everyone knew he was gay. There was just no-one big enough to take their problems with it up with him personally. So they all ignored it. What made it easier for them to forgive him was his incredible size. He was built like a monster, and incredibly violent with it. He had to be accepted.”
In 1999, David Copeland, a man with close ties to the BNP, set off three nail bombs across London. The third targeted the gay community with a bomb exploding at the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho on a warm Friday evening, killing three people including a pregnant woman.
As the BNP link broke, Kevin felt his world was finally collapsing, things only worsening when BNP führer Nick Griffin accused the victims of the terror attack as “flaunting their perversion”.
After 17 years with the BNP, Kevin left in 2010. The party was collapsing anyway and once more Kevin was in a far-right movement that was being run into the ground by Nick Griffin.
Sadly, Kevin’s mother had developed dementia. His marriage was over and he was trying to be a single father. He quit nursing (“I couldn’t stand the sight of any more blood”) and took a job in a factory, but his home remained a shrine to his years and years of Nazi activity with busts and portraits of Hitler, books and VHS videos stacked neatly on shelves in commemoration of the Third Reich.
Despite being wracked with guilt about his secret lives, Kevin kept in touch with some of the fascists. “Even if you bore of them, you tire of them, they are after 40 years of this game, the only people you actually know.”
He soon found himself invited along to London Forum meetings, chaired by his old NF colleague, Jez Turner. Feeling isolated and lonely, he began attending as an excuse to go to London in search of companionship again.
In 2015, Kevin’s mother died. It was around that time the tweets to me began and Kevin began going to the pub dressed either menacingly as a Nazi or as an extra from an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo!
We blogged about him, sitting threateningly behind his keyboard and extolling the virtues of Nazism, angrily bashing his keyboard to the point where we actually queried if he was having a nervous breakdown.
Kevin threw himself one last time back into the nazi movement, often associating with the likes of veteran nazis such as Eddie Stampton and Mark Atkinson of the fancifully titled Racial Volunteer Force. Along with Turner they ran a series of controversial anti-Jewish and anti-Israel demonstrations last year. Kevin spoke at two of the meetings and rallies.
Last Christmas was spent home on his own with his thoughts and memories for the first time in his life.
“Everything was just feeling so empty and so pointless but I just had no idea how I could walk away from these people, these degenerate Nazis.”
When Kevin was arrested in February this year he was referred to the Prevent Programme (which normally deals with teenagers who are in danger of being radicalised).
“I’d wanted out for so long” he says. He pulls on his lapels: “What sort of life is this, for fuck’s sake?” he says.
But John Kevin Wilshaw has been keeping his secrets and his memberships’ of far-right groups separate for more than 40 years, a member of something like a dozen different and strange nazi organisations. His escape from his childhood and his other secrets have also imprisoned him for over four decades.
Cash and gentle coercion often persuades ex-fascists to attend a few more meetings or marches. Kevin took neither cash nor coercion before he could just attend no more.
“Take the clothes, take my magazines and books and burn the lot please. I just want all of this out of what is left of my life and I want to begin living my life…my own life.”
Whatever the Police and Crown Prosecution Service decides to do with Kevin later this year (he’s still on bail), he says he can take it on the chin. He’ll still go and meet a rabbi and just talk. Talk about himself, talk about his beloved mother.
We talk about how we both still learn that the world is changing and has changed. And we talk about the conversation he is going to have with his son, who is now 23.
“I think this will be as much of a relief to him as it will be for me.”
And everybody else.
Watch Kevin’s interview with Channel 4 News below:
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